Best Middle Eastern cookbooks for delicious and healthy recipes

 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

I first experienced Middle Eastern cooking as a young child where each morning I’d insist my parents would walk me the long way to school so I could go down the “nice smelling road”.

Upon investigating the origins of the aromas, I was both delighted and shocked to discover a tiny hole in the wall where a Lebanese chef made traditional flatbreads by the dozen. For just a few pounds you were presented with what felt like an endless supply of the most amazing thin and crispy bread.

Since my early introduction, I have regularly sought out delicious Middle Eastern dishes and ingredients, be it at restaurants or on trips to Turkey and Morocco.

Even the humble kebab, if done correctly can be an absolute delight. Forget the late night takeaway dive and think instead of richly flavoured meat that has been marinated for hours, flatbreads with the perfect balance of crispiness to fluffiness, and fillings so flavoursome you never knew a tomato could taste so good.

Despite the rising popularity in Middle Eastern food - I once was greeted by a sea of angry faces after forgetting to bring hummus and falafels to a friend’s picnic - it can be tricky to know where to start when attempting to cook this cuisine at home.

To pay homage to the forgotten falafel, this week I tried out Ottolenghi’s recipe on how to create these explosive bundles of flavour at home.

Comprising around 20 nations, the Middle East encompasses an enormous area and with that comes various cuisines. From Persian and Turkish, to Israeli, this cuisine is an amalgamation of bold flavours and foods.

To help you get started we spoke to Persian and Middle Eastern Chef Sabrina Ghayour to get her top tips on cooking Middle Eastern cuisine at home:

  • Most importantly, stay relaxed! This is home cooking - it’s not fancy, nor is it flashy and what makes it extra special is the process, love and time poured into every dish and the convivial way in which we love sharing and feasting.

  • Find a trusted source for your recipes and don’t tackle anything too complicated to start with. Try and build up your repertoire of recipes starting from the basics.

  • Be prepared ingredient-wise with a few of the essentials like spices, pomegranate molasses, za’atar and sumac.

  • Read through recipes in advance and make sure you are aware of the processes involved at every stage. Then break down your menu into stages and do some stages in advance if needed.

Read on to discover how you can recreate the alluring aromas and vibrant colours of Middle Eastern food, all from the comfort of your own home.

Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond

Middle Eastern food is synonymous with feasting and with that comes an array of amazing mezze dishes: small plates of food shared between people. In just six chapters, Persiana presents modern and accessible recipes of breads, salads and sharing plates that are impressive enough to serve at large gatherings, but also easy enough to rustle up on a weeknight evening for the family.

Alongside these recipes comes photography of dishes such as Walnut and Pomegranate Chicken and Bejewlled Rice which alone will make your stomach grumble. Be prepared to have your house immersed in these bold smells as you try out cooking dishes fit for an Arabian king.

To begin, stock up your pantry on key Middle Eastern spices such as sumac, zaatar and cinnamon in advance as these recipes require a lot of them.

Buy now £17.25, Amazon

Sumac: Recipes and stories from Syria

As a country that has faced over a decade of ongoing political instability and war, Syrian culture and its gastronomic delights have been relatively overlooked but Sumac aims to change that. By presenting a tribute to his homeland, Atassi feeds you beyond the plate as you are taken on a journey of Syrian family life and what sits at the heart of it - food.

Featuring over 80 recipes that are a perfect combination of traditional and contemporary, Sumac explores the country’s regional nuances and presents dishes such as Mediterranean-inspired Grilled Aubergine with Yoghurt Sauce, simple Tomato Soup with Barley and Lamb Shank native to Damascus and Chicken Shish Kebab, bursting with Armenian and Turkish flavours.

Despite the immensely varied cuisine, there is one shared ingredient throughout these many cultures and influences: Sumac. This dark red spice is the thread that connects these recipes and will help guide you as you explore the world of Syrian gastronomy.

Buy now £16.44, Amazon

Falastin: A Cookbook

Penned by the co-authors of many Ottolenghi cookbooks comes this invaluable compendium of Palestinian dishes that match tradition and modernity to create 110 mouth-watering recipes of which you will want to cook them all.

We were most struck by the endless flavour combinations and each recipe feels like an experience of its own as you admire the rich photography, read tales from Palestine’s unheard voices and breathe in the rich aromas of your cooking.

The cookbook really does feature everything: summer salads, heart-warming soups, simple one-pot dishes and the fluffiest bread imaginable. Try the Aubergine, Chickpea and Tomato Bake to liven up a vegan friendly meal or the Chicken Musakhan to spruce up a Sunday lunch.

Buy now £20.19, Amazon

The Lebanese Cookbook

Located on the edge of the Mediterranean and often referred to as the gateway to the Middle East, Lebanon has world class cuisine that features honeyed spices, fragrant herbs and an abundance of fresh produce.

With over 500 recipes, The Lebanese Cookbook is the definitive guide to the country’s cuisine and explores the history of food as well as regional variations in classic dishes such as flatbread dough and tangy sauces such as the pomegranate and walnut dressing.

Featuring authentic recipes that can be adapted in order to be achievable in a western kitchen, this cookbook is an absolute must for beginners and masters of Middle Eastern cuisine.

We loved everything from grilled meats to delicious desserts but our absolute favourites were the Pomegranate Chicken and Sweet Ricotta, and Rose Petal Jelly Cookies which are both surefire crowd pleasers.

Buy now £39.59, Amazon

Ottolenghi SIMPLE

Whether you’re a keen home chef who loves creating elaborate dishes or a throw-everything-in-one-pan 10-minute meals type of cook, you’ll have heard of Yotam Ottolenghi. Simple caters to all skill levels as it perfectly marries the renowned chef’s signature ingredient combinations, whilst ensuring that you don’t spend hours in the kitchen.

These flavour-forward 130 recipes are some of the most inventive and surprising Middle Eastern dishes - and they only require less than 30 minutes to cook and usually fewer than 10 ingredients.

Our Favourites? Whisk up the Pappardelle with rose harissa, black olives and capers for a feel-good carb overload. Alternatively try Bridget Jones’s pan-fried salmon with pine nut salsa for a light summer meal to be enjoyed alfresco (weather permitting).

Buy now £18.49, Amazon

The Palestinian Table

The joy of cooking comes not only from the food we produce, but also from what we learn about the history and significance of the dish. This is certainly the case with Palestinian food, of which the subtelities and nuances remain relatively unexplored.

The Palestinian Table is a beautiful cookbook that, through the medium of food, is able to transcend political divsions. It weaves together historical information, local customs and a rich tapestry of personal stories to create 150 easy-to-follow and authentic recipes that have been inspired by multiple generations and long-lasting traditions.

Don’t miss the Nine Spice Powder recipe which will elevate these dishes and give them an unimaginably delightful flavour. Give the Cabbage and Mint Salad a whirl too; it’s a simple summer dish that will be piled high on everyone’s plate.

Buy now £19.45, Amazon

The Levantine Table

After a comprehensive guide to Middle Eastern food? Look no further than The Levantine Table which presents a collection of heart-warming recipes that range across the vast region.

We adored every recipe in this book and tried out some popular mezze dishes such as baba ganoush, hummus and tabbouleh which all went down an absolute treat. For a family friendly weeknight meal try the Grilled Skewers of Beef with a Tahini-Based Tarator Sauce or for those that can handle the heat, give one of the spicy marinade chicken dishes a go - you won’t regret it.

Alongside scrumptious dishes comes photography so perfect you can almost taste the flavours of the dishes. This cookbook really is a delight for all the senses and is a kitchen staple that can be used for all occasions.

Buy now £22.00, Amazon

Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love

Intuitive cooking can be hard. It can be a regular occurrence to stand in front of a kitchen cupboard or fridge and stare absentmindedly at the tin of tomatoes in the corner or the block of half eaten cheese and wonder how this can be turned into a nutritious and tasty meal. If there was ever a cookbook to help with this age old problem, it’s Shelf Love.

These evocative Ottolenghi recipes are exactly what you would expect from the creative chef, but this time they offer us greater flexibility to use what we have to hand to edit and alter these dishes. Each recipe features a ‘make it your own’ box which allows you to substitute various ingredients or simplify the process if you’re short on time.

We made the Creamy Dreamy Hummus with a can of chickpeas and leftover peppers in the fridge and followed it up with a tomato salad to use up other veggies we already had.

Buy now £16.99, Amazon