7 delicious Middle Eastern ingredients you should be cooking with

We've sourced the seven yummiest Middle Eastern ingredients out there - and how you can use them.

In 2017, it was reported that Middle Eastern cuisine was one of the fastest growing ethnic cuisines in the world - and little wonder, it’s so tasty. The flavours are all down to its array of herbs and spices. For example, a simple stew can include cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cumin, and coriander; herbs like mint are commonly used in cooking and in salads; thyme and thyme blends are common; sumac is sprinkled over grilled meat… the list goes on!

But all those spices and spice blends can be daunting. How do you know how and when to use them? And how do you know if you’re being heavy-handed? Let us make it easy for you…

SUMAC

What is it?: “Sumac is a berry which is dried and ground into a powder, it is tart and tangy and is great to add to a dressing or sauce to give it that middle eastern vibe,” says food stylist and recipe developer Gabrielle Wheatley.

Where is it from?: This powder is ground from the fruit if the Rhus coriaria bush - and is used in Middle Eastern cuisine to add a lemony taste to salads or meats. It's used all over the area - from Palestinian dishes like Musakhan to hummus in Lebanese and Turkish cuisine.

Tastes like: “Sumac has a tangy, lemony flavour that goes well in salad dressings instead of lemon and is perfect sprinkled over grilled fish or meat,” says food editor Jennene Plummer.

How to use it: Use it to make spice rubs and marinades, to enhance chicken, and eggplant or simply sprinkle it over hummus,” adds Jennene.

ZA'ATAR

What is it?: Za’atar is a spice mix usually made up of sumac, thyme, marjoram, sesame seeds and oregano.

Where is it from?: This intensely aromatic and ancient spice blend is popular throughout the Middle East.

Tastes like: A herbaceous, zesty mix with earthy undertones perfect with meat and poultry.

How to use it: Za’atar is delicious mixed with olive oil and spread onto pita bread, the traditional Middle Eastern way. Alternatively, “sprinkle it onto chicken, steak or salmon before grilling or tossed through vegetables with olive oil before roasting and finish with a dollop of tahini,” suggests Jennene. Agrees Gabrielle, “It goes perfectly with chicken, rub it both under the skin and on top before roasting or putting on the BBQ. Or you can toss some chickpeas with Za’ztar and olive oil and roast until crunchy for a delicious snack.”

SAFFRON

What is it?: Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the "saffron crocus". The vivid crimson stigmas and styles, called threads, are collected and dried to be used mainly as a seasoning and colouring agent in food.

Where is it from?: Saffron is used widely in Persian Indian, European, and Arab cuisines.

Tastes like: “Saffron has a savoury, peppery flavour and fragrance and brilliant colour,” says Jennene.

How to use it: According to Jennene, “this lovely spice is used dissolved in water in very small amounts and is the key to some of the world’s classic dishes - paella, bouillabaisse, risotto Milanese. It’s  equally at home in baking and makes a wonderfully aromatic, golden poached pear.”

RAS EL HANOUT

What is it?: “This mix can have up to 27 herbs and spices in it, some even include rose petals - but be warned, these recipes are often closely guarded secrets,” says Gabrielle. Commonly used ingredients include cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chilli peppers, coriander seed, peppercorn, sweet and hot paprika, fenugreek and dry turmeric.

Where’s it from?: It’s generally associated with Morocco and plays a similar role in North African cuisine as Garam Masala plays in Indian food. The name translates roughly as “top shelf” meaning it’s made of the best spices the seller has to offer.

Tastes like: Depending on the ingredients used it can be fiery and spicy or woody and warming.

How to use it: “Ras el hanout is normally used to season many dishes like stews, tajines, couscous, rice and vegetable. Mix it with sour cream or soft butter to make an interesting topping or simply toss it through hot popcorn.” says Jennene.

ISOT PEPPER

What is it?: “Isot - also known as Urfa Biber - is dried Turkish chilli pepper. It is dark burgundy in colour and flaky in texture, it has a natural smokiness from being left in the sun ad a softness from being covered at night and being allowed to sweat,” says Gabrielle.

Where is it from?: This one of a kind pepper is cultivated by Turkish Kurds.

Tastes like: “It has a salty-sweet-smoky-sour flavour... and it’s delicious,” says Gabrielle.

How to use it: “Isot can be served sprinkled over egg dishes or pasta sauces. Mix it into yoghurt with grated lemon zest, garlic and chopped parsley for a simple sauce for kebabs. It’s also great sprinkled over melted cheese toast,” says Jennene. Adds Gabrielle, “It’s also a great addition to a pasta dish, in the sauce or sprinkled on top!”

NIGELLA SEEDS

What is it?: One of the oldest spices known to be used, nigella seeds were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb and are mentioned in the Bible’s Old Testament. They’re also known as black caraway seeds or black cumin.

Where is it from?: They’re native to South and South West Asia.

Tastes like: Nigella seeds have a unique savoury taste with a hint of onion.

How to use them: Says Gabrielle, “they are an interesting addition to savoury cheese scones, mix them through or sprinkle them on top. They also go well in an omelette or sprinkle them through scrambled eggs.” And Jennene’s a fan too. “They add a lovely texture and subtle oniony flavour to salads, vegetable curries and lentil soup. Try them sprinkled onto savoury biscuits before baking.”

BAHARAT

What is it?: Is often known as Lebanese seven spice but some recipes may have more than seven spices, and vary from region to region, in Arabic Baharat simply means "spices". It usually includes a number of the following in varying measure - black pepper, coriander seeds, cinnamon, cloves, cumin seeds, cardamom pods, nutmeg and paprika.

Where’s it from?: This Middle Eastern spice comes from all over the region - Turkish Bharat will include mint, while those in the Persian Gulf may include saffron and dried black lime.

Tastes like: “It’s a very aromatic spice mix and a little goes a long way,” warns Gabrielle.

How to use it: “Baharat is wonderful sprinkled into stews, tomato sauces, lentils, rice pilafs and couscous,” says Jennene. “It can also be used as a dry rub for meat, poultry or fish. Try mixing it with olive oil, garlic and chopped mint and parsley and toss through vegetables before baking.” Adds Gabrielle, “Try marinating a chicken by rubbing Baharat, olive oil and lemon juice into the skin, and stuffing the cavity with a couscous stuffing spiced with Baharat, served with yoghurt, mint and a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds.” Is often known as Lebanese seven spice but some recipes may have more than seven spices, and vary from region to region, in Arabic Baharat simply means "spices". It usually includes a number of the following in varying measure - black pepper, coriander seeds, cinnamon, cloves, cumin seeds, cardamom pods, nutmeg and paprika.

Want more Middle Eastern inspiration? Nigel Slater's Middle East airs Wednesdays on Lifestyle FOOD at 8.30pm.

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