Growing up Middle Eastern is a very interesting experience, to say the least. In terms of food, being Middle Eastern in America is like being a Kardashian with a flat butt. You stick out like a sore thumb.
Most Americans don’t really understand Middle Eastern food. I don’t blame you—I’m pretty confused myself, and my mother is from Syria and my father is from Turkey. But today I’m going to lay it all out for you, and hopefully we can understand that 1) Middle Eastern food is extremely diverse, and 2) Middle Eastern people are too.
1. We eat hummus with everything.
FALSE. Don’t get me wrong, hummus is amazing, but it’s not the staple of our diet. In fact, hummus is more of a forgotten side dish at all of my family gatherings—there is way too much other great food to fill up on chickpea spread. We also don’t stick it on everything, so no, slabbing hummus on some food does not automatically make it “Middle Eastern.”
2. It’s the same as Mediterranean food.
Get your geography right, people. Sure, we share some similarities, but Mediterranean food denotes food influenced by the mediterranean sea (think: Greece, Spain, Morroco, France, and Turkey). In fact, most Middle Eastern countries are not even by the sea, hence why most of my relatives don’t even know how to swim.
3. It’s the same as Greek food.
See #2. Greek cuisine is almost entirely different. Other than our shared love of phyllo dough (that flakey stuff in baklava), our tastes, textures, and ingredients are distinct. The main reason for that is location; Greece is surrounded by the sea, so most of its ingredients come from it.
4. You can’t be Middle Eastern and vegan/vegetarian.
Not only am I Middle Eastern, but I am a Middle Eastern Christian (Syriac Orthodox, to be exact), which requires a fasting period of 50 days during Lent. Fasting entails following a completely vegan diet, so our food has to reflect that. Also, most dishes do not even put animal products in them. They make use of fresh vegetables and herbs to create tasty flavors.
5. We eat kabobs or Halal all the time.
This one is probably one of the biggest misconceptions out there. Halal food and shish kabob is not the only food we eat. This food is typically saved for when we cook outdoors (like the Middle Eastern version of a BBQ).
6. All Middle Eastern food is the same.
This one may sound confusing, but it’s true. Each country, and even each region within a certain country, has its own cuisine or variations on a particular dish. For example, Iraq makes a type a sweet kibbeh, but other countries only stick to the savory kind. Whereas some other dishes are universal, like stuffed grape leaves, and baba ganoush.
7. Food all over the Middle East is called the same thing.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many different names there are for kibbeh. Kibbeh is known in the round-shape form (pictured above), and is basically a stuffed meat in a meat and wheat shell (lots of meat). But when it’s made with only wheat on the outer shell, it’s called kbaybat. When it’s flat, it’s called kitle. When it’s in a pan, its called kibbeh belseniye. When it’s raw, it’s called kibbeh nayeh. I think you get the jist.
8. Baklava is our favorite dessert.
Now, I am a lover of baklava (especially chocolate baklava), but it is definitely not the crowd favorite among my relatives. There are so many other delicious desserts like halva, custard covered in cinnamon, and my personal fave, knafeh, or warm, melty cheese covered in shredded flakes and sweet syrup. Just check this video out for yourself.
9. When we go out, it’s to hookah bars.
Let me tell you something—all of my American friends love hookah bars, but as a Middle Eastern young adult, I will not be caught dead at a hookah bar. Why? Because my parents do that for fun. Yes, my parents. Oh, and the food isn’t nearly as good either.
10. The only carbs we eat are pita bread and rice.
In reality, Middle Easterners take their whole grains very seriously, so much so that whole dishes are prepared around them. Rice and pita bread are usually supplements to meals, whereas other grains such as bulgur, freekeh, and barley play major roles in Middle Eastern cuisine.
11. We only eat meat.
You know what Middle Easterners eat the most? Fruit. Yup, fruit. In all shapes, sizes, and forms—fresh, dried, pickled, just anything that’s fruit. Ask my mom, and she’ll tell you that the staple of her weekday dinners in Syria was watermelon.