Regional Food and Drink: The Middle East

A few notes on the Mid-East cuisine; otherwise known as the great hummus contest and food more generally. There are many claims in the region about the best hummus or the best falafel. Having visited many “the best” in the region, we thought that while Israeli hummus was outstanding, and Lebanese a little disappointing, that Syria’s was consistently excellent. While shwarma (called a variation of kebap in other countries) was probably most available in Jordan or Syria, that in Israel and Palestine they really have the complete package of meat, toppings, and a bread down to a nearly unbeatable science. And for felafel (the “national dish” of several countries in the region), while Lebanon and Syria had some very tasty options, the best stand alone felafel balls were probably in a back alley in Amman- though Egypt’s variation, using fava  beans instead of chickpeas, probably had the best overall flavor. Egypt also had more original dishes than most other countries though with varying success (fatta was a tasty change of pace, while kushari was more controversial). 

In terms of drinks, we’ll start with the non-alcoholic variety.  The coffee was a bit of a let down—Turkish coffee (served in all middle eastern countries) was too bitter and “filtered coffee” just not good.  We both developed a deeper appreciation of tea, however, which is served at all times, in all places.  The highlight of the juices was pomegranate juice and the (best ever) fresh mint lemonade.

Alcoholic drinks proved to be much more difficult to find in the Middle East.  Beer and wine is sold at very few stores and restaurants, save the tourist areas.  Even there, it was not usually listed on the menu (we think both so as not to blatantly advertise it and so that prices could be somewhat arbitrary.  We had low expectations of the wine going in and were pleasantly surprised (although not overwhelmed.)  Lebanon probably had the best wine, all similar to French wine of course.  Egyptian wine was also quite drinkable, although the white much more so than the red.  (Jed’s father discovered the Omar Khayam white wine that he quite enjoyed.)  Beer was also in general slightly below average in quality though (with the exception of Luxor beer in Egypt) it was mainly drinkable. The highlight was Taybeh beer, which is the middle east only microbrew, located just north of Ramallah in the Palestinian Territories. Alamaza in Lebanon was also an outstanding pilsner and Stella (not Artois) in Egypt was good though with a slightly skunky aftertaste (think Rolling Rock). In all, there were few libation highlights in the region.