Exploring Gluten-Free Dishes in Middle Eastern Cuisine
The Middle East is a region made up of 18 countries, each with cultures deeply rooted in ancient history and diverse religious practices. Of the Middle Eastern countries, 13 are part of the Arabian Peninsula, with the others in the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia regions.
Trying to write about the typical foods of the entire Middle East would be next to impossible. Instead, we’ll focus on traditional and popular dishes of Iran and Israel.
This region, also known as Persia, is in Western Asia. Iran’s history includes invasions and occupations over the centuries by the Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Turks. Currently, Persians are the largest ethnic group in Iran and the food we’ll describe here is considered Persian cuisine.
In Iran, meals are often planned with the idea of balancing a mix of foods. “Hot” properties include meats, sweets, and nuts and “cold” properties include yogurt, vegetables, and fish. Adjustments between properties are made for health purposes, a process thought to have been adapted from the ancient Greek principles of health and science and the importance of balance between them.
Persian and Indian cuisines share some ingredients such as lentils and spices like cumin, turmeric, and cardamom. Many Persian dishes have a distinctly sour taste that stems from their use of citrus, sumac, and pomegranate. Fresh herbs also play a major role in Persian dishes.
Some gluten-free Persian dishes include:
- Khoresht Fesenjan, a walnut and pomegranate stew served over rice.
- Baghali Polo, rice with dill and fava beans.
- Zereshk Polo, a barberry (a tart, red berry), chicken, and rice dish. No barberries on hand? Use unsweetened cranberries instead.
- Sabzi Khordan, a fresh herb and cheese plate, often served with radishes and walnuts.
- Naan Berenji, rice cookies eaten around the Persian New Year.
Rice, a naturally gluten-free food, is a staple of Persian dishes. A good rice to use when cooking Persian foods in the U.S. is basmati rice. Rice can be eaten steamed, or parboiled then steamed, fried, or served as rice cakes. Rice is commonly flavored with herbs, infused with spices, enhanced with nuts and berries, or cooked with saffron and topped with butter.
Chelow Kebab is considered the national dish of Iran. Chelow refers to the steamed, saffron-flavored rice served with seasoned, skewered meat kebabs, usually lamb. A popular style of chelow also served with kebabs is Tahdig or scorched rice with a crispy golden crust. Rice and kebabs are typically accompanied by grilled tomatoes placed on the rice, powdered sumac (a tangy lemony flavored spice), fresh onion, and a sour yogurt drink called Doogh. When served, the rice is usually brought out first, then the kebabs are slid off the skewers onto the rice.
Israel is a melting pot of cuisines and cultural traditions throughout the Middle East and around the world.
Chicken, dairy products, fruits, and nuts are commonly eaten day-to-day. Popular gluten-free Israeli dishes include:
- Shakshuka, a stewed tomato and egg dish
- Falafel, fried chickpea dumplings that can be prepared with gluten-free ingredients
- Hamutzim, a type of quick pickled vegetables often served as a meal accompaniment
- Zibdiyit Gambari, translated as “shrimp in a clay pot,” a stew of Palestinian origin made with earthy spices
Za’atar, a spice mix, is frequently used in cooking, baking, and on salads that typically consists of thyme, oregano, marjoram, sumac, toasted sesame, and salt. Za’atar is said to have been used by ancient pharaohs and as a medicine by Hippocrates. Malabi is a gluten-free dessert, a rose-flavored rice and milk pudding similar to a Middle Eastern Panna Cotta.
One of the best known, naturally gluten-free, foods enjoyed in Israel and the Middle East is hummus. When you hear “hummus,” you might be picturing a cold dip from a grocery store that you eat with chips, carrots, or celery. In Israel, hummus is consumed frequently throughout the week, made fresh and eaten either warm or at room temperature, and topped with a variety of foods, from grilled vegetables to nuts to hard-boiled eggs. A dollop or two of hummus is often added to other dishes such as shakshuka. It can be a snack, a side dish, or a main course served warm on a large plate with a drizzle of olive oil, a slice of lemon, and a gluten-free flatbread.
Middle Eastern cuisine offers artfully spiced, naturally gluten-free options, and dishes from Iran and Israel are no exception. Add variety to your meals by exploring the world of Middle Eastern culinary delights!