Give or take differences due to religious practices, there is much common ground between the food typically found in the countries of the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, from Lebanon to Syria, as well as Jordan, Palestine, and Israel.
Spices, chick peas, and pita bread
In the first instance, this is a cuisine where spices, cereals, and legumes, especially chick peas, prevail. Indeed, chick peas originated from the Fertile Crescent, and have been grown for thousands of years in the Mediterranean basin, and in the area that we now call the Middle East. Chick peas play a key role in two of the dishes best-known in the west: falafel and hummus.
Falafel are moist patties made of finely-ground chick peas, although other legumes may also be present. Often rolled in sesame seeds, the falafel are then deep-fried in hot oil. Falafel are particularly popular in Jerusalem. Favored by all the communities that live there, falafel are a common street-food, where they are eaten stuffed into a pita bread pocket, with salad, and yogurt sauce. Hummus is a puree of chick peas, blended with tahini, a sesame seed paste, olive oil, lemon, garlic, and finely-ground cumin seeds.
Hummus, too, is served with a round flat pita bread that can be sliced open to form a pocket, the etymological origins of which lies in the Balkans and the Greece. Italian pizza is a similar idea, a base upon which to place the rest of one’s meal.
Shared foodie delights
How about labneh, a yogurt-based cheese, prepared in the home in, among others, Palestine, Israel, Syria, and Jordan. Then there is Muhammara, a dip made of hot peppers, originating from Aleppo in Syria, with the original peppers having come from the Americas. Having spread throughout the Middle East, muhammara found its way back across the Atlantic, thanks to immigrants.
Another well-known street food is shawarma, or doner-kebab, which is meat roasted on a vertical spit, and then served in thin slices, and which is now a familiar sight in much of Europe.
Couscous as case-study
Providing a perfect example of a dish that has successfully crossed cultures, couscous was a traditional Berber dish that later spread eastwards. On the island of San Pietro, off the south-west coast of Sardinia, the local variation is called cascà, while in the area around Trapani, on the western tip of Sicily, the name cuscusù is used; in Palestine, the dish is known as maftoul.
Another example of an easterly food migration is shakshuka, a dish of eggs poached in an onion- and tomato-sauce, which seems to have originated in north Africa and is now a breakfast dish in Israel and elsewhere.
The present-day common factors of the food of the Middle East
As elsewhere, the cooking of the Middle East reflects its agricultural traditions: these include the cultivation of grains, legumes, and olives. A cuisine based on spices, but which also features floral tones, as evidenced by the use of rosewater, orange-flower water, and jasmine, for example. These are also lands of fruit, fresh and dried, as in the case of almonds, pistachio nuts, and dates, all of which are used in dishes both sweet and savory.
Of the many countries linked by a common cuisine, the similarities between that of Palestine and of Israel are particularly striking. Israeli cuisine is typical of a people that underwent a long diaspora, with traces of many cultures in its dishes, these influences ranging from Arabic to Eastern European.
Established over time and the outcome of millennia of history, of greatness and suffering, of exiles and returns, the common culinary traditions of the many peoples of the Near and Middle East are so ingrained that, in Jerusalem, a young Jewish woman and her Muslim counterpart would each consider falafel and hummus as typical of their own culture. Maybe one day these people will also share the same territory, which is not only the expression of the three great Abrahamic, or Semitic religions, but also one of the cradles of human civilization.