Essential Ingredients of Middle Eastern Cooking

Learn how to shop for and use these flavors of the Middle East, with everything from Baharat to Pomegranate Molasses to Za'atar Leaves.

middle eastern spices

These ingredients are the key that makes Middle Eastern food explode with flavor. Pick up these specialty items from well-stocked supermarkets, natural-foods stores, Middle Eastern or Asian markets and from Plus, find recipes to use them in and learn other ways to use them outside of traditional Middle Eastern cooking.

1. Baharat


"When you walk into a spice shop in the Middle East and ask for baharat, they say, 'For what?'" says Lior Lev Sercarz, an Israeli-born chef and owner of La Boîte, a spice emporium in New York City. "It's like a curry-there are so many different varieties."

The popular spice blend's flavor can range from sweet to floral to spicy. Sercarz sells his own mix, ideal for meat and fish (; $15 for 1.75 oz.).

To toss together a baharat yourself, try this blend he created to go with our Pumpkin Kibbeh recipe.


2 1/2 Tbsp. allspice berries, toasted and ground

2 Tbsp. ground ginger

2 Tbsp. ground cinnamon, preferably Vietnamese

2 Tbsp. rosebuds, ground

1 tsp. black peppercorns, ground

1 tsp. caraway seeds, toasted and ground

Use it up: Mix into ground lamb for burgers; sprinkle over tzatziki.

2. Carob Molasses

Carob Molasses Cake (Sfouf b' Debs)

Pictured recipe: Carob Molasses Cake (Sfouf b' Debs)

Dark and viscous like regular molasses, carob molasses has coffee and cocoa undertones.

Use it up: Mix with an equal amount of tahini for a PB&J-like dip; swap for regular molasses.

3. Dried Barberries

Persian Rice Pie (Tah Chin)

Pictured recipe: Persian Rice Pie (Tah Chin)

These berries have a lemony, sweet-sour tang.

Use it up: Swap for currants or dried sour cherries.

4. Aleppo Pepper

overhead shot of spring salad in a bowl with sliced radishes, snap peas and greens

Named for the city in northern Syria, these dried chile flakes lend bright fruitiness and gentle heat.

Use it up: Sprinkle on roast vegetables, meats or even fresh fruit or your avocado toast.

5. Sumac

Roasted Baby Zucchini with Lemon Labneh

Pictured recipe: Roasted Baby Zucchini with Lemon Labneh

The ground tart red berries of the Mediterranean sumac bush add fruity, sour flavor.

Use it up: Garnish hummus or baba ­ghanoush; add to a tomato and cucumber salad.

6. Bulgur

Pumpkin Kibbeh (Kebbet Laa'tin)

Pictured recipe: Pumpkin Kibbeh (Kebbet Laa'tin)

This quick-cooking whole grain is made by parboiling, drying and grinding or cracking wheat berries. It can be fine or coarse.

Use it up: Make tabbouleh or use it as your grain-bowl base.

7. Saffron

Circassian Chicken (Çerkez Tavugu)

Pictured recipe: Circassian Chicken (Çerkez Tavugu)

These crimson-colored threads are the delicate stigmas of the saffron crocus flower. They lend a vivid golden hue and rich floral flavor. About 90 percent of saffron comes from Iran.

Use it up: Add to risotto, rice pudding or paella.

8. Cracked Freekeh

Freekeh with Grilled Vegetables (Frikeh bel Khodra)

Pictured recipe: Freekeh with Grilled Vegetables (Frikeh bel Khodra)

Made from young green wheat that's been roasted and cracked, this whole grain has a toasty, nutty flavor.

Use it up: Use it like you would rice for fried freekeh instead.

9. Za'atar Leaves

Lamb & Walnut Gul Börek

Pictured recipe: Lamb & Walnut Gul Börek

A wild herb from the same family as thyme and oregano, za'atar (not to be confused with the popular Mediterranean spice blend za'atar, which sometimes includes this herb) has thin, pointy leaves, like rosemary, and a lemony, peppery flavor.

Use it up: Swap for thyme, oregano, marjoram or rosemary; sprinkle on grilled vegetables, meat or seafood.

Try it in these: Delicious Healthy Recipes with Rosemary

10.Pomegranate Molasses

Stewed Okra (Yakhnet Bemyieh)

Pictured recipe: Stewed Okra (Yakhnet Bemyieh)

Made from reduced tart pomegranate juice, this dark red syrup adds sweetness and acidity.

Use it up: Glaze roast meat; stir into tea; drizzle over roasted vegetables; make muhammara.

11. Tamarind

Eggplant-Shallot Stew

Pictured recipe: Eggplant-Shallot Stew

The sticky, candy-sour pulp found inside the pods from the tamarind tree is used to make a concentrated paste (with or without seeds) that's common to dishes from across southern Asia.

Use it up: Make pad thai; stir into sautéed vegetables or salad dressing.

12. Fenugreek

Oven-Roasted Fish with Onion, Lemon, Fenugreek & Cilantro (Mahi-e Shekam Por)

Pictured recipe: Oven-Roasted Fish with Onion, Lemon, Fenugreek & Cilantro (Mahi-e Shekam Por)

Both the leaves (fresh or dried) and their mustard-colored seeds (whole or ground) have a complex flavor that's a little nutty and almost maple-y.

Use it up: Ground seeds can be used in curry powders, teas, rubs or as a seasoning for cooked vegetables. Add fresh leaves to salads, sauces and curries.

13. Dried Sour Cherries

Eggplant with Sweet-Sour Onions & Pickled Cherries (Visneli Patlican Bayildi)

Pictured recipe:Eggplant with Sweet-Sour Onions & Pickled Cherries (Visneli Patlican Bayildi)

Also known as dried tart cherries, they have a lip-puckering flavor.

Use it up: Stir into granola or oatmeal.

Watch: How to Make Chicken Shawarma with Yogurt Sauce

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