When Americans think of Middle Eastern food they typically think of kebabs, hummus, and falafel. While those are indeed staples of some countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the region boasts a diversity in cuisine as varied as the many cultures it encompasses—everything from traditional hearty meals, fortified with fresh herbs and pungent spices, to lighter dishes that are refreshing in their simplicity. From the Atlantic and Mediterranean shores of Morocco to the deserts of the Arabian Gulf, Middle Eastern and North African food is some of the tastiest in the world, encompassing Arab and Berber origins, with other influences from Europe all the way to Asia.
The Middle East and North Africa region boasts a diversity in cuisine as varied as the many cultures it encompasses
During the holy month of Ramadan especially, Muslims prepare their favorite special dishes. Here is just a taste of what you might encounter.
Morocco: Probably the most well-known Moroccan dish is the tajine, named after the conical-lidded heavy ceramic dish it is traditionally cooked in. But what you might not know is that there is an infinite variety of tajines that change from region to region. Basically a stew of meat and vegetables or even fruit, it can be made of lamb, chicken, or beef, with whatever vegetables are at hand. My particular favorite is chicken with potatoes, olives, and preserved lemon.
During Ramadan, Moroccans break the fast with a special hearty soup called harira. An essential ingredient in most recipes is celery (although you would never know it from the flavor), blended with tomatoes, stock or bones for flavor, sometimes small chunks of meat (lamb or beef), lentils, chickpeas, fresh coriander and parsley, a squeeze of lemon, in some regions fava beans, and a little flour to thicken the soup. Some people put a little rice or vermicelli in as well. In the countryside, it is still eaten with a special wooden spoon, called a mghorfa, that makes it taste even better.
During Ramadan, Moroccans break the fast with a special hearty soup called harira.
The thing that makes harira special for this writer is the last-minute addition of a single egg into the hot simmering broth, stirred gently so that the egg white forms little translucent ribbons. One lucky person, usually the guest of honor, will be served the beautiful yellow yolk. Complemented with dates and sweet, deep-fried knotted pastries drizzled in honey and sprinkled with sesame seed, called shebbakia, this first meal of the day (iftar in Arabic, or ftor in Moroccan) is a pleasing mixture of sweet and savory.
Algeria: Most people in North Africa say that their couscous is the best in the world, and Algerians are no different. Couscous, originally a Berber dish now said to be Algeria’s national dish, is a lighter affair here than in other places. The basis of couscous is semolina that is steamed, rubbed, and fluffed by hand several times, then used as a bed for the sauce of meat and fresh vegetables (usually featuring carrots, chickpeas, and zucchini, and sometimes turnips) poured over the top. While in other countries (such as Morocco) people like to mix the semolina with heavy, fat-based ghee for consistency and flavor, Algerians tend to prefer it steamed with fresh olive oil, making it lighter both in flavor and for digestion.
Egypt: Many Ramadan traditions have their origins in Egypt, and food is no exception. Molokhia, is a special Ramadan soup made from the minced leaves of the Jute plant (also known as Jew’s mallow)—not only nutritious, but delicious. Another favorite here is H’mam mahshi, squab (small pigeon) stuffed with short grain rice or wheat and then roasted or fried.
Many Ramadan traditions have their origins in Egypt, and food is no exception.
Palestine: After an entire day without water, breaking the fast involves drinking liquids to rehydrate. Juices in Palestine come in a variety of exotic fruit flavors such as tamar Hindi or tamarind, sous or licorice, and kharroub or carob, often with rose water and lemon juice. Qamar al din is a special juice made of dried apricots, simmered into a liquid and chilled.
Jordan: Breaking the fast in Jordan often features Qatayef, a special stuffed pancake. Take baghrir (a light, fluffy pancake full of air bubbles), fill it with unsalted cheese or crushed walnuts with cinnamon, and fold it like a half moon. Then, dip it in ghee and bake it or fry it in oil till crispy. Dipped in syrup, it is an iftar favorite. Mansaf is another special Ramadan dish that is made with lamb or chicken and rice. The meat is cooked in dried yogurt and served on thin Arab bread and garnished with fried almonds or pine nuts.
Lebanon: Melfouf, or stuffed cabbage rolls, is a mouth-watering traditional Lebanese dish of rolled cabbage leaves filled with rice and ground meat. The word melfouf can mean both “cabbage” and “rolled.” Sometimes, the stuffed cabbage rolls are layered on top of small pieces of beef to give the dish extra richness.
Luqaimat are small, crispy, fried dumplings, drizzled in syrup—little nuggets of lusciousness.
Saudi Arabia: Luqaimat are popular in Saudi Arabia. They are simply small, crispy, fried dumplings, drizzled in syrup—little nuggets of lusciousness.
Oman: A popular dish in southern Oman is ruz al mudhroub, a dish made of cooked rice and served with fried fish. In the north and eastern regions, muqalab—a dish of tripe cooked with cinnamon, cardamom, clove, black pepper, ginger, garlic, and nutmeg—is a favorite.
Qatar: Qatari food is an exotic blend of flavors from around the world including Arab, Levantine, Indian, and North African. One family favorite for Ramadan is thareed, a delicious spiced stew of chicken or lamb with carrots, potatoes, and onions in a rich sauce. Other Qatari favorites include machbous (rice cooked with meat or seafood and spices, similar to Indian biryani, and topped with pine nuts and raisins), hares (coarsely ground cracked wheat, slowly simmered with meat and ghee), and balaleet (sweet vermicelli noodles, cooked with cinnamon, saffron, and cardamom, and topped with omelet, usually eaten at iftar).
In difficult times such as these, Muslims can look forward to the cornucopia of flavors brought by a Ramadan kareem.
Ramadan is a joyous time for Muslims, usually a time of self-reflection when families and friends gather together. In difficult times such as these, when many Muslim countries are under lockdown combatting the coronavirus now and possibly well into Ramadan, and while other countries are home to refugees, Muslims can look forward to the cornucopia of flavors brought by a Ramadan kareem and the hope of being together again.