10 Middle-eastern Staples to Keep in Your Pantry

March 9th, 2010 by May Nazar Leave a reply »

After my ‘how to get a boyfriend baked fish’ recipe, I started getting requests for ‘I want to get laid chicken’ and ‘make him propose beef stew.’  Well, darlings, I’m no miracle worker, especially on that getting laid thing. I’m sure there are blogs out there that can help you with that. I can, however, help you cook middle-eastern food.

Last week, I went back to my day job, in the lovely 9 to 5 world (can you hear the sarcasm?) and moved out of my sister’s tiny place all at once. This meant I had a new kitchen to quickly re-stock because, let’s face it, who wants to discover halfway through a recipe that they need to make a run, or five, to the supermarket to get the missing spices or condiments.

And because I’m nice, or at least I like to think so, I’m sharing my list with you.

1- Olive oil: this is the most obvious one, and chances are you’ve already bought it to make Italian, French or Greek food. Splurge on the extra-virgin variety for salads, dips or anything that doesn’t require heating the oil. Regular or pure olive oil can be used for everything else.


2- Garlic: I know, I know… who wants garlic breath, right? Well, if you have ever tasted a middle-eastern dish and really liked it, chances are it had garlic in it. So get used to it! If you don’t like raw garlic, try roasting it first. Cooking garlic mellows the flavours and makes it incredibly sweet.

3- Lemon juice: coupled with olive oil and garlic, lemon juice completes the holy trinity of middle-eastern cuisine. It’s used a salad dressing and meat tenderizer. It can also brighten up the flavours of any soup, stew or dip.

4- Tahini (sesame-seed paste): this is the Middle East’s version of peanut butter. It is used in sauces, salad dressings, as well as with chicken and fish dishes. And if you need more reasons to use it, consider this: every two tablespoons of sesame seeds contain 130 mg of calcium. That’s 10 per cent of your adult daily requirement.


5- Ground cumin: this is one of those less-obvious spices that give many middle-eastern dishes a distinct and earthy taste, especially meat dishes. I also noticed during my last trip to the Middle East that people added cumin to almost every dish that contained beans. “It prevents toot-toots,” whispered one elderly lady, holding her nose and wrinkling it in a disgusted motion. Turns out cumin helps with bloating and gases caused by eating beans, or so they say.

6- Pomegranate syrup: I am so biased here, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. With a slightly tangy and subtly sweet taste, pomegranate syrup can transform any dish into a masterpiece. You can add it to salads, dips, poultry, fish and even plain vegetables. And don’t forget those side benefits of pomegranates. You’ll have ‘em coming back for seconds and thirds!

7- Sumac (pronounced ‘soo-mac’): this earthy and slightly pungent spice is what gives Fatoush salad its distinct taste. It makes for a fantastic chicken rub. And for a middle-eastern Fajita style chicken wrap, just sauté some onions and add a teaspoon of sumac to them, then make a wrap of grilled chicken and the onion mixture. Heavenly!

8- Tomatoes: like the Italians, people in the Middle East are obsessed with their tomatoes: they preserve them to make sauces, sun-dry them and make a truck-load supply of paste when tomatoes are in season. This is because tomatoes are used in almost every stew, salad, dip or eaten on their own with a dash of salt (when they’re nice and ripe, you’ll want to do that too!)

9- Plain Yogurt: whether low-fat, non-fat or Greek style, yogurt finds its way into many plates in the Middle East. You can use it to marinate chicken, make Baba Ganoush, add to Tahini sauce and make an incredibly tasty and healthy substitute to cream cheese. And don’t forget to add yogurt to your Shawerma and Falafel sandwiches.

10- Pita Bread and long-grain rice: people in the Middle East love their carbs. Pita bread is usually served with everything, and by that the I mean Every. Single. Thing. I even had French fries with a side of Pita, and it tasted great. Rice, on the other hand, is reserved for main dishes, such as stews and baked casseroles.

This list is, obviously, just a starting point. Feel free to throw in some pinenuts, walnuts, almonds, cayenne pepper, fresh parsley and coriander, dried mint and cracked wheat (a.k.a. bulgur wheat).

And if you have a favourite middle-eastern staple that didn’t make it to this list, then hit the comment button and share it here!


1 comment

  1. Boz says:

    I would add saffron, chickpeas, grape leaves, turşu (pickled peppers), olives, feta cheese, currants (kuş uzumu), onions (of all kinds) and of course eggs

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