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Building a Middle Eastern Kitchen: The Essentials

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 9.52.04 PM

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 9.52.04 PM

I’m often asked where to get started when delving into Middle Eastern cooking, so I’ve put together a list of essential items in a new series called The Middle Eastern Kitchen. Most of these items can be picked up on sale, or second hand, so you can focus funds on the most important part: the food!

1. Tagine or a good stew pot in general. Rich, braised stews are a prized part of Middle Eastern cuisine. Look for heavy-bottomed pots with tight-fitting lids. Cast iron is great, and can often be found on sale online. If you’re buying a tagine, just make sure it’s fit for cooking and serving, as some of them are purely decorative.

2. Multipurpose baking/roasting pans, for everything from roast lamb to baklava. Try a rectangular baking tin for sweet dishes like syrupy semolina pie, and oval dishes for casseroles and roasts, for a bit of variety. Ceramic and metal are both great.

3. Food processor. Some may say this is a luxury item, but for me it’s a necessity. Hummus would never happen without it! Most food processors also come with blade attachments, which makes slicing large quantities of vegetables a breeze. I also use the processor to mix bread dough and quickly pulse herbs for marinades and rubs.

4. Cookbooks. I should probably be telling you to only ever come to this blog for Middle Eastern inspiration! But it would be unjust not to mention the chefs and writers that I find most inspiring: Anissa Helou, Claudia Roden, the Ottolenghi & Tamimi duo, and Greg & Lucy Malouf. There are many more, but these writers are the gold standard.

5. Ibrik (Turkish coffee pot). Strong, cardamom-laced coffee was a staple in our home growing up. My uncle Suhayl brewed a pot at each family get-together, taking our individual sugar orders (1 for me, 2 for others, 3 sneaky spoons for those who shall not be named). Turkish coffee can only be properly brewed in the ibrik – learn how to do that here. I have a large one that makes six (small) cups of coffee, and multipurpose it to boil eggs, too. You can pick these up for $5 at Middle Eastern stores.

6. Metal skewers, for shish kebab! And, of course, myriad other kebabs of the Persian variety. Try experimenting with cubes of fish and vegetables, as well. No need for an outdoor barbecue – grill pans and ovens work beautifully.

7. Fresh herbs and spices. Eating Middle Eastern food is a sensual experience that draws on layers of flavors from herbs and aromatics. Fresh mint is a great place to start. Brew it into tea with hot water and honey or a cinnamon stick. Or, if you’re feeling fancy, tuck it into a grilled halloumi and pita sandwich. Buy it pre-cut from the supermarket, or pick up a mint seedling from your hardware store and place it in your windowsill or garden. Mint is a prolific grower and with a little TLC, it’ll keep giving back.

I hope that helps get you started. What do you think – have some of these items already? Any more you’d like to add?

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  • Reply Leah M 26/05/2014 at 4:21 am

    This is a fantastic list. I am half Syrian and half Lebanese and would add to this list a mortar and pestle. Garlic smashed in the mortar and pestle with salt in raw preparations is so much better than minced and used in cooking will not burn.

  • Reply DZWife 07/05/2014 at 2:47 am

    How can you tell if a tagine is suitable for cooking?

  • Reply Heidi Apples 28/04/2014 at 9:30 am

    I NEED numbers 1 & 5. Now. I have been craving a chicken tagine like you wouldnt believe. With preserved lemons & olive. Obviously. Hence my email this morning 😉 Great post xx

    • Reply Yasmeen 29/04/2014 at 8:02 am

      I can hook you up with #5!

  • Reply David 27/04/2014 at 12:24 am

    I am feeling very proud that I have everything but the coffee pot. (I have never had coffee or tea – I know… this is heresy to anyone of Middle Eastern decent!) I even have the ma’amoul moulds. I am curious about Ross’ suggestion for the upside down wok! Very interesting. I am an avid follower of Ottolenghi and Tamimi… and another favorite of mine is Syrian – the Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck (yes, that is really her name and she is lovely!). I don’t know where my love of Middle Eastern food came from, but it was definitely love at first bite!

    • Reply Yasmeen 29/04/2014 at 8:02 am

      Never had coffee or tea ever? Or never had it Arabic style? Probably a good thing – caffeine isn’t man’s best friend, but I admit I couldn’t live without at least a few every now and again :) I will look up Poopa Dweck. Thanks for the rec and I’m gad you’re so in love with MidEastern food. We have that in common!

      • Reply David 05/05/2014 at 4:35 am

        I know it is hard to believe, but I have never tried withers, well, once I had mint tea in Morocco but that was like having mint sugar water! I drink serious cocoa every morning, whether it is hot or cold out. :)

  • Reply Fatemah Alhusayni 26/04/2014 at 4:07 pm

    I would add a coffee/spice grinder as it serves a different function than the food processor. Very nice post and list

    • Reply Yasmeen 28/04/2014 at 5:12 pm

      Yes – excellent addition Fatemah!

  • Reply Ross 25/04/2014 at 12:13 pm

    Cookbooks: One must stand for many (but happy to add); my most well thumbed one “Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World” Gil Marks.
    “Around the World” turns out to be a glance at Ashkenazi recipes and a wealth of Sephardic from Syria, Tunisia, Iran, Iraq etc. and from Greece, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Morocco etc. much like Claudia Roden’s “The Book of Jewish Food”
    Marks may be hard to find but I bought it at Kinokuniya Sydney, Roden is as good and adds meat dishes. Marks indicates dairy and pareve classification for each recipe if that is of consequence to you.

    • Reply Yasmeen 25/04/2014 at 4:10 pm

      I don’t have any dietary requirements but I’m sure other readers would find this helpful, thanks!

  • Reply saucy gander 24/04/2014 at 11:43 pm

    Those are my favourite authors for middle east cuisine too! We also have a copy of Tess Mallos. I’d also be interested to hear how you store spice to minimise loss of flavour, though that may not fit in with your series.
    Now I’m curious about the upside down wok trick, looking forward to it!

    • Reply Yasmeen 25/04/2014 at 11:31 am

      I love that suggestion about how to store spices. I’ll write up a spices user guide if that helps! In a nutshell, we keep them either a) in a cupboard away from extreme heat and light or b) freeze them.

      I was told by a spice shopkeeper in Amman to freeze the 7-spice (baharat) to keep it fresh, since I bought so much of it. It doesn’t keep forever, of course, but it does extend the shelf life. Also, air-tight containers are key.

      I hope that helps for now – back with more on that soon.

      • Reply saucy gander 25/04/2014 at 12:51 pm

        That’s a very helpful tip about freezing some spices, thanks!

  • Reply Ross 24/04/2014 at 4:54 pm

    How could I forget (so many bits and pieces in my kitchen)? Wooden Ma’amoul moulds

    • Reply Yasmeen 25/04/2014 at 11:28 am

      That’s a great suggestion, Ross. I’ll follow up this post with a ‘novelty kitchen items’ list as well, for all the bits and bobs that really make the Middle Eastern kitchen special. Though some may argue that a ma’amoul mold is essential, not novelty :)

  • Reply Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella 24/04/2014 at 3:23 pm

    I love this post Yasmeen! I so enjoy eating and cooking Middle Eastern food so this is a great guide. And thank you for your lovely comment on my spice rubbed chicken. I’m so glad that you liked it 😀

    • Reply Yasmeen 24/04/2014 at 3:57 pm

      You really did msakhan justice! I’ve emailed it around to my family, too.

      Glad the guide is helpful – first in a multi-post series. Hopefully others find it helpful as well :)

  • Reply Ross 23/04/2014 at 2:36 pm

    Couldn’t cope without a Turkish 2 part samovar style teapot and tea glasses.

    Cheap cast iron wok to use upside down as saj for bread.

    Skewers took some finding, eventually found a range of widths at one of those crazy little general stores that sell everything from allspice to Zamzam water in Auburn, Sydney

    • Reply Yasmeen 23/04/2014 at 3:21 pm

      Great suggestions, Ross.

      I have an upcoming post about the upside-down wok breadmaking trick. Mind reader!

  • Reply Rosa 22/04/2014 at 10:50 pm

    I have a few of these items (coffee pot, tajine, fresh herbs & food processor), but I need to check out that book.



    • Reply Yasmeen 23/04/2014 at 3:24 pm

      Anissa Helou is fantastic – this particular book is much less of a ‘picture book’ and more based on memories of the Middle East and history.

      I’d recommend Arabesque by Claudia Roden VERY highly as well – also a mix of cultural anthropology on the region and wonderful classic recipes. For shorter anecdotes and beautiful photos, Jerusalem by Ottolenghi & Tamimi is excellent.

      • Reply Rosa 23/04/2014 at 10:53 pm

        I love such books!

        Thanks for the recommendations. I already own both books… 😉 Greg Malouf’s cookbooks are great too.

        • Reply Yasmeen 24/04/2014 at 8:11 am

          Yes! Greg and Lucy Malouf’s books are amazing. Saraban and Saha are two of my favorites. I am going to add them to the list as they are also Melbourne-based.

          • Rosa 25/04/2014 at 5:15 am

            Those books are simply fabulous (and so is “Turquoise”). I love them to bits…

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