Embrace the Middle East
Spices coming from the Middle East find their way into menus
“They have an exotic quality that immediately makes your food seem more interesting. There’s a novelty to it. It’s fresh, exciting and brings new flavors to your cooking.”
- Andrew Zimmerman
Every chef’s arsenal naturally contains salt and pepper. Garlic and olive oil regularly get put into the recipe rotation. As you continue to cook and explore, new flavors make their way into your roster. After awhile, oftentimes to avoid getting bored or falling into a rut, you start discovering new tastes to spice things up. You look beyond the familiar and start experimenting with flavors from other cultures and lately many chefs have started to play around with spices and seasonings from the Middle East.
Whether the large number of immigrants moving to the United States from the Middle East over the last few years has encouraged the trend or if it’s been pushed along by prominent chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi in London, Michael Solomonov in Philadelphia or Alon Shaya in New Orleans is up for debate. Regardless of how or where it got started, there’s no denying just how wonderfully the exotic tastes and aromatic scents of spices like cumin, coriander, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, sumac, mint, caraway, za’atar, Ras el Hanout and so many others can make your food sing. And the beautiful thing is that many of these work with lamb, chicken, beef, seafood and a variety of vegetables.
“Like other spices you’re not accustomed to, they immediately become exciting and interesting,” said Andrew Zimmerman, executive chef and partner of Proxi and the Michelin-starred Sepia in Chicago. “They have an exotic quality that immediately makes your food seem more interesting. There’s a novelty to it. It’s fresh, exciting and brings new flavors to your cooking.”
Zimmerman has long cooked with Middle Eastern and North African ingredients like harissa, which combines smoked, hot chiles with olive oil, garlic, cumin, cardmom and more, and zhoug, a Yemeni spicy green chile and herb sauce that also uses cardamom and cumin, but also garlic and sometimes caraway seed. At Proxi, he uses tahini, a popular Middle East sesame seed paste that’s often used in making hummus. He adds a drizzle on top of an eggplant dish, where he roasts the eggplant over hot coals then dresses it with vinaigrette made from pomegranate molasses and adds fresh pomegranate seeds. He also loves using sumac to add a sour element to dishes.
“Sumac is a good way to bring a sour, tart flavor to things instead of relying on lemon,” Zimmerman said. “If you look at standard Western cooking, the go-to is lemon or vinegar and sumac provides that same souring quality without having to add liquid.”
Another way these flavors make their way into recipes is through Middle Eastern immigrants or first-generation children working in kitchens who introduce their favorite ingredients in new recipes or even during family meal, according to Julia Sullivan, chef/owner of Nashville’s Henrietta Red.
“The most wonderful thing about working in restaurant kitchens is you have this cross-section of cultures and socio-economics — there’s a cross-cultural pollination,” Sullivan said. “People are bringing these traditions into kitchens. They come to this country and crave those ingredients so they import them and now they are more readily available to cooks here.”
So don’t be surprised to start seeing more Middle Eastern flavors pop up on menus across the country. Are they in yours yet?