Middle Eastern cuisine includes Arab, Iranian, Israeli, Assyrian, Azerbaijani, Armenian, Georgian, Kurdish, Cypriot and Turkish cuisines. In 2017, Middle Eastern cuisine was reportedly one of the most popular and fastest-growing ethnic cuisines in the US. Common ingredients include olives and olive oil, pitas, honey, sesame seeds, dates, sumac, chickpeas, mint, rice and parsley, and popular dishes include kebabs, dolma, falafel, baklava, yogurt, doner kebab, shawarma and mulukhiyah.
The Middle East includes the Fertile Crescent, including the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia) – where wheat was first cultivated, followed by Rye, barley, Lentils, Beans, pistachios, figs, pomegranates, dates and other regional staples. Fermentation was also discovered there, to leaven bread and make beer in Mesopotamia and the Levant; the earliest written recipes come from that region.
As a crossroads between Europe, Asia, the Caucasus and North Africa, it has been a hub of food and recipe exchange. During the first Persian Empire (ca. 550–330 BCE), the foundation was laid for modern Middle Eastern food when rice, poultry and fruits were incorporated into the local diet. Figs, dates and nuts were brought by merchants to conquered lands, and spices were brought from the Orient.
The region was also influenced by dumplings from Mongol invaders; turmeric and other spices from India; cloves, peppercorns and allspice from the Spice Islands; okra from Africa, and tomatoes from the New World. Religion has influenced the cuisine; Jews and Muslims do not eat pork, making lamb the primary meat. The Qur'an forbids alcohol consumption, but wine is made in countries such as Lebanon; vineyards like Château Ksara, Chateau Kefraya and Chateau Masaya have gained international recognition. Before its Islamic regime, Iran was also noted for its winemaking. Château Ksara is also known for its arak Ksarak, an alcoholic drink produced in the Levant. Al-Maza is Lebanon's primary brewery, at one time the Middle East's only beer producer. Lebanon is known in the region for its wines and arak, an exception to the Middle East's lack of alcohol. Under the Ottoman Empire, sweet pastries of paper-thin phyllo dough and thick coffee were brought to the region.
Grains are the basis of the Middle Eastern diet, and wheat and rice are staple foods. Barley is also widely used in the region, and maize has also become common in some areas. Bread is a universal food, eaten in some form by all classes at nearly every meal.
In addition to bread, wheat is also used in burghul and couscous. Burghul is cracked wheat made by partially cooking wheat grains in water, drying them in an oven (or in the sun), and breaking them into pieces. It is typically cooked in water with flavorings, much like rice. Burghul is also used in meat pies and as an ingredient in salads (notably in tabbouleh with chopped parsley, tomato, lemon, and oil. Freekeh is another common grain, made from immature green wheat.
Many types of rice are produced and consumed in the region. Plain rice is served under grilled meats or in meat-and-vegetable stews. More complex rice dishes have layers of meat, vegetables, sauces, nuts, or dried fruits.
Butter and clarified butter (also known as smen) are traditionally the preferred medium of cooking. Olive oil is prevalent in Mediterranean coastal areas. Christians use it during Lent (when meat and dairy products are not eaten),, and Jews use it in place of animal fats (such as butter) to avoid combining meat and dairy products.
Most regions in the Middle East use spices. A typical stew will include a small amount of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cumin, and coriander. Black pepper is common; chili peppers are used occasionally, especially as a sauce or pickled. Parsley and mint are commonly used for cooking and in salads. Thyme and thyme blends (za'atar) are common in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel, and a mixture of dried thyme and sumac (crushed sour berries) is a common at breakfast with oil and bread. Sumac is also sprinkled over grilled meat. Garlic is common in many dishes and salads.
Lamb and mutton are favored meats, since Pork is prohibited by Islam and Judaism. Grilled meats (kebabs) are popular, with many regional varieties. The most common is cubed lamb on skewers (shish kebab), and chicken may also be grilled in the same fashion. Another common variety is kofta kebab, made from ground meat mixed with onions and spices, shaped around the skewer like a sausage and grilled. Kebabs are typically a street (or restaurant) food, served with bread, salad and pickles, and is not usually prepared at home.
Meat-and-vegetable stews are served with rice, bulgur, or bread. Kibbeh is a pie (or dumpling) made with meat and cereal. The most common are made with ground meat (typically lamb) and burghul, worked together into a dough and stuffed with minced meat which has been fried with onion, herbs and (sometimes) pine nuts or almonds and raisins. It is prepared as individual small dumplings (usually shaped like a torpedo) or sliced like a cake and baked on an oven tray with the stuffing between two layers of dough. One variation is kibbeh naye, made by pounding raw meat and burghul with seasonings and served with lemon juice and chili sauce for dipping.
Vegetables and pulses are staple foods, and are boiled, stewed, grilled, stuffed, and cooked with meat and rice. Leaf vegetables include many varieties of cabbage, spinach, and chard. Root vegetables, such as onions, garlic, carrots, turnips, and beets, are also common. Squash, tomato, eggplant, and okra are distinctive elements of the region's cuisine. Eggplant is often sliced, fried and dressed with yogurt and garlic. Baba ghanoush is eggplant roasted over an open fire, mashed and dressed with tahini (sesame paste), lemon juice, garlic, and cumin. Tomato is the most ubiquitous ingredient in Middle Eastern cookery, used fresh in salads, cooked in stews and broth, and grilled with kebab.
Beans and pulses are crucial to the regional diet, second only to cereals. Fava beans are eaten green and dried. Dried, they are boiled into ful medames, one of the most popular Egyptian domestic and street foods: mashed fava beans dressed with oil, lemon, and chili. Similar dishes are found throughout the region. Falafel, popular in Europe and the United States, was originally made from dried fava beans formed into a rissole with herbs and spices and fried; it is also made from chickpeas, or a blend of the two. Green fava are cooked like other green beans, boiled and dressed with oil or stewed with meat. Haricots and black-eyed peas are also common. Lentils, split peas and chickpeas are widely used in soups and salads, with rice or meat. Hummus, made from chickpeas and sesame paste, originated in Syria and Lebanon.
Stuffed vegetables, a dish associated with the Middle East, are commonly called dolma (Turkish for "stuffed") or mahshi. Grape leaves, chard, and cabbage are stuffed with rice, ground meat, pine nuts and spices, and stewed in oil and tomatoes. Many vegetables, such as squash, onion, tomato, eggplant, peppers and carrots, are similarly stuffed and stewed (or baked).
Meze is common throughout the Middle East. It consists of a number of small dishes (cheese, melon, nuts, salads and dips such as tabbouleh, hummus and mutabbal, and pickles) and more substantial items, such as grilled meat, kibbeh, and sausage.
Middle Easterners commonly consume milk, fresh or soured. Yogurt is commonly consumed plain, used in cooking and in salad dressing, or diluted as a drink. Greek feta and halloumi are the region's most common cheeses.
Turkish coffee is the best-known beverage. Thicker than other coffee, it is made by boiling finely-ground coffee in water and letting the grounds settle. During the 1980s, instant coffee became popular. Arak is a distilled, anise-flavored alcoholic drink, usually diluted with water and ice, which is served in social settings with meze. Some Christians, such as the Assyrians and Armenians, make their own beer and wine. Qamar Al Deen, a thick, sweet apricot beverage, is drunk by Muslims during Ramadan. Apricots are boiled with sugar and water until they are thick, and sun-dried on wooden planks; the dried fruit is then mixed with water and sugar. Jallab is a fruit syrup made from grape molasses, dates and rose water which is served over crushed ice, sometimes with raisins or pine nuts. Doogh (or ayran) is a salted, yogurt-based beverage which is popular in Turkey and Iran.
In some Arab countries, especially in the Persian Gulf region, it is common for diners to take their food from a communal plate in the center of the table. They traditionally do not use forks or spoons, instead scooping up the food with pita or a thumb and two fingers. In Arabic culture, the left hand is considered unclean; even left-handed people eat with the right hand. A common exception, however, is that the left hand may hold a drinking glass when eating greasy food with the right. It is proper etiquette to compliment the host on their food and hospitality, and to try every plate on the table. If a guest does not leave food on his plate, the host generally fills it immediately.
During Ramadan, food consumption increases dramatically in Muslim communities. Breaking the daily sunrise-to-sunset fast is a banquet with family and friends; public banquets are held by charities and other associations. Cafes and pastry shops are open at night, and the streets have a carnival atmosphere. Many Muslims, following Muhammad's reported example, break their fast with a date followed by a variety of dishes. Sweet pastries and puddings are always present on Ramadan nights. The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid al-Fitr, featuring a great quantity and variety of sweets and pastries. The other major Muslim feast is the four-day Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, which occurs during Dhu al-Hijjah (the pilgrimage month). An animal (usually a sheep or goat) is slaughtered in every household which can afford it, great banquets are prepared, and food is given to the poor.
Tea is usually served in curved glasses which are held by the lip; water may be added. Coffee is drunk carefully to leave the grounds undisturbed; each cup is individually brewed (often with sugar), and it is served as a gesture of hospitality. A cup will be refilled if it is less than half full. An honored guest is expected to make a toast, usually soon after the host does or at the end of the meal. Forks, spoons and knives are used. The knife is held in the right hand and the fork in the left, British-style. Smoking is acceptable between courses of a dinner.
The host sits at the head of the table, with the honored guest next to them on the side of the table farthest from the door. Men and women dining at someone's home might eat in separate areas or at separate times, with men dining first. The honored guest is served first, followed by the oldest man, the rest of the men, children and women. Diners do not begin eating until the oldest man at the table begins eating. In restaurants, dishes are ordered when desired (not all at once at the beginning of a meal). At informal restaurants a table may be shared, but diners are not required to converse. Waitstaff are summoned only by eye contact.
At business meetings, key people sit in the middle and flanked on either side in descending order by their aides. Most business meals are lunches, intended to build relationships rather than conduct business. At a colleague's home for a formal meal, a guest is often seated next to the host or the oldest man. Guests may be required to remove their shoes. It is customary to say "Afiyet olsun" ("May what you eat bring well-being") before or after eating, and to say "Elinize sağlik" ("Bless your hand", a compliment) to the hostess after a meal.
Dishes are typically served as savoury or sweet, rather than in courses. In traditional Iranian restaurants, a large, low table lined with Persian rugs and with cushions around the sides is the setting for a meal; diners sit cross-legged in a circle, and food is served in the centre (eaten with cutlery on separate plates). Tea is served in "kamar baareek" ("narrow-waist") glasses with sugar and Persian sweets.
When entertaining dinner guests at home, it is seen as discourteous to serve just enough food; food is prepared in large quantities. An important Persian practice is taarof (ritual politeness); if a person is offered food or drink, they will initially politely decline. Only after the host has offered repeatedly is it accepted, to avoid appearing greedy.
In North America, Middle Eastern food became popular with the Mediterranean diet. According to the Mayo Clinic, its benefits include reduced risks of heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and cancer.[full citation needed]