Some of my earliest food memories involve driving to the home of my Palestinian grandmother and being stuffed with food: rice, falafel, pita, and whatever else she had spent the previous days cooking for us. While I don't visit as often as I did when I was a kid, I still look forward to eating my grandmother's food. The Middle East tends to show up in the news for the latest act of violence, but I know the region as home to some of the most comforting cuisine in the world. To show you what I mean I've rounded up 12 awesome Middle Eastern recipes, from crispy falafel and creamy hummus to spicy shakshuka and pita bread better than anything you'll find at the store.
Easy, Herb-Packed Falafel
Making falafel with the right texture is tricky—the balls often come out of the fryer dry or pasty. Our falafel, on the other hand, is light and crisp. The secret is using dried chickpeas, which eliminates the need for heavy binders like flour. Want something with a little extra flavor? Try mixing in chopped olives and harissa.
Zhug (Yemenite Hot Sauce With Cilantro and Parsley)
If our black olive and harissa falafel is still too mild for your taste then serve it with a side of zhug, a Yemenite hot sauce made with olive oil, parsley, garlic, Thai bird chilies, and a variety of spices. Making it is as simple as crushing up the dry ingredients with a mortar and pestle, then slowly drizzling in the oil to form an emulsion.
Israeli-Style Extra-Smooth Hummus
I love the texture of store-bought hummus, but the flavor leaves a lot to be desired. Homemade hummus is usually much more intensely flavored (particularly if you start with dried chickpeas), but rarely comes out as creamy. To get the texture right we peel the chickpeas, purée them in a high-powered blender, then whisk in homemade tahini.
The Best Baba Ganoush
Hummus might be the most popular Middle Eastern dip, but my favorite is rich, smoky baba ganoush. To make it at home, start by cooking your eggplants until charred beyond recognition, then peel and drain them using a salad spinner. After that, all you have to do is stir in garlic and lemon juice and whisk in tahini and olive oil until it all emulsifies into a creamy spread.
The Best Tabbouleh Salad
In the US you'll often find tabbouleh heavy on the bulgur, but in the Middle East it's first and foremost about the parsley. The bulgur, tomato, and other ingredients are important, but they should play supporting roles. Once you have the ratio right the biggest obstacle to great tabbouleh is moisture—be sure to salt and drain the vegetables so that the salad doesn't get waterlogged.
Perfect Homemade Pita
To eat all of that hummus, baba ganoush, and tabbouleh, you're going to need pita. The vast majority of store-bought pita is dry and bland, so your best bet is to take matters into your own hands. Our homemade pita is made with nutty whole wheat flour and finished on the stove to char the exterior.
Our homemade pita bakes up with a big pocket that's perfect for stuffing. You could throw in some falafel and call it a day, but you should also try sabich, a gloriously messy Israeli sandwich made with eggplant, hard-boiled egg, hummus, Israeli pickles and salad, tahini, and the pickled mango sauce known as amba. If you've got some extra zhug lying around, throw that on too.
Grilled Flatbread With Olive Oil and Za'atar
It was always impossible to visit my grandmother without eating my body weight in manakish, flatbread topped with olive oil and za'atar (a ubiquitous Middle Eastern spice blend). Our version uses a rather untraditional flatbread made with yogurt and cooked on the grill, but the thick layer of za'atar is enough to transport me back to grandma's kitchen.
When my grandmother wanted to feed a crowd she'd always make maqluba, a dish of rice layered with meat and vegetables. This recipe is vegetarian, but that's fine—the best part of maqluba is the super-tender eggplant. We also use tomatoes and cauliflower and season everything with turmeric, cumin, cloves, and other spices.
Basically the national breakfast dish of Egypt, ful (pronounced "fool") is a hearty fava bean stew flavored with garlic, cumin, and lemon and thickened with tahini. If you like heat, a few teaspoons of red pepper flakes are a welcome addition. Either way, serve the ful with tomato-cucumber salad, labne, and pita.
While we're talking breakfast we have to mention shakshuka, the North African egg-and-tomato-sauce dish that is beloved in Israel and the Arab world and is increasingly popular in the US. We make ours with charred peppers and onions and whole canned tomatoes, plus garlic, chilies, paprika, and cumin.
Hop across the Mediterranean and you'll find menemen, a Turkish dish of scrambled eggs cooked with onions, peppers, paprika, oregano, and plenty of olive oil. It's traditionally made with fresh and dried peppers that are hard to find in North America, but we find that shishitos and paprika are fine substitutes.