Arab food is a delicious and diverse cuisine that spans a vast geographical area, from North Africa to the Middle East and beyond. It is a cuisine that is steeped in history and one that has evolved over centuries, blending influences from various regions and cultures. As part of our Arab American Heritage Month series we are exploring some of the common elements of Arab food and sharing some easy recipes to try at home.
Herbs and Spices
When you think of Arab food, the first thing that may come to mind is bright flavors and aromas. This comes from rich and warm, colorful spices, such as cumin, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamom. It also includes bright, fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, and cilantro. When blended together, these herbs and spices create flavorful dishes.
Humans have been eating various grains for more than 20,000 years, and grain cultivation goes back at least 10,000 years. So, it’s no surprise that different grains form the base of many cuisines around the world. In Arab cuisine, rice and bulgur wheat are particularly popular. They form the base of many stews, soups, and even salads. In fact, one of the most popular Arab dishes is a fragrant rice dish called biryani. Recipes vary by region, but it is often prepared with a variety of spices and often meat and vegetables.
Legumes are enjoyed by people around the world. They are a vegetarian protein source that tends to be high in fiber and low in fat, making them a healthy addition to any diet. Legumes are also a staple of Arab cuisine. Chickpeas, lentils, and beans are particularly popular. Dishes such as hummus and ful medames, an Egyptian fava bean dish, feature legumes.
A flatbread is any bread that is made from dough that is rolled out so that it is flat. Many, but not all, flatbreads are unleavened. Arab flatbreads come in many different varieties, shapes, and sizes. They are used as wraps, serve as vessels for dips and spreads, and are even eaten plain as a snack. One of the most well-known Arab flatbreads is pita bread. This round, pocket-like bread is traditionally baked in a hot oven, which causes the bread to puff up and create a hollow center. This makes it perfect for stuffing with meats, vegetables, dips, and more. Mankosha, a type of Lebanese bread, is often topped with a variety of herbs, spices, and cheeses like a pizza. Other Arab flatbreads include the thin and crispy Lahmacun, Saj bread, khobz, markouk, and more.
If you save room for dessert, you might enjoy what Arab cuisine has to offer. One of the most popular desserts is baklava, a rich pastry made with layers of phyllo dough, honey, and nuts. Other popular desserts include maamoul, a stuffed cookie made with dates or nuts, and halva, a sweet confection made with sesame seeds and honey.
As with many cultures, the importance of Arab food goes beyond the dishes themselves. Hospitality and sharing of food is at the center of the table. Meals are often served in large, communal dishes and eaten with the hands, emphasizing the importance of social connection and togetherness.
Cooking together can build connection too. And cooking with kids is a great way to practice math skills and build confidence. Here are some easy Arab dishes to try cooking as a family:
Hummus: Hummus is a popular dip made from chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, and garlic. Serve with pita bread, veggies, or crackers for a healthy snack.
Fattoush salad: Fattoush is a bread salad made with fried flatbread and vegetables, such as cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions. It is often finished with fresh herbs and a simple lemon juice and olive oil dressing.
Tabouli: Tabouli is a light and healthy salad made with finely chopped parsley, tomatoes, onions, and bulgur wheat. The dressing is a mix of citrus (lemon or lime) juice and olive oil.
Falafel: Falafel are patties made from ground chickpeas and spices. They can be fried or baked and are often served in flatbread with a flavorful sauce.