Middle eastern and arabic ingredients

Here I will be sharing pictures and a little info about arabic and middle eastern ingredients I use in my recipes along with a few tips on what to look for when selecting these ingredients. This page was suggested by one of my wonderful readers, Robin, thank you for the great suggestion.

I will be adding ingredients gradually to this page and hopefully it will be soon be a complete visual index of all the ingredients unique to the arabic and middle eastern cuisine


sumac @chef in disguise

Sumac (Soo-mak) is a spice that comes from the berries of the Rhus shrubs. The berries are dried and then ground to give a purplish deep red powder that is sour, slightly fruity and astringent. It is used in the middle eastern cuisine to add a sour, lemony taste to chicken, salads and salad dressings. It is also used as a garnish for different dips and salads.

Season: available year-round

How to select: Found in Middle Eastern markets ground or dried.The color may range from deep purple to reddish purple.

Substitutions: lemon zest plus salt OR (in salads) lemon juice OR (in salads) vinegar

What is mastic?


Mastic is a resin obtained from the mastic tree. It is called “arabic gum” (not to be confused with gum arabic) and “Yemen gum”. In Greece, it is known as the “tears of Chios” . like other natural resins, mastic is produced in “tears” or droplets. Originally liquid, it is sun dried into drops of hard brittle translucent resin. When chewed, the resin softens and becomes a bright white and opaque gum.

How to select: Mastic is usually sold in middle eastern and greek stores. It looks like little golden opaque crystals and is usually sold in little bottles. Go for the Mastic that looks like littel golden droplets as opposed to the mastic that looks like broken glass.

One of the earliest uses of mastic was as chewing gum; hence, the name. Mastic-flavored chewing gum is still sold in many middle eastern countries.Mastic is used in ice cream, puddings and  milk based desserts and drinks and it is key in giving Nabulsi cheese its unique flavor. It is also commonly added to baked goods such as maamoul.



Mahlab or mahlepi is an aromatic spice made from the seeds of the St Lucie Cherry. The cherry stones are cracked to extract the seed kernel, which is about 5 mm diameter, soft and chewy on extraction, but ground to a powder before use. The flavour is similar to a combination of bitter almond and cherry.

Mahlab kernels are light brown in color and they resemble small almonds in shape.

How to select: You can find Mahlab in arabic and greek stores, usually sold in small bottles

Zaatar (oregano)


Zaatar زعتر in arabic is a word that stand for both the herb oregano and the spice mix made with dried oregano, sesame seeds, sumac, salt and ground caraway seeds.

Zaatar the herb is used in salads, flat bread, pastry and hot winter drinks. Zaatar the spice mix is commonly eaten with pita, which is dipped in olive oil and then za’atar. It can also be mixed with olive oil to form a paste,this mixture is then spread on a dough base and baked as a bread, produces manakeesh bi zaatar (flat bread topped with zaatar). Za’atar can also be used as a spice rub for meat and chicken

What is cardamom?

spices @ chef in disguise
Bottom to top: Cardamom, Nutmeg, Cinnamon

Cardamom is one of the world’s very ancient spices. Cardamom has a strong, unique spicy-sweet taste, which is slightly aromatic. The small, brown-black sticky cardamom seeds are contained in a pod in three double rows with about six seeds in each row. The pods are between 5-20 mm (1/4”-3/4”) long, the larger variety known as ‘black’, being brown and the smaller being green. White-bleached pods are also available.Cardamom is more expensive than average spices but a little goes a long way. Cardamom is used  in rice dishes. It adds a unique flavor to desserts such as cakes (it pairs beautifully with cinnamon) and cookies. It give Arabic and Turkish coffee its characteristic flavor. Try adding a little to your favorite dough recipe and you will be amazed at how a little spice can transform your baked goods

How to select: Purchase in the pod or ground, usually found in middle eastern or indian shops.  It is best to buy cardamom still in the pods, which are removed and discarded. You can also buy cardamom seeds however; they lose much of their flavor. Ground cardamom has even less flavor than the fresher ones

How to prepare: Grinding the pod yourself will result in a fresher, stronger representation of the spice.

 What is freekeh?

Freekeh (pronounced free-ka) has been recently labeled “super food”.It has been popular in the arabic cuisine for centuries.Mainly in the Levantine area and north-east africa. It is used to make soups, pilaf,salads and even to make the stuffing for chicken and poultry.

Freekeh is roasted green wheat. The grains are harvested while still soft, young and green, then parched, roasted and dried. The process captures and more importantly retains the grains at the state of peak taste and nutrition. Green grains are very different in properties to mature grains. The entire process is natural and only uses fire and air. Freekeh is higher in protein compared to couscous and appreciably higher compared to white rice. It compares well to other healthy grains such as quinoa and farro. Freekeh has at least four times as much fibre as some other comparable grains, and consists mostly of insoluble fibre. It also has a low glycemic index.

How to select:You can by freekeh in three sizes rough, medium and fine. Fine freekeh works best for soups. The medium and rough cut freekeh is what you ‘ll need to make pilafs, salads and stuffing

How to prepare: You can make freekeh into pilafs or use it as a stuffing for chicken, you can also use it in salads the same way you would use couscous or quinoa

Matches well with: chicken, coffee, curries, duck, lentils, meat, oranges, peas, rice, squash