By Maya Bar-Zvi, Bastyr University Dietetic Intern, 2018
Middle Eastern culture is remarkably varied, embedded with historical roots, and spiced with flavors from around the world. The fact that this area is so rich in history, has unique geographic attributes, and is filled with organically changing cultural and religious aspects make it a prized and tumultuous part of the world. Despite all the attention this area receives, little is known of its delightful cuisines.
Like other large regions of the world, to give a quick introduction to Middle Eastern cuisine would be as realistically impossible as attempting a brief overview of the cuisine of Europe. Many dishes can be found throughout the area, but every country, and in some cases every local region, has its own specific preparation method, so that dishes which may sound generic will have a completely different flavor and way of being eaten depending on location. And, as is the case in many parts of the world, there is a multitude of traditionally gluten-free dishes, largely unexplored by North Americans. Here we’ll introduce Middle Eastern cuisine through the lens of Israel and Iran, two countries that have seen tremendous historical movements, which have time and time again influenced the cuisine of the land.
A land of great empires, rich history, and aromatic cuisine. Over the ages, the region known as Iran has been invaded and altered by the occupation of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Turks. Keeping in mind that currently the largest ethnic group in Iran are the Persian, the food discussed in this article will be referred to as Persian cuisine.
In Iran, menus are often planned with the idea of balancing foods with “hot” (meats, sweets and nuts) and “cold” (yogurt, vegetables, fish) properties with each other, and adjustments are made for health purposes. This thought process was adapted from the ancient Greek principles of health and science, and the importance of balance. The abundant use of fresh herbs in Persian meals may come as a surprise after considering just how flavorful Persian dishes are on their own. Yet, at nearly every meal a plate full of fresh herbs is included. Many Persian dishes also have a distinct sour flavor that stems from their use of citrus, sumac, and pomegranate.
There are an ample number of gluten-free Persian dishes. Some of these are Khoresht Fesenjan (a walnut and pomegranate stew served over rice), Baghali Polo (rice with dill and fava beans), Zereshk Polow (barberry, chicken and rice dish; the barberries may be substituted with unsweetened cranberries www.chowhound.com/recipes/barberry-rice-zereshk-polow-11068), Sabzi Khordan (a fresh herb and cheese plate, which often includes radishes and walnuts), and Naan Berenji (rice cookies eaten around the Persian New Year).
As a country, Iran takes the art of cooking rice to a whole new level. To begin with, choosing the type of rice is of utmost importance. A good rice to use if cooking Persian foods in the U.S. is basmati rice. Options vary from simple steamed forms, to parboiled then steamed, to rice cakes, to fried. Rice is considered an integral part of many of the common entrees eaten in the country. And rice is generally not cooked plain, but can be flavored with simple herbs, infused with spices, nuts and berries, or cooked with saffron and topped with butter.
A beloved dish, which is now considered the national dish of Iran, is the Chelow Kebab. Chelow is the name for a style of fluffy steamed saffron flavored rice with a crispy golden crust called Tahdig, a prized favorite treat for children and parents alike. While the idea of kebabs is rather well known, the kebabs in this dish are usually made out of lamb and can either be fillets or lamb that has been ground and formed into the proper shape on the skewers. Here is one recipe for the traditional Chelow Kebab. When served, the rice is usually brought out first, then the kebabs are slid off the skewers onto the rice.
In terms of variety, the land that is now called Israel is high on the list. For a country smaller than Lake Michigan, it manages to include teeming modern cities, multiple types of desert, fertile Mediterranean coastal plains, farmlands, mountains, and fresh water shorelines, all within an hour or two of each other. Israel is a melting pot of cuisines and cultural traditions from the Middle East and around the world. With influences from all over the world and innovative chefs bursting with new creations, the food of Israel is always changing.
In day to day life, chicken, dairy products, fruits, and nuts are commonly eaten. Popular fare include Shakshuka (stewed tomato and egg dish toriavey.com/toris-kitchen/shakshuka/ ), Falafel (delicious chickpea dumplings often, but not always, made with gluten-free ingredients toriavey.com/toris-kitchen/falafel/), Hamutzim (a type of quick pickled vegetables often served as a meal accompaniment bamitbach.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/rosies-pickled-vegetables-hamutzim/ ), Zibdiyit Gambari (translated to shrimp in a clay pot, a stew of Palestinian origin made with earthy spices), Za’atar (a spice mix used in cooking, baking, and on salads usually containing thyme, oregano, marjoram, sumac, toasted sesame, and salt. It has reportedly been used by ancient pharaohs and as a medicine by Hippocrates), and Malabi (a rose flavored pudding, like a Middle Eastern Panna Cotta).
One of the best known but overlooked classics is hummus. At the mention of hummus, most of us will picture a cold dip from a grocery shelf that is eaten by dipping in a carrot or stick of celery. While it is true that this is one healthy way to eat it, in Israel, this way is usually reserved for left over, cooled hummus. In Israel, hummus is traditionally eaten either warm or at room temperature. The true origins of hummus are unclear, and it cannot be attributed to any single culture; it is a dish that has been made in the Middle Eastern region since ancient times.
In Israel, a dollop or two of hummus is often added to other dishes such as shakshuka. It can also be considered the main course in a simple meal, where it is served warm on a large plate, with a drizzle of olive oil, a slice of lemon and a flatbread for lunch. (Gluten-free flatbreads are now available, or can be made at home.) Hummus can easily be found at the grocery store, but it tastes the best when made fresh. While traditionally made using dried chickpeas, for a more convenient approach, here is a recipe that uses canned chickpeas: www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/hummus-23783. And as a bonus, hummus is very forgiving, can easily have its ingredients altered, and can be served hot, at room temperature, or cold.
For those interested in new foods which are spiced with artfully chosen flavors that are generally mild in terms of heat, exploring the cuisines of Iran and Israel is a fun and interesting way to add delicious variety to your gluten-free diet. Enjoy the beginnings of the journey into the world of Middle Eastern delicacies.