Introduction to Middle Eastern Cuisine
Those unfamiliar to Middle East Cuisine, will find it has much to offer. Eaten in moderation, one will also find it quite healthy. However, one must be careful, as when you sit down for a meal in a Middle Eastern restaurant, that you must pace yourself. Meals are usually served in courses, with the “mezzas” being served first. Mezzas are what one would consider the appetizers, however, so much is usually served that you think it is the main meal. Middle Easterners believe in hosting a full table, as they believe that no one should leave the table the least bit hungry. I learned the hard way, the first time I attended a “Middle East Feast”. The waiters brought out so much, that I thought that it was the dinner. I filled up on all the wonder “mezzas”, and I had absolutely no room for the main course. This did not go over well with my Middle East hosts, who kept on insisting that I must eat. By the time I finished, I was so uncomfortable, I could barely move
Some of the common “mezzas” served are hummos (a dip made from chickpeas, garlic, and sesame seed paste), babaganouj (similar to hummos except it is made with roasted eggplant instead of chickpeas), warak ineb (grapeleaves stuffed with rice and meat or with rice and vegetables), tabouleh (a very popular salad made from parsley, tomatoes, cracked wheat known as burghal, olive oil, and lemon), and fatoush (one of my favorites, is a salad with baked or fried pita bread as croutons and laced with Sumac, a spice that adds some tanginess to the olive oil and lemon dressing). There is also menakeesh, also known as fatayer, (these are made from dough, and are topped with meat, cheese, or zaater, which is an oregano spice mixture. Most look like a form of Middle East pizzas, however some are in the shape of triangles and are stuffed with such things as spinach.) Most likely guests will also find some olives, and pickled vegetables such as turnips, cauliflower, and stuffed eggplant to munch on, just to name a few.
Common to the Lebanese “mezzas”, one will find Kibbeh. Kibbeh is a mixture of minced beef or lamb and burghal. The most common ways to serve Kibbeh is either as Kibbeh Balls that are stuffed with meat, nuts, and spices and then fried, or raw, known as “Kibbeh Nayeh”. There are many more, based on the region, but these are some of the most popular.
Next, is the main course. Common foods found during the main course are Beef and Lamb Kebabs, Shish Tawook (this is marinated chicken that is then grilled), and Kofta (minced beef or lamb with an array of spices). If one is near the ocean, then usually Sammak (fish) and seafood is added to the menu. In the Gulf Region, Hammour and shellfish are popular. If alcohol is served, Arak is the most well-known. Similar to the Greek Ozo, this clear licorice-tasting drink turns milky when water is added. Those trying it for the first time must be forewarned, this drink is very potent!
Dinner usually ends with a large platter of fruit for the guests to enjoy, along with some Baklawa (a sweet dessert usually made from phyllo dough or shredded wheat, nuts, and covered in honey or attar (a sugary syrup). Those who partake in a bit of the “Sheesha” (a water-pipe used to smoke flavoured tobacco) will usually indulge themselves at this time. For those who do not smoke, the aroma of the “Sheesha” is quite pleasant, especially compared to that of cigars and cigarettes.
One is in for a real gastronomic treat dining Middle Eastern style, just remember everything in moderation. With so much food to offer, you will definitely need to pace yourself, both with the food and the Arak. (Otherwise, you will pay the price for your overindulgence.)
Another bit of advice, if you indulge a bit to much in the Arak, do make sure to take a cab. In Dubai, although alcohol is served at many of the restaurants, there is a “Zero Tolerance” for Driving While Intoxicated. One must remember this is an Islamic country, and the rules are much stricter here. You do not want to find yourself in jail. With this information, and the friendly tips to guide you through the meal, you are sure to enjoy the feast. Bon Apetite!
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