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While the Middle East is vast and diverse, similar culinary traditions can be found across the region. They have been formed by the Mediterranean climate, commercial routes to Europe, Asia and Africa, and the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
North African cuisine, Greek cuisine, Balkan cuisines and Central Asian cuisines are similar, influenced by a common Turkish heritage from long-term Ottoman rule on the one hand (Balkans, Middle East, North Africa) and Turkic culture on the other (much of Central Asia).
Iranian food, with its common use in savory dishes of pomegranate molasses, cherries, plums, almond paste and various distinctive herbs and spices, has some commonalities with Levantine food but is in many ways quite a distinct cuisine, and it's also different though somewhat related to the cuisines of the Indian Subcontinent.
Yemeni cuisine also has much in common with the cuisines of the Indian Subcontinent as well as the Levant, reflecting its long history of maritime trade. Many dishes include a spice mixture related to Indian masalas, and spices also commonly used in India, including cumin and fenugreek, feature in Yemeni cuisine.
As being a chef is traditionally considered to be a low-class job in the Gulf, and the oil-rich Gulf states provide their citizens with a comprehensive welfare state, cuisine from the Gulf is very hard to find in restaurants even in their respective countries. If you wish to try cuisine from the Gulf, your best bet is to befriend a local and get invited home for a meal.
- Meat: Beef, goat, lamb and poultry are ubiquitous. Pork is taboo in Islam and Judaism, but is eaten by local Christians as well as in some immigrant/expat communities. Products such as bacon and gelatin are usually provided from beef or lamb.
- Seafood: While non-fish seafood is not kosher for Jews, it is accepted by other religions. Domestic production is rather small, though, and fresh seafood is hard to come by.
- Chick peas are a common protein source, popular with vegetarians, and the base for dishes such as falafel and dips such as hummus.
- Fava beans (ful) are also appreciated and often used as a meze.
- Freekeh is an ancient green grain typically made from roasting young durum wheat, which is popular in the Eastern Mediterranean.
- Bread/ pita, especially flat wheat bread (naan in Persian, lavaş in Turkish), is ubiquitous.
- Couscous and bulgur are similar ingredients, based on wheat.
- Dates are usually offered to guests in homes and meetings, as a token of hospitality.
- Common spices and herbs are saffron, basil, sage, allspice, mint, and pepper. Sumac is a staple in Iran. Cumin and fenugreek are commonly used in Yemeni food.
- Floral waters, especially rose water and orange blossom water, are used to flavor sweets including Turkish delight and baklava, as well as some drinks and savory dishes
- Sesame seeds are a common ingredient and are used in condiments like tahini and confectionary such as halvah
- Halloumi is a sheep and goat's milk cheese popular across Egypt, Turkey and the Levant. Its high melting point compared to other cheeses makes it suitable for frying or grilling.
- Kaymak is the Turkish version of thickened cream. Often compared to clotted cream, it has a rich and silky smooth texture. Similar products are called geymar in Iraq and sharsheer in Iran. Kaymak is mainly consumed as part of breakfast.
- Labneh is a strained, very thick yogurt with the consistency of cream cheese. A staple of the Levant for thousands of years, it is used as a dip or spread.
- Gyros, döner kebab and shawarma are essentially the same dish.
- Baklava is a dessert made of filo pastry and various types of nuts, and shared with the cuisines of the Balkans, Greece, North Africa and Central Asia.
- Tabbouleh is a salad from the Levant consisting of finely chopped parsley, tomato, bulgur, onion, olive oil, lemon juice and salt
- Gözleme is a savory turnover from Turkey which is stuffed with ground meats, vegetables, herbs and/or cheeses
- Harees is a porridge of cracked wheat, meat and butter, and is commonly eaten in the Gulf states
- Masgouf is carp that is seasoned and grilled over an open flame and covered by a large flatbread when served to keep the fish warm. Regarded as the national dish of Iraq, it is also eaten in the eastern parts of Syria and Turkey bordering Iraq.
- Balaleet is a breakfast dish incorporating sweet and savory elements popular in the Gulf region. It consists of vermicelli mixed with sugar, cardamom, rose water and saffron, topped with an omelet and often served with sauteed onions.
- Knafeh is a dessert made of cheese, syrup and kataifi that is popular throughout the Middle East, with variants also found in Greece and the Balkans.
Various forms of rice with meat and spices, similar to Indian biryani, are the staples of many Middle Eastern cuisines.
- Kabsa was originally from Saudi Arabia, and is also eaten in the other countries of the Arabian peninsula. Known as machboos in the smaller Gulf states of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
- Mandi is a Yemeni rice dish from the Hadhramaut region.
- Mansaf is a staple Jordanian and Palestinian dish made with lamb, rice and jameed, a fermented dried yogurt.
Coffee originated in Ethiopia, and reached the West through the Ottoman Empire. Together with tea, it is ubiquitous. Generally speaking, tea is more popular in Iran, while coffee is more popular in the Arab countries.
While alcoholic beverages are taboo in Islam, alcohol is available in more liberal Muslim cities and countries such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Turkey, though in some cases you may need documentation to prove that you are a non-Muslim. Even in countries where alcohol is sold, binge-drinking and drunkenness are frowned on. Judaism and (most varieties of) Christianity are fine with alcohol, however, and even in some majority Muslim countries, alcohol production and consumption by and for minorities is tolerated.
The Alevi branch of Shia Islam, whose followers are a prominent minority in Central and Eastern Turkey, does not prohibit the consumption of alcohol.
The restrictions on alcohol and the warm climate make soft drinks and juices popular. A halal restaurant in the Middle East can have a juice list as extensive as a European restaurant's wine list.
Salep is a winter beverage made from the flour of tubers of the orchid genus Orchis. Like tea and coffee, hot milk and sugar are usually added.