Wheat was first cultivated in the Middle East, followed by barley, pistachios, figs, pomegranates, dates and other regional staples. Fermentation was also discovered at this time to leaven bread also to make beer. As a crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa, this area has long been a hub of culinary and recipe exchange. Throughout the Persian Empire (ca. 550-330 BCE) the foundation was laid for Middle Eastern food when rice, poultry and fruits were integrated into their diets. Figs, dates and nuts were brought by Arabian warriors to conquered lands.
These were only the first influences on the area. During Turkey's Ottoman Empire the sweet pastries of paper thin phyllo dough and the dense, sweet coffee was brought to the area; coffee is now consumed throughout the Middle East.
The region was also influenced by yoghurt from Russia; dumplings from Mongol invaders; turmeric, cumin, garlic and other spices from India; cloves, peppercorns and allspice from the Spice Islands; okra from Africa; and tomatoes from the New World, via the Moors of Spain. Religion has also changed the cuisine as neither Jews nor Muslims eat pork, making lamb the primary meat. In addition, the Qur'an forbids alcohol, so as a result the region is not generally noted for its wines.
Many Middle Eastern dishes are created using a paste called tahini. Tahini is a sesame paste created using hulled seeds, unlike its Asian counterpart. It is used to make such popular meze or appetizers, as baba ghanoush and hummus together with pungent dipping sauces served with falafel, keftes or kofta and vegetables. Hummus is made out of chickpeas, which are staples of the diet.
Aside from the ever-popular Middle Eastern coffee, there is also a popular alcoholic drink called arak. Arak has a high alcohol content, so water and ice is nearly always added, producing the drink nicknamed "the milk of lions".
The diet is usually cited as beneficial for being low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat and dietary fibre.
One of the main explanations is thought to be the health effects of olive oil included in the Middle Eastern diet.
Some of the health benefits may include: Extended Life. A clinical research study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that a diet closely resembling the Middle Eastern diet was “associated with a more than 50% lower rate of all-causes and cause-specific mortality.”
Decreased risk of diabetes. Diabetes rates are growing, partly due to the rise in obesity. A Middle Eastern diet, can with an emphasis on natural plant foods prevent the blood sugar “spike” inherent in high glycemic index foods. A 2008 British medical journal study found that individuals that closely adhered to this kind of diet had a decreased risk of developing type two diabetes of 75%.
Lower weight. Although not necessarily always low fat, a Middle Eastern style diet helps people slim down effectively. Researchers in Israel randomly assigned 300 people who had struggled with weight loss to either follow a typical low fat diet, or a Middle Eastern style diet. People who followed the Middle Eastern diet lost twice the weight of those sticking to the old fashioned low fat dieting approach.
Decreased risk of heart disease. Heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease, is the number one killer in the world. Actually, the American Heart Association found that one third of all deaths can be pinned on cardiovascular disease. The Middle Eastern diet attacks cardiovascular disease in a multitude of ways, reducing body fat and weight, decreasing the incidence of diabetes and lowering cholesterol.