Middle Eastern recipe books: a guide

The Middle East represents a veritable Aladdin’s cave of cuisine. From Morocco’s rich tagine stews to Persia’s fragrant steamed rice tadighs, there are innumerable treasures to discover and enjoy. While often seeming exotic and distant, the Middle Eastern kitchen is in fact within easy reach thanks to the volumes of recipe books dedicated to this region’s cuisine. There are, however, many publications to chose from presenting a somewhat daunting selection.

We all have favourites, and one of mine is Rawia Bishara’s “Olives, Lemons and Za’atar: Flavours of the Middle East”. An Israeli-Arab who grew up in the hills of the Galilee before moving to New York, Mrs. Bishara stunning new book includes recipes for all occasions, many of which feature on the menu of her popular Middle Eastern restaurant tanoreen. Easy to follow with precise timings and instructions, its highlight (apart from the exquisite photography on each page) are the personal touches: histories of dishes, personal anecdotes and family stories. This book caters for all tastes with meat, seafood and vegetarian recipes all being included.

Olives, Lemon & Za'atar: The Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking by Rawia Bishara
Olives, Lemon & Za’atar: The Best Middle Eastern Home Cooking by Rawia Bishara

I also liked “Classic Palestinian Cuisine” by Christiane Dabdoub Nasser. Like Bishara’s book, this focuses on Levantine cuisine and is replete with personal stories and anecdotes. What set these apart was the fascinating insight they gave to Palestinian culinary culture. Having just spent the best part of a year living on the seam of East and West Jerusalem where Israelis and Palestinians mingle on a daily basis, I particularly enjoyed these segments! It was, however, let down by a complete lack of photographs and guideline to the number of portions each dish produces.

Classic Palestinian Cuisine by Christiane Dabdoub Nasser
Classic Palestinian Cuisine by Christiane Dabdoub Nasser

Veteran chef Ghillie Basan’s most recent book is “Flavours of the Middle East: Spiced and Aromatic Recipes from the Ancient Lands”. Including all parts of the region from North Africa to Persia, it is more of a straightforward recipe book than the other books mentioned in the review. While there is some discussion about the origin of and cultural significance of various dishes, it lacks the personal touches that Bishara and Dabdoub Nasser infuse into their books. It does, however, have the greatest number of easier recipes, so is probably the best starting place for novice chefs.

Flavours of the Middle East by Ghillie Basan
Flavours of the Middle East by Ghillie Basan

While not technically a book, Yotam Ottolenghi’s DVD set including his “Mediterranean Feast” series and “Jerusalem on a Plate” one-off for the BBC also deserves honourable mentions. The hour-long documentary on Jerusalemite cuisine perfectly compliments his outstanding book on the city, while “Mediterranean Feast” offers a fascinating look at the food of the rest of Israel, Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia. Many of the recipes he cooks for the series are actually fairly straightforward, so can serve as excellent culinary inspiration for the budding chef! Think mishmishiyya from Tunisia: bite-sized cubes of beef stewed with caramelised onions and sultanas, a puree of liquidised boiled pumpkins and dried apricots and prunes. Simple and delicious…

Yotam Ottolenghi's Mediterranean Feast and Jerusalem on a Plate
Yotam Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Feast and Jerusalem on a Plate
About the Author
Daniel J. Levy is a graduate of the University of Leeds and Oxford, where his academic research primarily focused on Iranian proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. He is the Founding Director and Lead Consultant of the Ortakoy Security Group, and has contributed editorial pieces to The Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and Israel Policy Exchange. In his free time, he enjoys reading, running, and cooking. He can be followed on Twitter @danielhalevy.