The Middle Eastern kitchen is known for combining fresh and fragrant ingredients to make delicious dishes. There are a few ingredients (ok, maybe more than a few) that I like to keep in my pantry at all times.
Let's start with the spices. Every Middle Eastern recipe has a full list of spices needed. Why? Because spices add so much flavor to boring dishes.
It's very important to keep in mind that your spices should be fresh if you want the most flavor out of them. Whole spices can be stored for up to 4 years. Ground spices have a shelf life of 2 to 3 years. You should store your spices away from heat and moisture. I know it's easier to keep the spices in a cabinet right by your stove, but it's better if you keep them in your pantry, where it's cool, dry, and dark.
Here's a complete list of my favorite spices:
- Bay Leaves (dried)
- Cardamom (pods and ground)
- Cinnamon (sticks and ground)
- Spearmint Leaves (dried)
- Za'atar (a Middle Eastern mix of spices)
Other than salt and black pepper of course, I use the above spices on a regular basis. I don't believe in buying ready spice mixes - there's just too much salt added and I need to control the salt in my food. I always make my own spice mixes at home. The spices are more fresh, I control the amount of salt I use, and it's much cheaper. Shawerma and chicken kabob spice mixes are easily made at home.
Most Middle Eastern dishes include a side of rice or bread. The Middle Eastern pantry includes multiple types of rice. We also make a lot of dough, like a lot! Here are a few dry ingredients I keep in my pantry for rice dishes, breads, and desserts!
- Basmati Rice (or Long Grain Rice)
- Short Grain Rice
- Granulated Sugar
- All-Purpose Flour
- Bread Flour
- Red Split Lentils
- Brown Lentils
- Baking Powder
- Baking Soda
I use Basmati and long grain rice for dishes such as kabseh, m'jaddara, and white rice with vermicelli. Short grain rice is great for mahashi (or stuffed squash and eggplant), as well as stuffed grape leaves and stuffed cabbage leaves.
I use all-purpose flour for all of my dough. Whether I'm making pita bread, atayef or fatayer, all-purpose flour dough is the best option, in my opinion. However, if you're making za'atar and cheese bread, I recommend you use bread flour.
Farina and semolina are used in Middle Eastern desserts as well. Farina is the base of namoura, a cake like dessert drenched in simple syrup. Semolina is used for finer desserts, like halawet el jibn.
Bulgur, a durum wheat, is soaked in water and used in tabbouleh.
Couscous and Freekeh are alternate options to serve along side dishes like chicken, beef stew or lamb shanks. I love to make freekeh with chicken, especially when I'm not in the mood for rice. Freekeh makes for an amazing side dish - it's low in fat, and high in protein and fiber.
Oils and Olives:
Growing up in a Palestinian home, olive oil was always a very serious subject. My parents make sure to buy the best olive oil because it makes a huge difference in flavor. Extra virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point than regular olive oil. It's better to save it for salad dressing, zait wo za'atar, and cold dishes. Use lighter olive oils for cooking because they have a higher smoke point.
My pantry is always stocked with:
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Light Olive Oil
- Frying Oil (vegetable, safflower, or canola)
- Green Olives
- Black Olives
The last major group that completes a Middle Eastern pantry: nuts! Whether you're using nuts in desserts or toasted on rice, nuts are an essential part of the Middle Eastern cuisine.
Here a few of my favorites:
- Almonds (whole and slivered)
- Pistachios (unsalted)
- Pine Nuts
An organized and stocked pantry makes cooking much easier. It's also important to remember, if you use a pantry item frequently, it's cheaper to buy it in larger quantities. For ingredients not used on a regular basis, it's better to them in smaller quantities. This avoids waste, especially if the ingredients expire and you end up throwing them away.
What items are in your pantry?