Must-Try Middle Eastern Recipes

The Middle East is a region spread across a vast area of land and includes a diverse array of people, language, religions and foods. Not everyone can agree on which countries are part of the Middle East, but we decided to take an inclusive approach here to bring you a variety of recipes that feature different types of ingredients, flavors and techniques. From staples like pita bread and popular snacks like falafel to succulent kebabs and delicate Persian cookies, we bring you some of our best Middle Eastern recipes from the Levant, Turkey, Iran and even Afghanistan.

July 27, 2021
By: Carlos Olaechea

Photo By: Zahra Siadat

Photo By: Zahra Siadat

Photo By: Caitlin Ochs

Photo By: Zahra Siadat

Photo By: Matt

Photo By: Zahra Siadat

Photo By: Zahra Siadat

Photo By: Zahra Siadat

Photo By: Zahra Siadat

Photo By: Zahra Siadat

Photo By: Zahra Siadat

Photo By: Matt

Photo By: Zahra Siadat

Photo By: Teri Lyn Fisher

Photo By: Felicia Perretti

Photo By: Zahra Siadat

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Photo By: Zahra Siadat

Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Photo By: Zahra Siadat

Photo By: Zahra Siadat

Photo By: Matt Armendariz

Ramazan Pidesi

There is a whole lot more to Middle Eastern breads than just pita. Case in point: these fluffy, golden-brown Turkish pide that are a favorite for breaking fasts during the holy month of Ramadan. They get a but of crunch and savory little explosions of flavor from nigella seeds, which have a faintly onion-like aroma.

Get the Recipe: Ramazan Pidesi

Izmir Koftesi

This Turkish dish comes from the Mediterranean town of Izmir, which is a popular tourist destination for Turks and foreigners, alike. It's basically a dish of baked meatballs with potatoes in a flavorful tomato sauce. However, the real magic of this dish lies in its seasonings, which include fruity Aleppo chili flakes and nutty ground cumin.

Get the Recipe: Izmir Koftesi

The Best Hummus

Hummus is perhaps one of the most famous dishes from the Middle East, and there are as many ways of making it as there are countries in this region of the world. This version has a bright lemon flavor and a hint of nuttiness from ground cumin.

Get the Recipe: The Best Hummus

Fattoush

This salad is very popular in the Levant, the region of the Middle East comprising of Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Jordan. It's a fresh green salad that gets an extra crunchy hit from little diamonds of toasted pita bread.

Get the Recipe: Fattoush

Grilled Pita

Pita is a staple food throughout the Middle East and is often even the utensil you use to scoop up swirls of hummus, creamy baba ganoush or cubes of tangy sheep's milk cheeses. It's also surprisingly easy to make at home. With this recipe, you can say goodbye to stale store-bought pita and treat your household to fresh flat breads.

Get the Recipe: Grilled Pita

Saffron Lemon Branzino

Branzino is a species of fish that is wildly popular throughout the Mediterranean, including the Middle East. In this Persian recipe, it gets stuffed with a mixture of walnuts and herbs and seasoned with saffron and lemon. The oh-so-Persian combinatoin of ingredients turns a simple fish dish into a feast fit for royalty.

Get the Recipe: Saffron Lemon Branzino

Zoolbia and Bamieh

These Iranian confections are pure bliss for anyone with a sweet tooth. They both typically feature on the same plate, and while the preparation is similar — they're both fried — the ingredients are different. Zoolbia are made with conrstarch and yogurt while bamieh are made with a buttery wheat flour dough. Both are soaked in a saffron-scented syrup.

Get the Recipe: Zoolbia and Bamieh

Yogurt-Marinated Grilled Chicken Shawarma

Shawarma is more than just a food — it's a whole approach to cooking! Originating in the Ottoman Empire in modern-day Turkey, it consists of stacking slices of marinated meat on a vertical spit that slowly rotates next to a heat source. This style of cooking renders moist, flavorful meat that is thinly sliced off the spit. It's also the inspiration for Greek gyros and Mexican tacos al pastor.

Get the Recipe: Yogurt-Marinated Grilled Chicken Shawarma

Zeytoon Parvardeh

Olives are a mainstay throughout the Middle East, and each country has its own way of enjoying them. This Persian preparation enhances the flavor of the olives with a medley of mint, cilantro and sweet-tart pomegranate molasses. Raw garlic provides some sharpness, while ground walnuts give the dish a creamy richness.

Get the Recipe: Zeytoon Parvardeh

Sabzi Khordan

If you're tired of Greek salads but still love that combination of fresh veggies and feta cheese, this may become your new favorite dish. It's more of an appetizer platter from which you take small bits of herbs and cheese rather than a typical salad. Mint, basil and other herbs form the backbone of this dish, while radishes, scallions and walnuts give some variety. A sprinkle of caraway seeds on the feta cheese (which isn't exclusively Greek), gives this whole dish a unique aroma.

Get the Recipe: Sabzi Khordan

Nan-e Barbari

Nothing beats fresh-out-of-the-oven barbari. This classic Persian flatbread is common all over Iran and a staple on the breakfast table, usually served with cheese, herbs, walnuts or jam and honey. It’s a bit crispy on the outside and so fluffy on the inside. The bread's special flavor comes from the baking soda and flour glaze that's brushed on before baking. In Persian bakeries, the bread is traditionally formed into a long oval loaf and cooked in a wood-fired oven. The home baker can make a smaller oval to fit in a standard oven.

Get the Recipe: Nan-e Barbari

Soup-e Shir

If you think oatmeal is just for breakfast or that it needs to be sweetened, then this soup will blow your mind. It's basically a creamy oatmeal soup with chicken. It has all the goodness of a chicken noodle soup but with oats instead of noodles and a bright kick of lemon juice. You will never see oats the same way again!

Get the Recipe: Soup-e Shir

Ranginak

This Iranian sweet is fairly easy to prepare. Plump dates get stuffed with walnuts and the little mouthfuls get drenched in a toasted roux that turns into a sort of glaze. It is a sophiscated symphony of textures that is sure to be a favorite.

Get the Recipe: Ranginak

Grilled Baba Ganoush

Baba Ganoush is a hugely popular Middle Eastern dip that forms part of the mezze spread — an orchestra of small dishes that you savor leisurely over drinks and great conversation. Grilled eggplant gets blended up with a combination of sesame paste and seasonings to form this creamy delicacy.

Get the Recipe: Grilled Baba Ganoush

Steak Shawarma Pita

If you want to have a taste of what contemporary Israeli food is like, look no further than a pita sandwich. While it may sound similar to what other Middle Eastern countries may have, the way it's done in Israel is entirely unique and uniquely flamboyant. The pita used is soft and fluffy, almost like naan. And besides the shawarma (or falafel) fillings, they get stuffed with a nearly endless roster of salads, spreads and sauces that represent almost everywhere the Jewish Diaspora has settled. What really makes this shawarma pita is the zhoug, a fiery green hot sauce that originated in Yemen. You won't find anything like this anywhere else in the Middle East.

Get the Recipe: Steak Shawarma Pita

Ash Reshteh

Few things are as comforting as a bowl of noodle soup, and few noodle soups are as boldly flavored as this Persian classic. Traditionally consumed on Persian New Year (typically around the first day of Spring), this soup features wide noodles along with chickpeas, lentils and a myriad of aromatic herbs. It gets topped with kashk, a type of cooked down yogurt that gives this soup a hit of bright acidity.

Get the Recipe: Ash Reshteh

Falafel

Falafel are one of the most globally recognized foods of the Middle East, and many countries claim these crispy chickpea fritters as their own. Regional variations abound, and people have their particular favorite kinds. Some like theirs fluffy, while some like theirs pasty. Others go crazy for a grittier falafel. This recipe meets at the middle point and offers a sort of pan-Middle Eastern take on this favorite dish.

Get the Recipe: Falafel

Cheese Manakeesh

Manakeesh are a beloved dish in their native Lebanon. These little flatbreads can be topped with all manner of toppings from a simple sprinkle of za'atar to ground beef. These cheesy manakeesh are topped with a local cheese called akawi, which is very similar in texture and flavor to full-fat mozzarella. A sprinkle of chopped mint leaves balances out the richness.

Get the Recipe: Cheese Manakeesh

Fattet Battenjen

This is a beloved dish in Lebabon that fetures layers of fried eggplant, toasted pita, chickpeas and a whole lot of other goodies. The whole concoction gets smothered in a cool yogurt tahini sauce before getting sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts and mint.

Get the Recipe: Fattet Battenjen

Ajil

Although the Middle East is a vastly diverse region that features a wide variety of cooking styles, certain themes that are common throughout the region. One of them is an appreciation for the natural flavors of quality ingredients. Ajil is a perfect example of this ethos, combining a medley of nuts and dried fruits to create a luxurious Persian-style trail mix.

Get the Recipe: Ajil

Kofta Chalao

Not everyone can agree on which countries exactly comprise the Middle East, but we believe that there is always room at the table, so when we saw that many experts consider Afghanistan to be part of this region, we knew we had to include this dish. Afghan cuisine lies somewhere between the delicate opulence of Persian cuisine and the assertive spiciness of Pakistani cuisine. This is a beautiful dish of judiciously spiced meatballs in a rich tomato sauce flecked with yellow split peas and dried plums, which give the sauce tartness.

Get the Recipe: Kofta Chalao

Quinoa, Peas and Mint Tabbouleh

Modern-day Israel is a fairly recent addition to the countries of the Middle East. As such, its cuisine is fairly new and still evolving. It takes influences from the Palestinean cuisine that existed in the area, as well as dishes from throughout the Jewish Diaspora. The result is an exciting fusion of many different flavors and techniques, and Israeli chefs are almost constantly experimenting. This quinoa tabbouleh is a perfect example, utilizing a South American pseudograin in place of the more traditional bulgur wheat.

Get the Recipe: Quinoa, Peas, and Mint Tabbouleh

Nan-e Berenji

These cookies are a favorite among the many treats enjoyed during Persian New Year. Besides having a delicate texture and beautiful perfume from rosewater and cardamom, they are entirely gluten free!

Get the Recipe: Nan-e Berenji

Ghormeh Sabzi

This herbaceous Persian stew manages to be hearty, tasty, light and healthy all at once. Beef, kidney beans and a bouquet of herbs and leafy greens are slowly braised together with dried limes to make for a bright, almost refreshing stew that is also richly satisfying.

Get the Recipe: Ghormeh Sabzi

Kashk

Kashk is a type of fermented dairy product that gets cooked down until thick and very sour. It's an important ingredient in Iranian cooking, as well as in the cuisines of countries like Turkey, Azerbaijain and Turkmenistan where it goes by various names. This recipe is a simple, modern hack for making kashk at home that foregoes that more traditional, sometimes days-long process.

Get the Recipe: Kashk

Lamb Rakka

This is not exactly a traditional dish but rather inspired by traditional Middle Eastern cooking styles and seasonings. Lamb is a very popular choice of protein throughout the Middle East, and its sometimes gamey flavor is best complimented by an assertive blend of aromatic spices, like the ones in this stew. Cardamom, cinnamon and saffron give this stew a heady perfume!

Get the Recipe: Lamb Rakka

Ma’amoul

These dried fruit-filled semolina cookies are a staple for both Eid and Easter in the Levantine region. The filling can vary from dates to figs, and nuts like pistachios, walnuts or almonds are also used. The buttery crust contains semolina, which makes it delightfully crumbly in your mouth. Traditional ma’amoul recipes call for resting the semolina and ghee dough for one to two days in the refrigerator before mixing in a small amount of yeast. This recipe skips the chilling and uses baking powder instead, so the cookies are ready to enjoy within about an hour.

Get the Recipe: Ma’amoul

Homemade Tahini

Making your own tahini, a staple in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines, is so simple you'll find it hard to go back. You need only two ingredients and a handful of minutes to produce a fresh, nutty tahini that will enhance everything from hummus and baba ghanoush to salad dressings and even desserts. You can make tahini with various kinds of oil, such as grapeseed, sesame and canola. We use one of the more popular picks — vegetable oil — and add just enough to yield a smooth but not runny tahini.

Get the Recipe: Homemade Tahini

Bamya

Okra stew is a classic Middle Eastern dish made mainly with okra and tomatoes and sometimes lamb, as in this version. It’s very flavorful, thanks to cilantro, seven spice and lemon. To keep the okra from becoming slimy, I opt to cook them whole, with the tops intact. Using frozen small okra also helps; you can find them (and Lebanese seven spice) in many supermarkets and/or Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food shops, or buy the smallest fresh okra you can find. Serve the stew with plain white rice or vermicelli rice noodles, according to tradition.

Get the Recipe: Bamya

Baharat

Lebanese seven spice blend, also known as baharat ("spices" in Arabic), is a classic Middle Eastern blend made with warm spices, including allspice, cumin, cloves and coriander. Different regions within Lebanon have their own recipes and ratios, with some using other spices such as white pepper, fenugreek and/or paprika. Seven spice is what lends distinctive flavor to regional dishes, notably kebabs, koftas and dolmas. You can also use it to flavor meat, vegetables and rice.

Get the Recipe: Baharat

Iranian Yellow Rice with Saffron

This sunny-hued rice gets its color from saffron. Saffron is an expensive spice, but when used properly, a little goes a long way. It lends a unique bright flavor and sweet earthy aroma. Topped with fried onions and raisins, this simple and fast side dish has a distinct Middle Eastern flair and pairs well with stews and kabobs.

Get the Recipe: Iranian Yellow Rice with Saffron

Seven-Spice Unstuffed Peppers

This Middle Eastern-inspired unstuffed peppers bowl makes a satisfying meal that includes protein, carbohydrates and vegetables. It has all the comforting flavors of the stuffed version but is much quicker to make--and clean up!

Get the Recipe: Seven-Spice Unstuffed Peppers

Grilled Kofta Kebabs

Kofta is a classic dish found throughout the Middle East, Mediterranean, Balkans and Southeast Asia. The word kofta comes from the Persian word koofteh, which means pounded meat. Kofta is typically made with ground meat such as lamb, beef or even chicken (although there are vegetarian and fish versions too), which is mixed with herbs and spices and shaped into balls or cylinders. I make my kofta using a combination of lamb and beef with warm spices such as cinnamon and allspice, then skewer and grill them for a nice smoky flavor.

Get the Recipe: Grilled Kofta Kebabs

Reshteh Polo

Reshteh polo is a classic Iranian rice dish that’s common for Nowruz (Persian New Year). It’s traditionally made with reshteh polo, which translates to “noodles for rice.” Since this type of noodle is challenging to find outside of Iran, I’ve developed this recipe using vermicelli which, when toasted, closely resembles the Persian noodles. This dish is usually served with saffron chicken for the New Year.

Get the Recipe: Reshteh Polo

Morgh Zaferani

Persian saffron chicken is a classic dish often enjoyed with white rice, herbed rice or reshteh polo (Persian rice and noodles). The chicken is cooked on the stovetop with a mixture of saffron and onions until tender and fragrant. I love using whole chicken legs for this recipe because they are very flavorful and juicy, but you can always sub in chicken breasts if you prefer.

Get the Recipe: Morgh Zaferani

Shirini Gerdooyi

Ground walnuts are one of only four ingredients in these quick and easy Persian walnut cookies, which are popular sweets for celebrating Nowruz. The cookies are deliciously chewy on the inside and a bit crispy around the edges. Since they keep well for over a week, they're perfect for making ahead of time.

Get the Recipe: Shirini Gerdooyi

Keyk Sharbat Zaferan

Saffron syrup cake is a special cake with so much flavor. A light sponge is soaked in a syrup infused with saffron, rosewater and cardamom, resulting in a delightfully fragrant confection. The slices are beautiful served as is, but topping them with coconut, pistachio and rose petals makes for a stunning presentation. Make sure both the cake and syrup are cooled completely before combining them.

Get the Recipe: Keyk Sharbat Zaferan

Majoon

This classic Persian banana and date shake can be found virtually anywhere in Iran. Every majoon shop has its own twist on how to prepare it, but the naturally sweetened base is usually dates, bananas and milk. Sometimes desiccated coconut, nuts or even a scoop of ice cream are added, and it's usually topped with even more nuts and coconut. Iranians often order it to-go, as it’s a tasty, natural alternative to energy drinks.

Get the Recipe: Majoon

Date Cookies

These date cookies with a base of oatmeal are perfectly sweet and delicious. The addition of walnuts gives them a nice crunch and the hint of cinnamon complements the flavor of the dates. You can make the dough ahead of time and bake the cookies later if you prefer. This recipe produces cookies that are crispy on the edges and soft and chewy on the inside--a winning combination.

Get the Recipe: Date Cookies

Shole Zard

Shole zard, also known as Persian saffron rice pudding, is unlike any other rice pudding you’ve tasted. The main flavor of the dish comes from saffron, which is complemented by subtle notes of rosewater and cardamom. Shole refers to the pudding-like texture and zard means yellow in Farsi. The dessert is served on many occasions, including the month of Ramadan for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast.

Get the Recipe: Shole Zard

Sütlaç

The difference between Turkish rice pudding and other rice puddings is that sütlaç is baked in the oven, which gives it a delicious caramelized topping. Milk based desserts are very popular in Turkey and sütlaç is a classic. Though it is common to make the sweet at home, it can also be found at almost every Turkish restaurant and muhallebici (milk-based dessert shop). Sütlaç is even tastier the next day once it's completely chilled. Some cooks garnish it with hazelnuts, though I prefer pistachios.

Get the Recipe: Sütlaç

Karniyarik

Karniyarik, meaning “split belly” in Turkish, is a classic stuffed eggplant dish that’s full of flavor. The eggplant is first fried, then stuffed with a delicious meat and vegetable filling and baked in a tomato sauce. This dish is usually served on its own or with some white rice on the side. The classic recipe calls for frying whole eggplants in oil, but I roast them in the oven for a more hands-off version.

Get the Recipe: Karniyarik

Qatayef

Qatayef are classic Middle Eastern sweet dumplings that are a staple for the holy month of Ramadan. Families around the world make these sweet treats every year and enjoy them with different fillings. There are two types of qatayef: regular and qatayef asafiri. The regular qatayef are filled with nuts or sweet cheese, then fried and soaked in syrup. Qatayef asafiri are filled with cream, topped with pistachios and drizzled with syrup. This recipe is for regular qatayef, with both a walnut filling and a sweet cheese one.

Get the Recipe: Qatayef

Ka’ak el Eid

Ka’ak el Eid is a Middle Eastern holiday cookie that’s enjoyed at Eid el Fitr celebrations marking the end of the month of Ramadan. The key ingredient is the iconic ka’ak spice blend of ground anise, fennel, mahlab and nutmeg. There are many variations of the recipe, and this featured version from Lebanon has a crisp texture on the outside with a soft crumbly texture on the inside that’s perfect with a cup of tea or coffee.

Get the Recipe: Ka’ak el Eid