Arab cuisine mostly follows one of three
culinary traditions from the Maghreb, the Levant or
In the Maghreb countries (Morocco,
Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) traditional main meals are tajines
or dishes using couscous.
In the Levant ( Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon
and Syria) main meals usually start with mezze small
dishes of dips and other items which are eaten with bread.
This is typically followed by skewers of grilled lamb or
Gulf cuisine, which has Iranian and Indian
influences, tends to be more highly spiced with more use of
rice. Sometimes a lamb is roasted and served whole.
In the Arab countries generally, lamb and
chicken are the most popular types of meat, though goat, beef
and occasionally camel meat are consumed too. Muslims usually
avoid eating pork.
Fruit and vegetables
In comparison with western cuisine, Arab
cuisine tends to make more use of lentils, chickpeas and
numerous types of bean. Use of olives, aubergines, courgettes
and okra is also more common.
Raw pickled vegetables are often served on
a side dish. These may include chillis, gherkins, and slices
of turnip, cucumber, carrot, etc.
Common fruits are citrus, dates, figs, grapes, pomegranates, melons, watermelons,
apricots and prickly pears (cactus fruit).
Common nuts are almonds, peanuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts. Nuts may be included in main dishes as well as sweets and desserts.
Bread in the Arab countries is usually round and flat, though its size and thickness can vary a lot. Most countries have their own typical styles for everyday consumption.
Bread is a staple of most meals and in
some situations is used in place of a spoon or fork for scooping up food.
Some types of bread are unleavened; others
are made with yeast. A tasty example of unleavened bread is
the Yemeni malawah
and here is a recipe for a Moroccan
yeast bread, or khoubz.
Needless to say, bread in the Arab
countries is usually baked in ovens (which can often be seen glowing red in the back of Arab
bakers' shops) but it may also be baked by laying a very thin sheet of dough on to a heated
(usually domed) surface.
A third and more interesting method is sand baking a traditional technique in desert areas using the remains of a camp fire. The glowing embers are scraped away and a shallow hollow is made where the fire has been. The dough is placed in the hollow then covered with sand and the embers until it is baked.
Spices and flavours
Spices commonly used in Arab cuisine include (in alphabetical order): allspice, aniseed, caraway,
cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, nutmeg, paprika, saffron, sesame,
sumac, and turmeric.
Baharat is an all-purpose seasoning which contains black pepper plus, typically, cumin, cinnamon,
and cloves. It may also contain coriander, cardamom, nutmeg and/or paprika.
Ra's el hanout (literally, "top of the shop") is a general-purpose spice mixture used for savoury dishes
in the North Africa. By tradition it contains 12 different spices. The combination varies from one
maker to another but it is almost certain to include paprika, cumin, chili and cinnamon.
Za'atar is a widely-used condiment throughout the Middle East. It is a mixture of dried herbs
marjoram, thyme, oregano, etc plus sesame seeds, sumac and salt. Again, there are differences of
opinion about the best combination of ingredients and their proportions.
Za'atar can be used in
general cooking for example, rubbed over a chicken before roasting and sprinkled on bread dough
before baking (man'ousheh in Lebanon). It can also be consumed without cooking, by dipping pieces
of bread into olive oil and then into za'atar.
Harissa is a hot chili paste particularly associated with Tunisia, Libya and Algeria. It is also available
dry, as a spice mix.
Spice market in Marrakesh, Morocco.
Sweets and desserts
Kunafa (kanafeh / kunafah) has a crusty top made from noodle-like shreds of pastry, with a filling of
soft white cheese. The whole dish is steeped in sugary syrup with a hint of rosewater is often
decorated with a sprinkling of chopped pistachio nuts. Kunafa is usually baked as a single piece on a
large metal tray and then cut into slices. There are several variants, however, and it may also be
found in the form of small, individual rolls. Here is a short video demonstrating how to make
Basbousa is a very sweet and sticky cake made with semolina, and sometimes with the addition of
coconut. It is usually topped with almonds. In Lebanon it is also known as
namoura and in Tunisia as qalb el-lawz ("heart of the almond").
Baklawa comes in a variety of shapes and styles, cut into tiny pieces because it is very rich and sweet.
The basic ingredients are filo pastry, chopped nuts and honey or sugar syrup. It is thought to have
been introduced to the Arab countries by the Ottomans.
Mahalabia is a milk pudding, typically flavoured with cardamom and rosewater. It is served cold.
Umm Ali ("the other of Ali") is richer than
mahalabia and is served hot. Crumbled pieces of pre-baked
filo pastry are mixed with hot milk, cream, sugar, raisins, chopped nuts and sometimes coconut. It is
then browned under a grill. Recipe
Observant Muslims distinguish between
food which is halal (permitted and haram
(forbidden). The basic rule is set out in Verse 2:173 of the Qur'an which forbids consuming carrion, blood, "the flesh of swine" and meat from any animal which has not been slaughtered in the name of Allah (by uttering a short prayer as the animal's throat is cut).
Fish is considered halal, though
some Muslims avoid certain types of seafood such as
shellfish and crustaceans. Discussions can also be found on
Islamic websites about the permissibility (or not) of eating
other types of creature, such as crocodiles, snakes and
In 1997 the UN's Food and Agriculture
Organisation issued general
guidelines about which kinds of food can be labelled as
"halal", though it noted that there are
differences of opinion among religious scholars.
During the holy month of Ramadan,
Muslims are expected to refrain from eating, drinking and
smoking between sunrise and sunset. The evening meal that
breaks the fast known as iftar is regarded as
a special social or family occasion. Certain foods and
dishes are traditionally associated with Ramadan and iftar,
though these vary from country to country. One example is
the sweet known as qatayef.
Ful medames is a traditional
breakfast dish of fava beans with oil and cumin, stewed in
a gigantic pot. It may also include lemon juice, onions,
garlic or chili and is normally scooped up with pieces of
Kushari (koshary / kosheri) is
tasty, cheap and filling. It is regarded by many as
Egypt's national dish. Usually served in a bowl, it
consists of rice, lentils, macaroni and cumin topped with
crispy fried onions and a tomato sauce. Recipe
Mulukhiyah (molokhia) is made
from the leaves of Corchorus olitorius,
a type of jute. In appearance it resembles cooked spinach
but has a glutinous some would say slimy
consistency. It can be consumed on its own as a soup or
served with a stew.
Pigeons are considered a
delicacy in Egypt. They may be grilled or stuffed and
Mansaf is lamb cooked in jameed, a sauce made from dried yogurt. It is eaten on special occasions in Jordan, typically served on a large platter with a bed of rice or bulgur. Mansaf, as known today, is a modern adaptation of a traditional (but rather different) bedouin dish. It is often described as Jordan's national dish though that idea seems to be a fairly
A tajine usually consisting of
meat and vegetables is traditionally cooked over a charcoal fire in a shallow earthenware dish with a conical lid. The shape of the lid ensures that moisture does not drip directly on to the food but trickles down around the edges which is said to improve the flavour. Somewhat unusually, tajine recipes may include
some sweet fruit such as prunes or apricots.
("overturned") is a traditional dish of rice with lamb or chicken and a variety of vegetables. The ingredients are cooked together in a pan which is then turned upside down for serving hence the name. Typically, the top two layers when the dish is turned out consist of sliced tomato and
Musakhan is chicken roasted with onions, sumac, allspice, saffron and pine nuts, on a bed of
A brik popular in Tunisia and Algeria is a triangular envelope of thin fried pastry which usually contains a whole egg with chopped onion, tuna, harissa and parsley. It needs to be eaten with some care otherwise egg yolk may squirt out.
Here is a video
demonstration of how to make a brik.