Arabic spices meet the Persian touch of pistachios in the kefta (skewered ground meat) at Mamnoon in Seattle, where the food combines the owners’ Syrian, Lebanese, and Persian heritage with chef Garrett Melkonian’s Armenian background. We opted for an easier version: burgers.
At Saffron in Walla Walla, Washington, Chris Ainsworth fills tiny Turkish dumplings called manti with Dungeness crab and thick yogurt. We shamelessly took the easy route, with store-bought pasta, and used yogurt as a sauce. But we kept the touch of saffron and fruity Aleppo pepper.
Here are 10 of the tastiest, most versatile ingredients from the eastern Mediterranean—and easy ways to work them into your repertoire.
Think yogurt is just sweetened snack cups? The plain full-fat stuff has a beautiful tang and creaminess, and is a revelation as an ingredient.
Get: At any grocery store.
Try: Add a little salt and mint for a sauce for vegetables or grilled meat. Drain so it’s thick and satiny, and you’ve got labneh (make your own, below, or buy at Middle Eastern mar-kets). Mix with olive oil and garlic and toss with pasta, or serve with bread for dunking.
From chef Chris Ainsworth
Makes: 3 cups | Time: 5 min., plus 7 hours to drain
Line a strainer with cheesecloth and spoon in 32 oz. plain whole-milk Greek yogurt. Set over a deep bowl, cover, and chill 7 to 24 hours to drain. Keeps, chilled, up to 1 week.
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A fruity, mildly hot crushed chile with a hint of smokiness. Grown in Syria and Turkey, it’s reminiscent of Mexican ancho chile (a good sub).
Try: Drizzle over roasted vegetables or salty cheese such as feta, or use as a last-minute glaze for grilled lamb chops or steak.
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A salty cheese with a squeaky texture, made from sheep’s and goat’s milk.
Get: At well-stocked grocery stores.
Try: Drizzle chunks with olive oil for an appetizer, pan-brown slices for salads, or grill cubes for kebabs (it keeps its shape when heated).
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An Egyptian blend of toasted seeds, nuts, and spices, popular in Turkey as well.
Get: Look in your store’s spice aisle, or go to worldspice.com—better yet, make your own (below).
Try: Sprinkle over olive oil for a totally addictive bread dunk, toss into green salad with orange slices, or scatter generously over cooked squash or cauliflower.
From chef Matthew Dillon
Makes: 1 cup | Time: 25 min.
Toast 6 tbsp. sesame seeds in a frying pan over medium-low heat until golden, 5 minutes. Pour into a bowl. Toast 1/4 cup coriander seeds and 1 tbsp. cumin seeds in pan until cumin is a shade darker, 2 to 3 minutes; pour into bowl. Let cool. In a spice grinder or mortar, coarsely grind seeds in batches with 1/4 cup roasted, salted pistachios, 2 tbsp. roasted hazelnuts, 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, and 1/8 tsp. peppercorns. Keeps 1 month.
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An intense, concentrated version of apple juice, made like pomegranate molasses.
Get: Not readily available, but super easy to make (below).
Try: Use the same ways as pomegranate molasses.
Recipe: Cider molasses
From chef Matthew Dillon
Makes: 1 cup | Time: 55 min.
Boil 1/2 gallon unfiltered apple cider in a large pot for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium-high and boil, stirring often, until reduced to1 cup, 5 to 10 minutes (watch closely); it will thicken as it cools. Keeps, chilled, up to 1 month; bring to room temperature to use.
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A crushed Turkish chile similar to Aleppo in fruitiness and heat, but layered with a rich, earthy, tobacco flavor.
Get: Hard to find, but worth it; buy at worldspice.com , or substitute ground ancho chile.
Try: Use the same ways as Aleppo pepper.
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Instead of the fresh herb, try dried for its deeper, more intense flavor.
Get: In your supermarket spice aisle, or open a bag of peppermint tea.
Try: Mix with ground meat for kebabs, blend with pomegranate molasses in a vinaigrette, or combine with toasted sesame and sumac for a table seasoning.