camel meat biryani (morr of an Indian dish, but widely eaten in the Middle East)

Arabs introduced Europeans to rice, sugar cane, cotton, eggplants, hemp, artichokes, asparagus, mulberry, oranges, lemons, melons, pistachios, wheat, and apricots and developed syrups, sweetmeats, essences and perfumes. Arabs are credited with inventing caramel. It wasn’t always a gooey sweet. Harem women used it remove unwanted hair. According to Islamic tradition the banana is the food of paradise.

Bread has been the primary food staple in the Arab-Muslim world. Great importance was placed on maintaining the grain supply so that the poor didn’t launch food riots. In most places, bread is made with wheat, softened with olive oil and eaten with vegetables such as onions, garlic and eggplant. Some people think pizza may have been inspired by Middle eastern round bread. Other staples are barley, lentils, rye and wheat. Traditional spices include fennel and fenugreek.

Many food associated with the Mediterranean are also associated with Middle Eastern and Arab food. Arabs tend to like olive oil that is green and sweet. They live to "paint" their bread with it. In many Arab countries, people use olive oil in cooking and as a hair tonic. Chickpeas are another staple of the Middle East. They are the primary ingredient of falafels and hummus, perhaps the two best-known Middle Eastern dishes.

The manna lichen of the Middle East is so named because it is easily loosened and carried by the wind and falls from the sky and collects in thick layers in unexpected places. Eaten by some Middle Eastern people, it was called “wonder grain" by eastern Turks and "bread from heaven" by Kurds.

Many Arab dishes can be found in “ The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook” by Tess Mallos (Charles E. Tuttle, 1996)


Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? ; Encyclopædia Britannica article ; Arab Cultural Awareness ; Arab Cultural Center ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA ; Arab American Institute ; Introduction to the Arabic Language ; Wikipedia article on the Arabic language Wikipedia

Middle Eastern Food

Middle Eastern cuisine includes dishes found in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon as well as dishes traditionally associated with Bedouins. Most of the meat dishes are made with mutton, lamb, chicken, goat or camel meat. The Muslim prohibition on pork is widely recognized. In Muslim countries, pork is not available and sheep and other animals are slaughtered using the halal method. Around the Mediterranean area, Persian Gulf and the Red Sea you can get a wide variety of seafood. River and lake fish are also widely consumed.

lemons were introduced to Europe by Middle Easterners

Middle Easterners eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, nuts, dairy products and rice. Meat is used as a flavoring for soups, stews and rice dishes rather than a main dish. Particularly nice is freshly baked pita bread. It tastes delicious and is ideal for scooping up hummus and other dips. This in turn is used make the ubiquitous falafels (deep fried chick peas in pita bread) and shwarmas (meat, vegetables and yoghurt sauce in pita bread). A lot of dishes from South Asia and Southeast Asia are available because so many cooks are from these countries.

There are a number of delightful Middle Eastern dishes. Shish tawook is a simple skewered chicken dish served with pure garlic paste, French fries and pita bread. It is very popular in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and the Gulf region and is prepared with a variety of marinades and condiments. Dolma is vine leaves rolled and stuffed with succulent lamb or juicy vegetables. Dolma is best eaten fresh. The vine leaves become flaccid and slimy if left out too long. Quwarmah Al Dajaj, Kuwaiti curried chicken, a spicy dish made lime, ginger, turmeric, baharat, cumin, cardamom, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and paprika. Mansaf is popular in Palestine and regarded as the national dish of Jordan. Resembling a pizza covered with a lamb carcass, it is made with tender mutton covered in yogurt sauce and sprinkled with almonds and pine nuts. Iraqi masgouf is made with carp slow-cooked for up to three hours until the fat has been burned off, then served with lemon and pickles. [Source: Jade Bremner, CNN, July 12, 2017]

Meat has traditionally been eaten on Thursdays, the first day of the Muslim weekend. In the old days meat was eaten rarely: mostly during festivals and important occasions. Muslim eat a lot of mutton, chicken and goat meat. Beef is considered somewhat of a luxury. The same is true with water buffalo meat. In some places people like camel meat is popular. Meat consumption declined during the mad cow crisis in the 1990s as people worried about getting bovine diseases.

The best food is served in homes; and dishes served at restaurants are good but are more or less the same from place to place. Common ingredients include purslane, parsley, mint, olive oil, rice, lentils, beans, onions, cucumbers, garlic, tomatoes, “burghul” (crushed wheat), pine nuts, a variety of spices, and cheese, clarified butter and yoghurt and other dairy products from cows, sheep, goats and camels, Among the favored spices are cardamom, saffron, rose water, garlic, coriander, cumin, lime, ginger, turmeric, baharat, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, paprika, mint, thyme, parsley, “sumak” (a tart herb), fennel and fenugreek.

Common vegetables include beans, okra, cabbage, vine leaves, olives, cucumbers, sweet peppers, eggplant, fava beans, beets, pickled garlic, bitter greens, spinach, and eggplant. Common fruits and nuts include dates, grapes, oranges, lemons preserved Arabic style, bananas, apricots, sweet plums, figs, melons, apples, pistachios, and almonds. Fruit is often served at the end of meals. Melons are often eaten in the summer and oranges and bananas are eaten in the winter.

Eating Habits in the Middle East

Meal time in the Middle East is viewed as an opportunity to enjoy good food and good company, with lunch and dinner being the most popular times to socialize with family, friends and business associates. Middle Easterners traditionally have a big lunch, sometimes followed by a nap, and late dinner but this custom is changing among busy people in urban areas.

A typical meal in the Middle East consists of meat, fish or stew, a variety of vegetable dishes or salads. Meals are served with bread and/or heaps of rice, and often start off with a salad, appetizer, dip-like spreads, pickles and/or bowls of olives, dates and nuts. Tea is often offered before a meal. Water or fruit juice is consumed with a meal. Tea, coffee, goat or camel milk is served afterwards. Fruit, such as bananas, apples, dates and oranges, is often served as a dessert.

Most Middle Easterners have breakfast between 7:00am and 9:00am. A typical rural breakfast consists of pita bread, feta cheese, olives, fruit, and/or dates. Lunch is served after the noon prayers, from around 1:00pm to 2:00pm.or even 3:00pm A large lunch features a meat dishes such as roast lamb, chicken, or fish with rice, salads, vegetables and fruit. Some people have a light lunch. Dinner is usually eaten late, after evening and night prayers, usually beginning around 8:00pm or 9:00pm. It is often a light meal consisting of lunch leftovers.

On Fridays, Saturdays and holidays, lunch is often extended a couple of more hours and several more entrees are added. During large feasts, an entire goat, sheep or even a camel may be boiled or roasted and served with heaps of rice, salads, vegetables, pastries, fruits and sweets. Formal dinners have things like shrimp, kebabs, rice with almonds, fruits and cake.

Food in the Early Islamic Period

Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. Wrote in “A Concise History of the Middle East”: “The foods Muslims ate, the clothing they wore, and the houses in which they lived differed according to their economic condition, locality, and the era in question, so it is hard to generalize on how they met their fundamental needs. Wheat was the basic cereal grain. It was usually ground at a mill, kneaded at home, and baked in small flattened loaves in large communal or commercial ovens. Bulgur or parched wheat was used in cooking, especially in Syria and Palestine. [Source: Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., “A Concise History of the Middle East,” Chapter. 8: Islamic Civilization, 1979, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, /~]

Bedouins making bread

“Wheat gruel or porridge was eaten by bedouins. Rice was less common then than now; corn and potatoes were unknown. Many fruits and vegetables were eaten, some fresh, others dried, pickled in vinegar, or preserved in sugar. Sheep, goats, camels, water buffaloes, and cows were milked, and the dairy products consumed included cheese, butter (also clarified for use in cooking), and yogurt. The meat most commonly eaten was lamb or mutton, usually roasted or baked. Various animal organs not highly prized by Westerners, such as eyes, brains, hearts, and testicles, were considered delicacies. /~\

“Pork was forbidden to Muslims, and so were fermented beverages, although Hanafi Muslims were allowed a very mild date wine. Lax Muslims drank wine from grapes and other fruits, beer, and araq (a fermented beverage made from date palm sap, molasses, or rice). The observant majority drank fruit juices in season, sherbet (originally snow mixed with rose water or fruit syrup), and diluted yogurt. Coffee and tea did not come into wide-spread use until the seventeenth century. Middle Eastern food has never been highly spiced; salt, pepper, olive oil, and lemon juice are the commonest seasonings. Saffron was used for its yellow coloring more than its flavor, because Muslim cooks like to enhance the appearance of their dishes. Honey, more than sugar, served as a sweetening agent. /~\

Sharing a Meal in the Abbasid Period

In “Ruminations and Reminiscences,” Al-Tanûkhî wrote in A.D. 980: “The Qadi added that this agent told him how when any rare dainty or sweet was served up before Numân, he did not like to eat much of it, but would order it to be given away as it was to mendicants. Every day too he used to order what was taken away from his table with such of his slaves' rations as remained over in his kitchen to be given away, whence a great number of mendicants assembled at his gate every day. One day, he said, a Hashimite friend was eating at Nu'man's table, and some dainty dish was served up. Before they had finished Nu'man ordered it to be given to the mendicants. A fatted kid was then served, and before they had enjoyed it, he ordered it to be removed and given to the mendicants. There was served up a dish of almond made up with pistachio-nuts, of which Nu'man was fond, and for a glass of which according to the size he paid fifty dirhems, five dinars, more or less. They had only eaten a little of it when he said: "Hand it over to the mendicants." “[Source: D. S. Margoliouth, ed., The Table Talk of a Mesopotamian Judge, (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1922), pp. 64-67, 164-68, 135-37, 93, 2 9-92, 86-87, 31, 160, 97-101, 172-73, 84-86, 204-6]

“The Hashimite held the glass fast, and said: "My friend, imagine us to be the mendicants, and let us enjoy our food; why do you hand on to mendicants everything for which you have a taste? What has a mendicant to do with this? They can do very well on beef and date-cake; so please, do not let it be removed." Nu'man replied: "My friend, what you see is a custom of mine. A bad custom it is," he said; "we shall not endure it. If the mendicants must have it, then order a similar dish to be prepared for them; let us enjoy this, and pay them its value in money." Nu'man replied: "I will counter-order and have a similar dish prepared for them; but as for money—a mendicant would not have the heart or spirit to prepare a dish of this sort, even if many times its value were paid him; when he gets the coins, he spends them on other things, on supplying more immediate needs, nor would he have the skill either to prepare such a dish. Now I like to share my pleasures."

“Addressing his slave, he bade him have a dish similar to theirs prepared at once and distributed to the mendicants. It was done; and after this occasion, when he was entertaining any one whom he respected, he ordered dishes similar to those which were to be served to be prepared and bestowed in charity, and only ordered them to be removed from his table when the guests had had sufficient.

Bread, Spreads, Rice and Appetizers

Fresh baked bread is very popular and often eaten with meals. Some people buy in shops. Others make it at home. The bread itself is typically flat, unleavened and the shape and size of a frisbee. It is thick and pulpy. Such breads are found throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Other varieties include: pita bread, French bread, and “marqouk” (mountain bread), a thin bread baked on a domed dish over an open fire.

Among the popular spreads, which are often mopped up with bread, are “humus” (made with chick peas, lemon juice, parsley and garlic), “baba ghanoush” (made with pureed eggplant, sesame, garlic, lemon, olive oil and parsley), “tabouleh” (a salad made with bulgur cracked wheat, spring onions, mint, olive oil, parsley, lemon juice, and tomatoes), “talattori” (yogurt mixed with cucumbers and olive oil), chick peas with olive oil and lemon, “tahina” (sesame spread), “jarik” (yogurt, chopped cucumbers and garlic), “torshi” (pickled vegetables). These are often eaten as an appetizer.

Dishes served as appetizers and sides dishes are often called mezes. These include the spreads listed above and “fatayer bi sbanikh” (spinach pies), “labneh” (dried yoghurt cheese), “fattoush” (a salad made with purslane, parsley, mint, onion, garlic, cucumbers, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil), “leban zabadi” (thick yogurt), “mish” (dried cheese with spices made into paste), “oubbieh bi zeit” (green beans cooked with tomaoes, onions, and garlic), “waraq anab” (stuffed grape leaves), “mahshi” (vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini, peppers), “man’oushi” (street pizza covered with cheese, meat and thyme), “lahm bi ajin” (meat pizza), lentil soup, stuffed vine leaves, and eggplant and peppers cooked in oil.

hummus and other side dishes and spreads

Hummus can be spread on anything from a sandwich or baked potato to the traditional hot pita bread. Aficionados say the more garlic, the better. Baba ghanoush (moutabal) comes in a variety of styles and is sometimes spiced with generous amount of chili. Foul meddamas is a tasty but foul-looking brown mush made from fava beans, olive oil, parsley, onion, garlic and lemon. Fattoush is tangy salad made with lettuce, crunchy fried squares of pita, diced tomatoes, cucumbers and onion, garlic, lemon, olive oil and mint. [Source: Jade Bremner, CNN, July 12, 2017]

Rice is also often eaten with meals. It is usually steamed and then prepared in various ways. Often it is flavored with saffron. Sometimes it is steamed with egg or yoghurt. Rice prepared with chicken, stock, saffron, ground lamb and almonds is a fixture of meals in some Middle Eastern countries. Side dishes and appetizers include the spreads mentioned above and/or bowls of olives, potato salad, pistachios or other kinds of nuts, or a mixture of several kinds of melon and squash seeds)

Desserts of the Middle East

Desserts and Snacks include “baqlava” (a pastry soaked with syrup and honey, similar to Greek baklava), crunchy pistachio pastries, “kanafa” (shredded wheat pastries with nuts, rose water and syrup), “mahallabiye” (milk custard with pine nuts and almonds), “mammoul” (date and nut mixture), “maamoul bi joz” or “tamar” (semolina cakes stuffed with mammoul), “katayeh” (pastries filled cream or walnuts), “halawet el-jibn” (a sweet made cheese and syrup), “muhalaby” (rice pudding with rose water), “lehan” (a thick yogurt served with dates and sugar), “zarda halib” (rice pudding), vanilla pudding, and caramelized pudding. For some holidays people make special semolina pastries with dates or nuts. For Ramadan some eat “qatayef” (light pancakes stuffed with goat cheese or walnuts and smothered in honey syrup). Fruit, such as bananas, apples, dates and oranges, are often served as a dessert.


Sweet pantries are associated most with feasts and festive occasions. In shops and pastry shops you can get flaky pastries soaked with syrup and honey, dried and fresh dates and figs, hairy confectioneries similar to cotton candy, pomegranates, fruits, dried apricots, pistachios and regional deserts. Mars chocolate bars and Nestles products are often sold at shops and roadside restaurants and snack bars.

Turkish sweets include “helva” (a sweet dessert made of semolina), “glyko” (green figs boiled with sugar), “burma kadayif” (shredded wheat with nuts and honey), “macunu” (walnuts boiled in sugar) and “balmuz kaymak” (sliced bananas topped with whipped cream, nuts and honey). Hazelnuts, dried apricots, Turkish delight, sunflower seeds, pistachios are also associated with Turkey.

Egyptian bread pudding, or umm ali, is a hearty pastry cooked in milk and cream. Versions are made with croissant pieces, raisins, pistachios, vanilla and condensed milk. Sticky and sweet baklava is buttery filo pastry made with chopped nuts, sweet syrup and honey dressing, using a recipe that dates to the Ottoman era. Knafeh is a delicious cheesecake made from Nabusi cheese, which is common in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. It has a savory cheese flavor, crunchy pastry crust. Its blush color comes from orange blossom water or rose water. [Source: Jade Bremner, CNN, July 12, 2017]

Falafels, Street Food and Snacks in the Middle East

Fast food and take-way items include kebabs served on bread, shwarmas and falafels. Bakeries have wonderful cheap bread; pastry shops have a good selection of cakes, pastries, cookies, and ice cream. Some places have large selections of olives and cheese. Nut shops sell roasted watermelon seeds, almonds, pistachios and other goodies. Various kinds of ice cream and icy treats offer some relief in the excruciatingly ho summers.

“Falafels” (a fried chickpea ball often served in pita bread with salad and sauce) and “shawarmas “(sliced meat prepared like a felafel in pita bread with salad and sauce) are two of the best known Middle Eastern foods. They are popular throughout the world and can be bought in restaurants and on the streets. Falafels can be served by themselves or wrapped with salad and sauce in pita bread. In the Middle East, they are so popular, according to the New York Times, a discussion of their origin can incite a fiery debate. Shawarmas are typically made with tender pieces of skewered chicken, garlic puree and salad wrapped in pita, often served with a delicious yoghurt sauce.

takeaway falafel

A falafel is essentially a chickpea fritter deep fried in oil and served on pita bread with salad vegetables and nutty tahini sauce. Falafels originated in Egypt where they were originally made with fava beans. As the snack spread northwards fava beans were replaced with chickpeas. Falafels are made from mashed dried chickpeas mixed with bulgur wheat, garlic, scallions, parsley, coriander, cumin, pepper, lemon juice, salt and baking soda. The mixture is hand shaped into meatball-size balls and deep fried in 375̊F vegetable oil for about one minute. They are very popular in Israel as well as in Arab countries. Many Arabs are are outraged that Israelis sometimes refer to falafels as their national snack.

Other items you can buy on the streets include bread, kebabs, sesame buns, pastries dipped in syrup, dates, other pastries, “kulaicha” (a pastry filled with walnuts, sugar or dates), grilled “halloumi “(chunks of chewy cheese made from goat and sheep milk. Unlike other cheeses, no acid or bacteria is used during processing) watermelon, fruit, dried seeds, bread topped with cheese and vegetables, and pretzel-like rings. Manakeesh is pizza-like round bread sprinkled with either cheese, ground meat or herbs (zaatar). Associated most Lebanon, it is eaten for breakfast as well as lunch and can be found purchased at fancy restaurants as well as from street vendors. In Turkey you can get sheep intestine hoagies, charcoal-grilled fish hoagies, deep-fried mussel hoagies, and Turkish pizza (lahmacun).

Shanklish is made from crumbly cow or sheep milk cheese fashioned into golf ball-sized bites and rolled in zaatar herbs or chili flakes. It is often served with diced tomato, onion and olive oil. Kebab karaz is a “blood red, sweet and sour” snack made with sour cherries and pomegranate pips. It is very popular in Syria. Kofta is popular through the Middle East and Central Asia. These balls of minced lamb or beef with spices and onions. It can be fried, grilled, barbecued or bake. In Iran and Pakistan it is eaten with a distinctive spicy sauce. In Arab regions it is often shaped like a banana and served on a stick. [Source: Jade Bremner, CNN, July 12, 2017]

American fast food franchises have done relatively well in the Middle East. There are McDonald’s in Egypt and Bahrain and other Middle East countries. As of 1999, there were 84 Burger Kings in the Persian Gulf states.

Bedouin Food

Typical Bedouin food includes bread, rice dates, seasoned rice, yoghurt and milk and meat from their animals. Bedouins like to eat goat-and-rice dishes cooked over an open fire. A typical Bedouin breakfast consists of yoghurt, bread and coffee. Nomads have traditionally sold their animals and used the money to buy bags of wheat, rice, barely, salt, coffee and tea, which are carried by their animals,

traditional Bedouin underground oven

Bedouin bread is made by women who flatten balls of dough into flat sheets and places them in a rounded stove for baking. Bread can also be baked in the sand or cooked over a campfire in a metal dome.

Dates are the staple of the Bedouin diet. They are harvested from palm trees and dried out in the sun and stored for the wintertime when they supply food for a family and sometimes for camels, goats and sheep. Bedouin can go for months, subsisting on nothing but dates, animal milk and water. Sometimes when swarms of locusts arrive they are collected, roasted and eaten. Some are dried and crushed into powder and stored. Animals are usually only slaughtered for feasts and celebrations."

Bedouins have traditionally eaten rice and meat with their fingers while sitting on the ground or floor. When meat is eaten often a large chunk is passed around and everyone cuts of a piece with their dagger. Cooking has traditionally been done outside on camel dung campfires by women. The fire is made in a pit with three stones used as a support for the cooking pot.

Describing a Bedouin feast, Thomas Ambercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "Hardly a word was spoken...We ate busily, thrusting our right hands into the pilaf, squeezing the rice into bite size lumps and popping then into our mouths. The choicer tidbits---lungs, kidneys, an brain---the sheik tore out and laid before his guests. A young boy brought a dish of dates and bowls of fresh camel milk." Bedouins often signal that a feast is over by licking their fingers and then leave to wash and return for fruit or desert.

Ramadan Foods

Dates are traditionally the first things eaten to break the fast. Dates are of the few foods that grows in the desert. They come from palms found at oases. Many Muslims like to break the fast in a mosque with a meal of dates, oranges and other fruits.

an Iranian iftar meal eaten after sunset during Ramadan

Many Muslims break the fast with a light meal of fruit juice and soup and have a big dinner in the middle of the night. Other have a meal ready with dates, rice, chicken and a bowl of mulokhia — a soupy, spinach-like dish spooned over rice — and dig in immediately after the sun goes down. Many people eat sweets like saiwiyan , noodles cooked with milk, sugar and coconut, and candy made with nuts, honey and sesame seeds. Deserts and pastries made with walnuts and honey are popular in other places.

Most Muslim nationalities and cultures have special foods that are eaten during Ramadan. Egyptians eat butter cookies, raisin and walnut pancakes, beef stew with okra and onions and a pita bred casserole topped with rice, chicken and broth. Pakistanis eat dates, pakora (balls of vegetables and beans), biryanu (rice steamed with spices), diced mixed vegetables and raita yoghurt sauce, and a variety of fruit which is diced and mixed with yoghurt pepper and chaat masala.

Ramadan dishes served in Iran include Aashe-e Resshteh (a soup made with several kinds of beans, noodles and a kind of smelly dried whey called kashk. Donuts are given to children. Dishes served in Morocco include lost of sweets such as shebakiya (sesame cookies) and haloua zoumita (nut candy).

Turks eat Lentil soup, butter rice, lamb stew, rice and bean pilaf, Turkish bread and a green salad. Desert consists of rice pudding with black tea. Ramadan dishes served in India include dahl wada (flour dumplings in yogurt), bhajiya (deep fried onions), mirchi (stuffed peppers) and khir (rice pudding and nuts).

Arab Dishes and Food

Common Arab Dishes include “falafels” (a fried chickpea ball often served in pita bread with salad and sauce), “shawarmas “(sliced meat prepared like a felafel in pita bread with salad and sauce), “sis kebabs” (skewered chunks of meat), “guss”, or doner kebab (sliced off a big hunk of revolving meat), “kufta” (ground meat on skewers), “kushara” (lentils, rice, noodles, fried onions, tomato sauce and spices), “fiteer” (pizza-like pastry), grilled, fried or stewed chicken, “shorbat al-ads” (lentil soup), “cush cush” (small grain rice salad), mixed green salads, stuffed eggplant, and stuffed peppers. The are also numerous dishes made with fish.


Among the favored Saudi Arabian and Gulf States Dishes are “kabsah” (rice with either meat or seafood), “machbous ala dajaj” (chicken and dried limes), “basal mahshi” (onions stuffed with beef or lamb and rice, tomatoes and spices), “machbous” (spiced lamb and rice. cooked with raisins, chickpeas, salt, onions, rose water and safforn), “dakkus” (tomatoes, garlic, eggplants and hot pepper) “mushammer” (rice prepared with rose water, cardamom, sugar, salt and butter), “muaddas” (rice with lentils), “mashkoul” (rice with onions), “lahm bil hayd” (hard boiled egg surrounded by ground meat and deep fried) and “shaurabat” (lentil soup). Fish Dishes include “zaibaidi” (Persian Gulf fish), “gugurfan” (sea bream), “beyah” (mullet), “chanad” (mackerel), “machbous” (prawns, rice, parsley, tomatoes, coriander and other spices), “samak mashui” (barbecued fish with dates), “kabsah” (rice with seafood or meat). Fish is usually grilled, fried, stewed or baked in an oven. “houzi” (a freshly-slaughtered lamb stuffed with rice, pine nuts, eggs, almonds, chopped kidneys and liver, salt, saffron and a variety of goodies) is considered the national dish and is often served at big feasts. Meat is hardly ever served rare.

Yemeni Dishes include the national dish “salta” (a spicy stew made with lamb or chicken, lentils, beans, chickpeas, coriander and other items, served on rice), “nashuf” (a stew made with lentils, buttermilk, onions, garlic and barley), “shurba “(thick stew-like soup with tomatoes, onion, garlic, lemon juice, lentils, rice and clarified butter), “shurba bilsani” (lentil soup), “”shurba wasabi” (lamb soup), “chefont” (green yoghurt soup), “chamin” (soup with beans, meat and herbs), and “bamia” (a thick soup with okra).

Among the common Jordanian dishes are “musakhan” (chicken with olive oil and onions, roasted on bread) “daud pasha” (a stew made with onions, tomatoes, pine nuts and meat balls), “kidreh bil-furn” (meat, rice, chick peas and spices cooked in an earthenware jar), “daud pasha” (a stew made with onions, tomatoes, pine nuts and meat balls), “kibbeh” (pounded lamb, crushed wheat and spices shaped into balls and deep fried)), “kibbeh nieheh” (raw kibbeh), “mahshi” (basked stuffed egplant), “maqloouba” (a meat stew made with eggplant or cauliflower and other ingredients). “Mensaf “(a freshly-slaughtered lamb with yoghurt, rice, cinnamon, pine nuts and almonds), accompanied by bread is a dish often served at big feasts.

Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese Dishes

Syrian Dishes include “maqloouba” (a meat stew made with eggplant or cauliflower and other ingredients), “marya” (a thin crispy pastry topped with minced meat, spices and toppings, similar to Turkish pizza), “muhammara” (a red spicy, hot paste made with pimentos and dressed with olive oil), “kofta bil sania” (a kind of meatloaf) and roast lamb. Among the specialities associated with Aleppo are “kofta Mabrouma” (a lamb and pine nut dish). A whole fish serve on saffron riced is popular in the Mediterranean area. “Mensaf “(a freshly-slaughtered lamb with yoghurt, rice, cinnamon, pine nuts and almonds), accompanied by bread, is a dish often served at big feasts.

fried kibbeh

Among the other dishes that available are “kibbeh” (pounded lamb, crushed wheat and spices shaped into balls and deep fried), “kibbeh nieheh” (raw kibbeh), “mahshi” (basked stuffed eggplant), “musakhan” (chicken with olive oil and onions, roasted on bread) “daud pasha” (a stew made with onions, tomatoes, pine nuts and meat balls), “kidreh bil-furn” (meat, rice, chick peas and spices cooked in an earthenware jar) and “daud pasha” (a stew made with onions, tomatoes, pine nuts and meat balls),

Lebanese Dishes include “kibbeh” (pounded lamb, crushed wheat and spices shaped into balls and deep fried)), “kibbeh nieheh” (raw kibbeh), “kharrouf mihsji” (lamb stuffed with rice, meat and nuts), “sayadieh” (fish cooked with rice, onion and tahina sauce), “mahshi” (basked stuffed eggplant), “ruz wi djaj” (chicken with rice and nuts), “maqloouba” (a meat stew made with eggplant or cauliflower and other ingredients), “marya” (a thin crispy pastry topped with minced meat, spices and toppings, similar to Turkish pizza), “muhammara” (a red spicy, hot paste made with pimentos and dressed with olive oil), “kofta bil sania” (a kind of meatloaf), roast lamb, “musakhan” (chicken with olive oil and onions, roasted on bread) “daud pasha” (a stew made with onions, tomatoes, pine nuts and meat balls), “kidreh bil-furn” (meat, rice, chick peas and spices cooked in an earthenware jar) and “daud pasha” (a stew made with onions, tomatoes, pine nuts and meat balls).

Favorites of Lebanese-American food blogger Bethany Kehdy of include simple, rustic dishes such as m'jadarrah (lentil stew), also known as poor man's stew, consisting of slow-cooked lentils with a sprinkling of burghul and caramelized onions and served with a side of zesty cabbage salad, and kkshik, a porridge made from burghul fermented with yogurt and dried in the sun on rooftops over seven days during the fall before being ground into fine powder. "It's soul-soothing, wholesome food in a jiffy, although an acquired taste, I'll admit," she said. [Source: Jade Bremner, CNN, July 12, 2017]

Iraqi dishes include kebabs spiced with parsley and onion, “kuba” (vegetable stew with dough balls), “kubba” (buckwheat pancake filled with ground lamb), “kuba burghul” (kuba made with dough balls made from cracked wheat mixed with meat, raisins, onions, and spices), “dolma” (peppers, eggplant, cabbage or grape leaves stuffed with rice, ground meat and spices), “batata chap” (potato cakes filled with spicy ground meat, tomatoes and parsley stuffing), “tishreeb” (a fatty stew made with mutton, bread soaked in lamb stock and eaten with yogurt and garlic), grilled Gulf shrimp and cumin-spiced dumplings, and “murag” (a meat stew made with vegetables, tomatoes, lemon and garlic, and dough balls made from rice, meat, raisins, nuts and saffron),.

“Masgouf” is a charcoal-grilled fish regarded as the traditional dish of Iraq. “Masgouf” is a Tigris river fish that is split open, cooked on a special grill and served with lime chutney or curry. Among the lamb specialties are “labmi hajeen” (a pizza-like pastry topped with ground lamb, tomatoes and parsley), “tashreeb” (stewed lamb shanks and tripe prepared with dried limes, chick peas and tomatoes), “quzi” (grilled whole lamb stuffed with rice, almonds, raisins and spices), “hamuth hello” (lamb with cinnamon, apricots, yellow raisons, onions and pureed dates), and “mumbar” (lamb and rice sausage).

Egyptian and North African Dishes

foule with olive oil

Egyptian dishes include “foule “(fava bean stew), “hamam mahshi” (grilled pigeon), “molokhiyya” (a vegetable stew made with rice, chicken broth and a slimy leafy vegetable) “kibbeh” (pounded lamb and crushed wheat), “kibbeh nieheh” (raw kibbeh), “makhdous” (mixture of yogurt, eggplant and bread), “meshwi” (skewered grilled meat), “feta” (a blend of bread crumbs, soup, garlic and lamb), “ta'meya” (felafel), “samak” (fish), “khalta” (fried rice mixed with nuts, raisins, meat and liver), “mashwi” (grilled shrimp), “hamia” (stew made with okra, vegetables and meat). Fish is usually grilled. “Ferakh bel’borgul” (chicken stuffed with rice and cooked inside a turkey or lamb) is a dish often served at big feasts.

“Tajines” (stews made of almost anything, slowly cooked over a charcoal brazier and served piping hot in a terra-cotta pot with a cone-shaped cover) are a fixture of Morocco and North Africa. A typical tajine has a red sauce stew and is made with meat—usually lamb, mutton or chicken, but also beef, pigeon, fish, turkey, camel, quail or duck—and stewed fruit or vegetables—such as potatoes, apples, carrots, artichokes, prunes, grapes, and carrots—and seasoned with olives, hot peppers, tomatoes and spices such as cumin, saffron or mint. There are many kinds of tajines. Popular ones include lamb with prunes; beef with apples; lamb and quince; chicken with grapes, raisins and almonds; duck with figs.

“Couscous” is as much of a staple of Moroccan cooking as rice is of Chinese cooking and may have arrived in North Africa from the Romans. It is not a grain but rather is very small pasta made from hard, wheat semolina and can be as coarsely textured as peppercorns or as fine as table salt. Steamed and cooked with chunks of lamb, vegetables and sometimes raisins and cinnamon, it is often heaped on a plate with a hollow in the middle and is filled with a stew of chicken or lamb, and garnished with raisins, chick peas or onions. Couscous is often served with a boiled vegetables or soup and a bowl of hot pepper sauce.

Among the popular pastry-style dishes found in Morocco are “brewat” (deep-fried pastry with spiced meat, rice and almonds inside), “pastilla” (flaky pastry filled with chicken or pigeon and almonds, cinnamon, eggs, sugar, onions, ginger, coriander and saffron), “bisteeya” (flaky pastry filled wih spiced pigeon, toasted almonds, onion sauce and lemony eggs and covered with powdered with cinnamon and sugar) and “rghaifs” (stuffed frind pancakes);

Other typical Moroccan dishes include “harira” (a thick chicken soup, often with chickpeas, eggs and flavored with pepper, saffron and cinnamon), “brouchettes” (skewered chunks of barbecued mutton, lamb, beef or chicken), “meschoui” (roast mutton), “djaja mahamaru” (chicken stiffed with almonds, raisins and semolina), “merguez” (spiced lamb sausages), chicken with lemon and olives. A typical Moroccan-style banquet meal features harira, pastilla, tajine, meschoui and couscous.

Tunisian Dishes include “brik” (Turkish-style pastries filled potato, canned tuna, spinach and a soft, runny undercooked egg), “chorba” (a thick, spicy soup made with tomato and barley and seafood or lamb), “mechoui” (lamb cooked o a spit), “musli” (lamb or beef stew with olive oil) and “guenaoia” (meat stew with onions, coriander and harissa sauce, tomatoes and okra), “brouchettes” (skewered chunks of barbecued mutton, lamb, beef or chicken), “harira” (a thick chicken soup, often with chickpeas, eggs and flavored with pepper, saffron and cinnamon), “merguez” (spiced lamb sausages), and chicken with lemon and olives.

Among the seafood found in Tunisia are spiny lobster, red mullet, shrimp, grouper, monkfish, eels, tuna, octopus, sea urchins, crabs and cuttlefish. At restaurants fish is usually grilled over hot coals, often with some olive oil, chopped parsley or coriander and harissa sauce. Couscous royal, made with meatballs and stuffed vegetables is a specialty of Jewish restaurants in the Tunis area and on Jerba Island. Tunisians are also fond of spaghetti and squares of fresh pasta called “nwassar” and a Roquefort-like, ewe-milk cheese called “numidia”. Rice is also often eaten with meals. It is usually steamed and then prepared in various ways. Often it is flavored with saffron. Sometimes it is steamed with egg or yoghurt. Rice prepared with chicken, stock, saffron, ground lamb and almonds is a fixture of Tunisian meals.

Turkish Dishes

doner kebab in 1850

Turkish Dishes include “iman bayildi” (eggplant stuffed with tomatos and onions and baked in oil), “bulgar pilav” (crack wheat cooled in tomato stock), “doner “kebab ( meat sliced off a big hunk of revolving meat) şiş kebab (skewered chunks of meat), “kofte” (a long piece of spicy hamburger meat cooked on a spit), “gozleme” (crepes filled with vegetables), “manti” (Turkish ravioli), and “boreks” (rolled pancakes filled with cheese, spinach and other goodies).

Among the some other common dishes are “patlican dolmasi” (pureed eggplant with lamb), “karniyarik” (eggplant stuffed with mincemeat), “yaprak dolmas” (stuffed vine leaves) and “midya dolmasi” (steamed mussles stuffed with rice and pine nuts). Other tasty main dishes include fish, lamb and yoghurt, stuffed eggplant and stuffed peppers.

Many dishes are similar to Greek dishes. Some dishes are named after the region they come from. Adana kebab from Adana, for example, is a spicy long piece of minced meat that is sometimes served inside wonderful flaky bread. Ishkender kebab comes with a rich heavy red sauce. Soups are regarded as a cure for hangovers, colds and the flu. Ottoman dishes include creamy vegetable soup with rice and chicken, mushroom and cheese borek, mutton stew, kebabs, Turkish delight, rose hip tea, sherbet. They are often served with coffee from a traditional copper beaker.

The Turks in Istanbul eat “palumut” (bonito), “levrek” (sea bass), “lufer” (a kind of bluefish that is less oily than its Atlantic counterpart). They are often served in season. Waiters often ask you whether you want your fish broiled, baked or fried. Other seafood specialties include shrimp baked in a casserole, batter-fried whiting served with arguta, and the mezes listed below. Black Sea specialities include anchovy casserole, fried anchovies and “uskumru dolmasi” (mackerel stuffed with a variety of ingredients and then deep fried) and pungent baked anchovies.

There are hot and cold mezes (appetizers). Common ones include “patlican salatsi” (a salad made of pureed eggplant mixed with yoghurt and lemon), “cacik” (yoghurt mixed with garlic, cucumber and olive oil), various eggplant preparations, “lakerda” (pickled fish and onions); roasted sweet red peppers; “semizotu” (purslane in a yogurt and garlic dressing), grilled octopus, fried octopus, stuffed mussels, marinated sea bass, marinated octopus, cabbage leaves with various fillings, melon and cheese, marinated beans, artichoke hearts with dressing, fried anchovies, melon platters, marinated sardines, smoked eggplant, spicy chopped tomatoes and a variety of salads.

Iranian Food

Khoresh Gheimeh

Iranian dishes include “khoresh” (slow-simmering stews served with rice), “chelo-kabon” (steamed rice and roasted meat), “obgousht” (lamb broth mixed grains, potatoes and spices), “koresh-fessenjon” (a stew made with poultry, especially duck or goose, mixed with walnuts, pomegranate juice and served with steamed rice), “kuku” (a thick omelet cut into pieces), “ghorme-ye-sabzi” (stew made with lamb, spinach and dried limes) and “kofte” (meat balls).

Also worth trying are “dolmeh” (a stuffing wrapped in vine leaves and steamed), “dolmeh sib” (apples wrapped in grape leaves), “sup” (thick soup), “ash” (a thicker, heartier soups), “abgushi” (even thicker soup), “ash-e-reshteh” (fragrant noodle soup), spit-roasted chicken and grilled fish. “Chelo kebab” (lamb marinated in seasoned yoghurt, grilled and served with rice and seasoned with somagh) is sometimes described as Iran’s national dish and comes in several varieties, It can be made with lamb filet or ground meat or chicken or other cuts or varieties of meat. “Shishlik” is similar to Turkish shish kebab. Kebabs made of sturgeon are sometimes available around the Caspian Sea. Kebabs made with shrimp are served in the Persian Gulf.

Common varieties of bread include “lavosh” (thin and flat and often folded into a square) “tuftoon” (crispy and oval shaped), “sangak” (thick, pulpy and baked on special stones) and “barbari” (thin, salty, with a glazed crust). Rice is also popular. It is usually steamed and then prepared in various ways. Often it is flavored with saffron. Sometimes it is steamed with egg or yoghurt.

Caviar is expensive and hard to find in restaurants. You are better off buying it in supermarkets or markets. Fruits and vegetables are served in salads or come wrapped in leaves. Yoghurt is often lumpy and unsweetened. It is sometimes served on its own, or eaten with bread or used as a flavoring and mixed in with vegetables. Fish is often served in Tehran and the Caspian Sea area. Game is sometimes available in the Caspian Sea area. Common vegetables and fruits and nuts include okra, spinach, chard, eggplant, peaches, pears, sweet plums, nectarines, dates, figs, melons, apples and almonds. Iran is famous for its pistachios.

Round Bread

Large round breads about the size of a steering wheel are popular in Central Asia. Lepyoshka (traditional Uzbek bread) is round and golden brown and often called “non”, “obi-nan” or “naan” (derived from Indian-style bread prepared the same way) . No meal is complete without it. Usually it is sprinkled with sesame for protein and nutmeg to stimulate appetite. Central Asians are particularly fond of eating it with grapes and plov.

Iraqi woman making flatbread in an outdoor clay oven

Round breads is made in factories, at home, in gas ovens, or the traditional way in a tandyr (tandir), a dome-shaped oven made from stones or clay and heated with firewood that burns at the bottom. The dough is often kneaded the night before its is cooked. Bread made the traditional way is placed on the inside of the tandyr over the fire and sprayed with water. In the intense heat turns the bread a golden brown color. When the bread is ready it is pealed away and placed on a wooden tray, which gives it a woody flavor. Sometimes bread is prepared in beehive earthen ovens. [Source: Oriental Express Central Asia |~|]

According to Oriental Express Central Asia: “Tandirs are hand - built. They take the form of a cylinder with a narrow spout and two-centimeter thick walls made from mountain soil and camel or sheep hair. A finished tandir has to dry under the sun for a week. Sometimes big clay pitchers for wine, oil or grain are also used as tandirs. Tandirs are made in the yard under the awning and near the wall; the base of a tandir needs to touch the wall. A tandir's opening is 1.5 m off the floor, just opposite the baker's workplace. One more detail - the inner wall of a finished tandir is then oiled to smooth the walls and prevent the clay from sticking to the bread. [Source: Oriental Express Central Asia |~|]

“Before each baking cycle, dried brushwood, finely chopped firewood from deciduous plants, is burned in the tandir. Firewood is gradually added until the walls of the tandir become red-hot, The coals and ashes are scraped towards the center and the walls are splashed with salt water to facilitate the separation of the bread from the clay wall. To put lepyoshkas into the fiery tandir, bakers use a rapida, a round lepyoshka-shaped cotton pillow. The raw shaped dough is placed on the rapida and carefully but swiftly stuck to the walls so as not to distort the perfect circular shape. Water is splashed against the wall until steam appears; Lepyoshkas are baked with steam, radiated heat from the coals and the convected heat inside the hot-red walls of the tandir. The appearance of a crunchy crust means that the lepyoshkas are baked through and through. Each loaf is removed with the special scoop. |~|

“Lepyoshkas baked in the tandir have a full aroma, delicious taste, and a high caloric content, and are said to hold healing powers. "One having eaten in the morning a slice of lepyoshka with raisins, fried peas or Circassian walnut will not be thinking about food for a long time", goes a quote from Ibn-Sina (Avicenna). To express their great respect for bread as a symbol of family happiness, Uzbek door to door bread vendors since ancient times have carried bread baskets on their heads.” |~|

Pita Bread

pita bread

Also known as Arabic bread, Syrian bread, and Lebanese bread, pita bread (or pitta) is soft and slightly puffed flatbread made from wheat flour. It has its roots in the Near East and Mesopotamia and dates back to around 2500 B.C. [Source: Brandi Marcene,, August 26, 2016]

From what archeologists can determine pita bread was first produced by people to the west of the Mediterranean. It is not clear whether the first pioneers were nomadic Bedouins or more settled Amorites. It is presumed that Bedouin groups, traveling across the Arabian and Sahara deserts, helped spread it in the Middle East and North Africa. Initially, the pita was a blend of batter that was left to sit and gather yeast naturally.

In the Middle East, pita bread is still often made at home in outdoor stoves. It is baked at relatively high temperatures of about 800 to 900 degrees F until the thick dough swells and steam produces the internal pocket. The baking process is very quick, only a minute or two.

The pita bread pocket is convenient to stuff various things into. It can also be used as a wrap or cut into pieces and dipped into different spreads, sauces and mezes. In the Middle East it is served as a side dish for chicken, steak, and lamb, used as pocket bread for falafels and shawarmas and employed to pick up spreads like baba ganoush, tabouleh or hummus.


saffron and other spices at a Turkish market

Most of world's saffron is purchased by Arabs (especially in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait) who use it to flavor lamb, chicken and rice dishes. It is also an important ingredient in France's bouillabaisse and Italy's risotto. Over the centuries it has been used as a digestive, dye, hangover cure, stimulant and aphrodisiac.

Saffron is the world's most expensive spice. It comes from the stigmas (the part of the flower that receives pollen) of purple crocus flowers and is used to color and give a flowery aroma to gourmet European dishes and meat and rice dishes in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Over 200,000 stamens are needed to make one pound of saffron, which can sells for as much as $5,000. One acre of saffron yields only a few pounds. [Source: Diane Raines Ward, Smithsonian, August, 1988]

Saffron has been around a long time. Stigmas have been found in Egyptian mummies and Cleopatra used it in her cosmetics. In medieval Nuremberg a man was burned at the stake in a fire made from his attempts to make imitations of the spice. Saffron was introduced to Spain and Europe by Arab invaders around the 10th century. The Spanish word for saffron, azafrán , comes from the Arabic word za'farãn .

Restaurants, Markets and Stores

People in the Middle East tend to ate at home rather than eat out. Restaurants have traditionally been places to celebrate an important event. Types of restaurants include: 1) full-service restaurants; 2) cafeteria-style places, where food is served from pans (menus are not necessary, simply point at what you want, usually soups, stews and vegetables); 3) hotels restaurants; 4) falafel stands: 5) sandwich shops, roast chicken places, hamburger and pizza joints and snack bars; and 6) tea houses, which generally offer only tea, coffee and snacks and generally patronized only by men. They generally filled with smokers only serve tea and have waterpipes.

Many restaurants specialize is a certain kind of food. The best and most hygienic food is usually found at expensive hotel restaurants or restaurants that cater to foreign tourists. In coastal areas and near the rivers you can find fish restaurants. Kebab places are the most common types of restaurant.

Many snack-bar-type restaurant require customers to chose what they want, pay for it, get a receipt and go to the food counter and pick up the food by showing the receipt. Chinese, European, Italian, German, Korean and Japanese cuisines are available. There are also snack bars, chicken grills. American-style restaurant like McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King and TGI Fridays are other fast food restaurants are found in areas popular with tourists.

Meals at restaurants usually begin with appetizer-like dishes or salads, followed by a main dish of meat or fish. Menus are generally not posted on the windows. Most restaurants do not have menus printed in languages other than Arabic. Many working class places don’t have any menus at all. People usually order a soup and some appetizers and a main dish. It is perfectly acceptable to order by pointing to whatever you want. A service charge and tax is added on some upscale restaurants but not at cheap restaurants.

In restaurants sometimes there are often separate areas for men and women. The men’s area generally is much bigger than the woman’s sections. Some places won’t even let women in. Some working class restaurant don’t have utensils. Customers eat with their hands by scooping up food with bread. Water is not usually served with meals unless asked for and then there is sometimes a charge for it. Local people usually drink water, tea or fruit juices. Bread is often served. Sometimes it is free. Sometimes there is charge for it.

Local markets sell things like rice, potatoes, meat, poultry, dates, olives, spices, cabbage, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, dried fruit, nuts, vegetables, smoked sausages, slabs of butter and cream cheese, local honey, yoghurt, round bread, and melons. Large towns and cities have relatively well-stocked supermarkets. Some chain supermarkets stay open late. In rural areas the selection is more limited. Stores generally have cookies, packages of noodles and soup, cheese, potatoes, chocolate, rice, vegetables, powdered and condensed milk and hard candy. Candy stores sell hard suck candy. Fruits and vegetables are usually in ample supply in season.


dates hanging from a date palm in Dahab, Egypt

Dates are the fruit of a desert palm tree. There are 220 kinds of dates, or which about 20 are commercially viable. A popular food in the Middle East, they and found in abundance in the desert and around oases. Many parts of the Middle East would be uninhabitable were it not for date palms. It is one of the few crops that grows in the desert. Date palms have been described as the “tree of life."

Date palms are highly valued because they provide abundant food in a very harsh place. The trees grow very large; produce fruit for a long time; and can survive long droughts and extremely high temperatures. According to an old Egyptian saying "A date palm is the only creation of God that resembles man. Unlike other trees, a date palm gives more as it grows older."

Dates are among the earliest crops known. They have been cultivated around the Tigres and Euphrates in Mesopotamia since at least 2000 B.C. The Virgin Mary munched on dates when she was pregnant. Dates have been traditionally eaten by Muslims to break their fast during Ramadan. The Qur’an contains 18 references, most of them good.

The Middle East is the source of two thirds of the world's dates. The major date producers are Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The center of the date industry in the United States is Indio California, about 130 miles from Los Angeles. The first date trees were imported here from Algeria in 1900.

Top Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Egypt, 415702 , 1326133; 2) Iran (Islamic Republic of), 315478 , 1006406; 3) Saudi Arabia, 309081 , 986000; 4) United Arab Emirates, 217861 , 755000; 5) Pakistan, 213193 , 680107; 6) Algeria, 173275 , 552765; 7) Iraq, 121099 , 476318; 8) Sudan, 105325 , 336000; 9) Oman, 77574 , 255871; 10) China, 42318 , 135000; 11) Tunisia, 35826 , 127000; 12) Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, 31347 , 150000; 13) Yemen, 17304 , 55204; 14) Morocco, 15067 , 72700; 15) Qatar, 6759 , 21564; 16) Mauritania, 6018 , 19200; 17) Chad, 5736 , 18300; 18) Israel, 5666 , 18078; 19) United States of America, 5374 , 17146; 20) Niger, 5200 , 16589;



Olives are fruit that comes from a gnarled tree and are a staple of the Mediterranean diet. People eat them for meals and snacks, and use olive oil for cooking and even eat on bread. They come in host of colors and textures: salty, wrinkled and black; oily and green; and even massive and purple. Italy alone is home to 60 different types of olive tree. [Source: Dora Jane Hamblin, Smithsonian; Erla Zwingle, National Geographic, September 1999]

Through the ages, olives and olive oil have been used as food, fuel, light source, lubricant, soap, mediation, weapon and sacred oil. Among the historical figures who ate olives were Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, Christ, the Apostles, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Columbus and Galileo.

Egyptian olives

A food critic who divided Europe into regions of butter, lard and olive oil and discovered the most passionate people lived in regions dominated by olive oil. It also the lifeblood for regions have difficulty producing other crops. "The olive tree looks like death, but to countries where it grows, it sometimes literally means life. The olive is as much a savior of man in semi-arid areas of poor soil as the date of the oases in the desert."

Top olive-producing countries The olive is a drupe, or stone fruit, like a plum or cherry. Olives start out green and very bitter and turn black when they mature. A bitter olive eaten raw off a tree is like eating "a unplucked chicken or a an uncooked potato." Different varieties of olives are usually picked at different points in the development of the fruit. Green olives generally have more Vitamin E and less oil than black olives, which have a stronger flavor and more oil. Most green olives are eaten whole rather than made into oil. Only 10 percent the olive crop is eaten as olives. Most is made into oil.

Top olive-producing countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Spain, 2739128 , 5475300; 2) Italy, 1737737 , 3473600; 3) Greece, 1157152 , 2313055; 4) Turkey, 732519 , 1464248; 5) Tunisia, 591819 , 1183000; 6) Syrian Arab Republic, 413739 , 827033; 7) Morocco, 382896 , 765380; 8) Egypt, 240165 , 480071; 9) Portugal, 172993 , 345800; 10) Algeria, 127102 , 254067; 11) Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, 90048 , 180000; 12) Argentina, 75040 , 150000; 13) Jordan, 47059 , 94068; 14) Occupied Palestinian Territory , 42908 , 85770; 15) Lebanon, 38120 , 76200; 16) United States of America, 30316 , 60600; 17) Peru, 28865 , 57700; 18) Australia, 28576 , 57123; 19) Albania, 28115 , 56200; 20) Israel, 24388 , 48750;


Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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