THE ART OF ARMENIAN & MIDDLE EASTERN COOKING
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DEAR FANS, MEMBERS AND FRIENDS,
If there’s one thing that unites Armenians and Middle Easterners, it’s a love for flavoursome spice-laden food eaten at a leisurely pace, ideally in the company of family and friends.
Comprised of countries including Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Armenia, Iran , Lebanon , Palestine, Israel and Jordan, the Middle East is home to diverse cultures, religions and customs and is brimming with contrasts and paradoxes. Yet all complexities disappear when it comes to the region’s cuisine, which is very similar across the Middle East’s many disparate lands. With a strong emphasis on vegetables, legumes and cereals, the Armenian and Middle Eastern diet is one of the healthiest in the world. Wherever your culinary interests take you in this gastronomically-rich region, you’ll find that a few key staples constitute the typical Armenian and Middle Eastern diet.
Vegetables and Legumes
Vegetables, legumes and beans are the main feature of the average Armenian and Middle Easterner’s diet. Chickpeas and lentils are used heavily in soups, salads and rice dishes. The chickpea is also the main ingredient in falafel and hummus, both of which are now part of the average North American’s culinary lexicon. Fava beans are favoured in Iraq and Iran , where they are eaten green and dried, and in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan, the dried fava bean is the main attraction of a popular dish called “foul mudammas,” in which the beans are boiled, mashed and seasoned with oil, lemon and chili.
Among vegetables, eggplant, tomatoes, spinach and cabbage are used in a variety of dishes. The versatile eggplant is the main feature of the popular appetizer baba ghannoush.
One of the more distinctive vegetables found in the region’s cuisine is okra, which is used as a main ingredient in stews.
Herbs and Spices
Aromatic herbs and spices lend Armenian and Middle Eastern dishes their distinctive flavouring, and are a crucial part of the region’s cookery. Staples include cumin, coriander, parsley and mint. Zahtar is also very popular – it’s a mixture of thyme and sumac and is slathered atop bread, typically with a dollop of olive oil. In Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel, a spice mixture called baharat is used to add flavour to fish, chicken, beef and soups. Baharat combines cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cloves and black pepper.
Cereals and Breads
Cereals have historically formed the cornerstone of the Armenian and Middle Eastern diet and that’s still very much the case today. Rice accompanies most meals, as does bread. Pita bread is common throughout the region and a traditional Armenian flatbread called lavash is popular in Armenia, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. Bulghur – wheat that has been boiled, dried and ground – is a staple used in a variety of dishes, including pilafs and the meat pie kubbeh, a popular torpedo-shaped appetizer. The tiny pasta balls called couscous, made from rolled and dried semolina, are popular in North Africa while a larger variation is found in the Middle East.
The Western world has the Armenian and Middle East to thank for kebabs (Armenian `khorovads`), which are firmly entrenched within the North American culinary consciousness. This form of grilled meat is a hallmark of Armenian and Middle Eastern cuisine, with cubed meat served on skewers (known as shish kebabin the Middle East) being particularly popular. Shawarma is another favourite, consisting of layers of meat and fat wrapped around a large rotating skewer which is placed near a heat source, rendering the outside layer crisp. Pieces are then sloughed off and served on their own or in a sandwich. Lamb and mutton are the preferred meats, with beef having been historically considered inferior.
Phyllo dough is used in many Armenian and Middle Eastern desserts. The most notable being the ubiquitous baklava made from layers of phyllo dough, chopped nuts (typically walnuts or pistachios) and a generous amount of sugar or honey. While semolina is generally associated with couscous, it is also used in Armenian and Middle Eastern desserts such as basbousa, a cake drenched in sweet syrup, and halva, a confection with many regional variations. A piece of baklava, basbousa or other sweet dessert paired with a cup of strong Armenian or Arabic coffee is considered the perfect way to cap off an Armenian or a Middle Eastern meal.