Key Ingredients of Middle Eastern Cuisine


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Nuts & Seeds

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Grains, Pulses & Starches

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Moghrabieh is sometimes commonly referred to as giant couscous or pearl couscous. Moghrabieh is a form of rolled semolina, like couscous, but it is much larger. The word moghrabieh in Arabic means “from the countries of Morroco, Tunisia & Algeria” and and refers to both the dish and the dry, round pasta-like pellets (about the size of a chickpea) rolled from semolina, which most likely came to Syria, Palestine and Lebanon with the help of North African pilgrims, most likely en route to Mecca. In North Africa the grain is called berkoukes and it is believed that it later coined its current name making reference to its place of origin. These grains cook unevenly as they are rolled into inconsistently sized balls. These starchy pasta balls swell and become soft and chewy when cooked and are fantastic at absorbing the flavors of the dish they are cooked in.


There are several varieties of this ‘couscous’ within the Levantine territories which help to confuse the matter; the earthy Palestinian maftoul is not exactly the same thing as it is rolled from wheat and differs in size, color and shape  and widely-marketed Israeli couscous, ptitim, comes in smaller sizes. If you’re unable to find moghrabieh, then fregola may be substituted. I prefer to steam the moghrabieh which helps to keep the grains distinct.


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Bulgur, is a cereal food made from different wheat species, usually durum wheat. It is sold parboiled, dried and partially de-branned. It is available in 4 grinds or sizes: fine (#1), Medium (#2), Coarse (#3), Extra Coarse (#4). The burghul you see labeled in most chain supermarkets in UK as fine is in fact more medium coarse and so if the grade is very important it’s best to source your bulgur from a Middle Eastern/Ethnic grocer which usually carry an assortment of grades and brands. Bulgur is considered more nutritious than white rice and couscous because of its high fiber, vitamin and mineral content. It is one of the ingredients used in tabouleh (sparingly), pxx and kebbeh, pxx. The coarser varieties are preferred in stuffings and pilafs.

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Kishk is a fine, powdery cereal that is a mixture of bulgur wheat that has been fermented, usually with yogurt. It is the food of antiquity and a part of the Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian mouneh (pantry) and a valuable winter diet staple, especially of the isolated village or mountain folk. Kishk is usually prepared in the middle of September when the cow or goat milk starts getting richer in fat, and after the wheat crop is harvested in June/July. It is also important to note that weather must still be sunny. The process takes about nine days and each morning the mixture is kneaded. Once fermentation is complete, the mixture is spread onto clean cloths and laid out on rooftops to sundry. It is finally rubbed between the hands till it is reduced to a powder and back again into the sunlight to remove any humidity that might have stayed in during the rubbing process. It is then put into pure white cotton bags as my grandmother used to do or airtight containers and stored in a dry place. To many people it is a treasured acquired taste, with its musky, cheese-like, soured tones. Kishk can be found only at some Middle Eastern grocers.

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Freekeh is an ancient grain and cereal food made from green wheat native to many parts of the Middle East and North Africa. The wheat is harvested young when it is still full of moisture; it is then sun-dried before being burned or roasted over an open fire for several minutes. Once cool it is then rubbed to separate it from the chaff. It’s name is derived from the Arabic root “Al Fark” or to rub.

According to Nachit (2007) & Slow Food Beirut, freekeh originated around 2300 BC, when the attackers of a Mediterranean village set its green wheat fields on fire before retreating. To salvage what they could, the inhabitants rubbed away the burnt layer and found that the grain had ripened due to the heat and that it had retained a greenish hue. This discovery led to the later production of freekeh.

Freekeh is an outstanding grain and a nutritional powerhouse. It has a nutty undertone and a smoky aroma. It is high in fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals and although not yet proven, some believe it to be suitable for gluten-free diets as the gluten is denatured due to the high temperature burning process.

Freekeh can be purchased cracked and whole and depending on the brand might require careful cleaning to rid it of any stones. Freekeh has a wonderful smokey, earthy tones, and so some brands are preferable for certain dishes that require more subtle flavours. Green wheat freekeh and Freekelicious are two major distributors which offer a freekeh product without the smokiness or need for cleaning, making it a suitable option, too. See freekeh with lamb, pxx.


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Couscous  Instant or precooked couscous is more readily available in the UK and, yes, more convenient, as it’s only a matter of rehydrating it in boiled or simmering water, although it does not render the same ethereal texture. If you’ve gone through most of the trouble or pleasure of cooking a stew, then, might as well, steam the couscous. Unfortunately, instant couscous cannot be steamed as the long cooking time will render it to mush. You can find non-instant couscous at most Middle Eastern grocers which cannot be rehydrated like instant couscous and requires some moisture and steaming to cook. The Moroccan way of preparing couscous, tiny hand-rolled semolina pellets, is to steam it on and off several times. A couscoussiere is the traditional vessel used, which houses the necessary mesh-steamer inside a pot in which a flavorful broth or stew is simmered. France is awash with couscoussieres although I’ve only managed to find a couple on Amazon here in the UK. A very suitable alternative though is to use a regular steamer and line the steamer basket or colander with a muslin cloth or tea towel. Couscous is traditionally served alongside a tagine or stew.


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Tahini is a paste of ground sesame seeds that is one of the main ingredients used in hummus, pxx, mtabbal, pxx and other Middle Eastern dishes. It can be made into a sauce (tarator, pxx) by thinning it down with water and flavoring it with lemon juice, salt and garlic. It is a popular condiment as seen in the falefel sandwich, pxx or to create the very delicious kafta b’ tahini, pxx and lamb shawarma.

For more info on freekeh click here.

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For more info on Arabic bread click here.

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Syrups, Vinegars & Distilled Waters

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Liqueurs & Spirits

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Always have in the fridge

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