Having lived in the Middle East for more than a year now I have quickly realized that there are a lot of things I simply prefer back home in Europe, such as the summer, the nature and the well-stocked supermarkets. One thing I definitely don’t miss and actually appreciate very much here is the local cuisine. Even though there are so many more vegan cafés, restaurants, and simply vegan groceries (such as fake meats) available in Germany, the local German cuisine is very much based on meat and diary while fruits and vegetables are more often only offered as a side dish (or as a salad). Vegan options are increasing rapidly but you’d struggle trying to find an authentically German restaurant serving several vegan dishes.
Luckily, this is the complete opposite in the Arabic cuisine. While main dishes are still mostly containing beef or chicken it’s the choice of vegan appetizers that make going to a restaurant so easy here! If you are new to the Middle Eastern cuisine or might be visiting the region soon my Top 10 Oriental Dishes, which you’ll be able to find in almost every Lebanese, Jordanian and Emirati restaurant, will help you navigate through the menus!
- Hummus – a typical appetizer, which you have to try in case you haven’t yet. Nowadays hummus is available in almost all supermarkets around the world as well. It’s a blend of cooked chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), olive oil, garlic and several spices in its original version. Creamy and full of flavors you can typically have it on bread or dip veggies in it. Often you can find other version of hummus such as avocado hummus, hummus beiruti (added parsley and chili) or hummus with pomegranate to name only a few. The only versions that aren’t vegan are the ones with meat and labneh.
- Falafel – deep-fried balls made out of pureed chickpeas or beans, often served with a tahini dip. You can find / add falafel to anything: falafel sandwich, falafel wrap, falafel salad or just a plain falafel plate. Similar to hummus falafel are now available in different flavors as well: I’ve had the traditional type made out of chickpeas, stuffed ones with dried tomatoes / onions, falafel made out of other beans and even pumpkin falafel!
- Fattoush – my favorite Lebanese salad! Made out of tomatoes, cucumber, parsley, often onions and pomegranate seeds or other vegetables, always topped with fried Arabic flatbread and served in a lemon- or lime dressing. Fattoush is typically served to share as an appetizer and I’ve heard a lot of people commenting on the sourness of the dressing and this being the reason for them not to have it as a main dish. However I like it so much because of the crispiness it gets from the fried flatbread.
- Lentil Soup – Other than the lentil soup I remember from my childhood the Middle Eastern version is always served pureed and is a common starter. All lentil soups I’ve ordered in the region so far didn’t contain any dairy and were served with a slice of lemon. However without preparing it yourself or standing next to the chef while it’s being prepared it will be difficult to ensure that it’s made out of vegetable and not chicken stock. If that doesn’t bother you, you should definitely try it: sometimes the soup even has a little velvety taste and I love to order it during winter or if I’m only looking for a light dish.
- Moutabal / Baba Ganoush – another great vegan dip made out of eggplant (or aubergine) and tahini paste (similar to hummus). The original recipe doesn’t include yogurt in the recipe – however I recommend you to ensure that. The difference between Moutabal and Baba Ganoush? Both are made out of grilled eggplant – Moutabal is a creamier dip with tahini and Baba Ganoush is chunkier with pieces of vegetables and without tahini.
- Stuffed Vine Leaves – isn’t particularly a dish from only the Middle Eastern cuisine and also exists in the Mediterranean diet, where stuffing vegetables is quite common. While veggies are being stuffed with not only rice and herbs there’s also a recipe in which they’re being filled with meat. Stuffed vine leaves are an aromatic appetizer and often tossed in olive oil (similar to almost all other dishes on this list).
- Dates – a fruit, which is almost always eaten dried. They contain lots of natural sugar and there are plenty of studies out there promoting their health benefits (from lowering cholesterol to the promotion of digestion). Dates are sometimes being eaten for breakfast, always served with Arabic coffee or tea and as a dessert. In case you think you don’t like them: try again! There is such a huge variety in sweetness, as well as preparation: some of them come stuffed with nuts.
- Tahini Sauce – a sesame based paste or sauce prepared without dairy. Obviously tahini sauce doesn’t count as one of my favorite Arabic vegan dishes, but is listed here to make ordering in restaurants or fast-food chains easier for you: tahini sauce is always vegan and a great addition to sandwiches, salads, or anything savory you can order. Be careful: tahini sauce does often contain a lot of garlic!
- Lemon and Mint Juice – the Oriental version of the common lemonade. Always prepared freshly, Lemon and Mint Juice is highly refreshing and obviously has a slight sour taste as long as no sugar has been added (make sure to order without sugar to avoid calorie bombs).
- Arabic Bread – or also called Pita Bread is definitely one of the reasons why I’ll never be starving in the Middle East. Widely available (small and big supermarkets, food stalls and chic restaurants) it can be eaten with any of the dips mentioned above and most likely will be served warm at the restaurant. It’s simply made out of flour, sugar, salt, yeast and water, is really thin and tastes a little plain on it’s own. However order it with zaatar, a typically Arabic spice, for more taste!
I hope this list is helpful to you – in case you are travelling to Dubai soon make sure to check out my favorite vegan / vegan-friendly restaurants to have a hassle-free trip. Let me know which are your favorites on my list and what you’d add – I’m always ready to try new vegan local dishes!