For many Arab and Palestinian families, the most important part of their kitchen is what's called the supply pantry or “namlieh” نمليه. My grandmother and mother’s pantry would have all sorts of goods its called “mouneh” مونه. Mouneh comes from the Arabic word mana meaning “storing”. Everything from olive oil, olives, pickles, tahini, dried fruits, dried veggies like eggplants, lemons, tomatoes, grape leaves and okra to grains, legumes, jams, molasses, spices, and dried herbs. Brined white nabulsi cheese, strained yogurt balls (labaneh tabaat), and mansaf balls (dried yogurt) are also pantry essentials.
For me and many others who live far from home. Mouneh has become far more than preserving food for the winter months but rather a way to keep our culinary heritage and food culture alive.
Growing up I clearly remember my grandmothers pantry it was old but loaded with all sorts of delicious things. She had remodeled her namlieh since but the memories of the goodies that went inside it are priceless. Comes ends of summer and you see my grandmother busy making molasses, fermenting vinegar, making wine, fruit jams and fruit leather. She dried herbs, and greens like mulukhieh and grains like feeekeh. A lot of vegetables like tomatoes, and fruits like figs and raisins were also sundried. Clean bed sheets covered all the tables in the house and anywhere the sun hits even the roof top. With every season something new was being preserved and stored. Cheese, Ghee, Za’atar and dukkah in the spring while olives and olive oil are a fall production. So much hard work and planning went into creating a year full of mouneh. But so many smiles and memories went into consuming it all.
If you have been following me for a while you probably know my love to Middle Eastern and Palestinian cooking. It’s the flavors of my childhood and the way I grew up eating. Back In April we dedicated the whole month to showcase Arab cooking from various regions. To see the amazing creations from foodies all over the world check out the hashtag #aprilisforarabfood on instagram. The delicious recipes bring us to the question on what are some of the main ingredients that are used in Arab cooking, and what’s in my pantry that I can’t cook without when it comes to Middle Eastern cooking and Palestinian food. In this post I am going to go over details of must have ingredients in your pantry or namlieh and kitchen to cook all sorts of Middle Eastern and Palestinian recipes. Although this list is not comprehensive rather it’s a description and an introduction to items that are always in my kitchen and enough to get you started in your Middle Eastern cooking adventure.
*At the market "al souk" in the old city of Nablus
On my blog and Instagram you will find lots of recipes using these particular ingredients and as you follow along my food journey you will find recipes that I create or recreate using the pantry ingredients. And as always if you have a question or need a recipe to finish up a jar of tahini just send me a message and will gladly help.
The Arab Pantry:
Grains and legumes:
* Handmade pottery bowls from Hebron
Chickpeas: hummus in Arabic is referred to both the dip and the bean itself. The dry chickpeas are the main ingredient in creamy hummus. Hummus is a staple dip part of the breakfast, lunch, dinner and mezze table. Kids often take it as a sandwich for school lunch. Its also perfect as a dip or a main dish topped with shawerma or minced meat.
Bulgur: in Arabic called bur_ghul برغل. Bulgur wheat is a whole wheat grain that has been cracked and partially pre-cooked. As a whole grain, it is naturally high in fiber. In the Arab world the smallest of the grain is used in tabouli salad and larger bulgur is cooked as pilaf an alternative to rice. Freekeh: pronounced free-keh in Arabic فريكه. A young green wheat harvested in the spring time at its green stage, sun dried and flame roasted, then rubbed and cracked. Freekeh is firm and chewy in texture when cooked and has a distinct earthy taste and subtle smokiness. Freekeh is commonly used in soups with chicken during the winter months and as a pilaf served with nuts next to roasted meats. Maftoul مفتول Is a hand rolled tiny pasta pearls are 2-3 mm in diameter. Maftoul, also known as Palestinian couscous, is made of wheat. The wheat is usually boiled, sun-dried and cracked, and hand-rolled in whole wheat flour and bulgur, then steamed and sun-dried. This process gives the maftoul a nutty earthy flavor. It’s also deeper in color than couscous or other maftoul variety. Lentils: in Arabic called adas عدس There are two kinds of lentils that are often used in Arab cooking. The brown variety is used in stews such as Rumanieh, and mujadara (lentil rice with onions) or the orange variety that’s used in soups. Rice in Arabic ruz رز Rice is essential in the Arab kitchen. Arabs often use short grain rice called Egyptian rice or basmati. It’s served almost daily with meat and vegetable stews. And mounded high topped with meat chunks and nuts and dried fruits for guests and celebrations. Flavorings:
Orange blossom and rose water: Are floral distillations from flower petals. They are usually very concentrated in flavor so use carefully. Start with a few drops at a time or follow the recipe exactly it could turn bitter fast if too much is used. Rose Petals: in its dried format is used to garnish sweet and savory dishes. And also used in some preserves. Mastic: is also called Arabic gum. Mastic is the resin of a Mediterranean shrub. The hardened sap from a tree. It appears as pea-sized globules, known as tears. They are rounded, and sometimes oblong, with a crystalline texture. The resin is semi-translucent, pastel yellow or faint white. Mastic has a slightly resinous, pine-like flavour and it’s considered the original chewing gum. It’s used to flavor many sweet dishes, cheeses, and sometimes you find it in soup. Pomegranate molasses also known as dibs al ruman دبس الرمان is just boiled down pomegranate juice until it becomes syrupy. It’s has a deep burgundy color. It has a tart sweet flavor therefore use it according to the recipe so it doesn’t overwhelm your dish. Often used in marinates, salad dressing and as a finish in some stews like rumanieh; an eggplant and lentil stew. Grape and date molasses: also called dibis دبس in Arabic: is a thick dark brown, very sweet fruit syrup extracted from dates or grapes. It’s used as a natural sweetener in desserts and in every palestinian home you will see a ceramic bowl designated to dibis and tahini mixed together and eaten with bread for breakfast. Nuts and seeds:
Pistachios: In Palestine it was know as Aleppo pistachios or fustuk Halabi فستق حلبي referring to the city of Aleppo in Syria where a lot of pistachios are grown. Pistachios are so luxurious and used in so many Middle Eastern desserts such as all sorts of baklava and as a garnish to both sweet and savory dishes. My daughters love saying the word fustuk Halabi that they created their own song. Almonds: in Arabic called louz لوز. My grandfather planted few almond trees in our family garden. In the spring we eat the almonds right off the branches while it’s still green. They have an emerald green skin, they are a bit sour and crunchy making them one of my favorite spring snacks. Almonds are used in both sweet and savory dishes. They are often sautéed in ghee to garnish rice and meat dishes. Pine nuts: in Arabic called snowbar صنوبر. Are also used in both sweet and savory dishes. They have a buttery taste. They are the seeds found in the cones of a pine tree. It was a special treat to crack them open growing up straight off the cones. Eating them straight out of their pods is a distinguished piney flavor and not to forget how so silky and luxurious they are. Seeds:
Sesame seeds: in Arabic they are called simsim سمسم. The sesame seeds are used in many desserts and cookies in the Middle East such as barazek cookies, lots of date and sesame combinations, simsimeih bars mainly sesame seeds roasted and mixed With honey. Also the one known most to all is tahini paste. Tahini: in Arabic called t-he-nieh طحينية is a paste made from ground sesame seeds. It has the consistency of nut butters but a bit thinner. It’s the key Ingredient in many of the Arab sauces and dips. It’s used in hummus, kiftah meatball sauce, salad dressing in Jerusalem salad and also in many sweet dishes. And it’s also the main ingredient in halva or halaweh حلاوة Nigella seeds: in Arabic it’s called habet al barakeh (translates to The seed of blessings or seed of grace) حبة البركة Its a small slightly bitter black seed of the Nigella Satvia flower. Looks like a sesame seed but has a completely different flavor profile. Often called black cumin. It’s often used in pastries both sweet and savory, breads, cheeses, and could be ground into paste and eaten with tahini, honey or sugar. Spices:
Sumac سماق: is an ancient spice and comes in it’s ground form from the sumac berries. A shrub that grows all over the Middle East. It’s tangy, lemony and vibrant in flavor and color. It’s often used in salads, fish dishes and chicken. My father in law has a few sumac shrubs. He oftens harvest the berries and sends them to the local mill to be ground before he sends them to us. It’s so vibrant and tangy. Zaatar زعتر: in Arabic zaatar is both the spice mix and the herb itself. It’s my all time favorite herb and spice mix. In my family zaatar is always made by my TITA (grandmother). My grandma would get piles and piles of fresh zaatar in the spring. She takes the leaves of the stems, washes, dries it and them mix it with other ingredients such as sumac and sesame seeds. It’s a labor of love. My grandmother would then package the zaatar mix and sends it to all the grandkids and kids all over the world. I anxiously wait for my portion every year. It’s the tastiest gift that we ask for season after season. Zaatar is often part of the breakfast table in the Middle East. There is two separate bowls designated to zeit (olive oil) and zaatar. You eat it by dipping the pita bread in the zeit first then the zaatar. It’s great sprinkled on top of yogurt, in manaeesh (zaatar spread flat breads) and is the perfect rub for chicken. Dukah: Gazans call it Dugga It’s native to Egypt and found its way to Gaza. It’s a blend of ground grains, legumes and herbs and spices. It’s often eaten with bread dipped first in olive oil then the dukah mixture. Each family has their own unique variations of the blend. But it often has wheat berries, sumac, dill, chili’s, cumin, caraway seeds, coriander, and sometimes nuts like almonds .. Allspice: this is a dominant spice used in middle eastern cooking. Allspice is a fruit picked before it’s ripe from a tree (the flowering tropical evergreen Pimenta dioica), dried and either sold as whole “berries” or ground. Allspice is a berry that’s pretty complex in flavor it has a hint of cinnamon, nutmeg, juniper berries, pepper hence its name. It’s often mixed with other spices in Middle Eastern dishes. It’s used as a dry rub on various cuts of meats, and mixed in with rice for a delicious festive flavor we call it ruz hashweh رز حشوة
Cardamom in Arabic called hail هيل The green pods of hail contain lots of tiny seeds. In its pod format it’s used in making meat and vegetable broth and stock, and In many stews. You will often see it ground used in Arabic coffee and to flavor desserts.
Cumin in Arabic called Kamoun كمون It’s an earthy smoky spice. In Palestinian cooking It’s mainly used With legumes and cabbage dishes it’s believed to counteract their gas inducing properties. Some of the common uses: In hummus, foul (fava bean) dips, lentil soups, stuffed cabbage .. you get the idea Allepo peppers: Named after the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, this spice is now largely sourced from Turkey and elsewhere, due to the challenges of growing and exporting from the war-torn Syria. It comes from a burgundy chile also known as the Halaby pepper. Once ripened, the peppers are semi-dried, de-seeded, and coarsely ground. Aleppo pepper is a common Middle Eastern condiment, traditionally used to season meat, beans, salads, and found in muhammara dip, but it can be used like any other dried red pepper. Turmeric: Is a bright yellow aromatic powder obtained from the rhizome of a plant of the ginger family, used for flavoring and coloring in cooking. In the Arab world its used in stews, and to color rice dishes. You will also see it used in some pastries and bread. Major crush: Labaneh لبنه: it’s a tangy salty and a creamy cheese spread similar in texture to mascarpone and spreadable like cream cheese. It’s made out of strained yogurt preferably homemade. It’s often eaten for breakfast drizzled With olive oil. Or slathered in a pita pocket with a sprinkling of zaatar. Middle eastern stores carry some good varieties.
Yogurt in Arabic is called Laban لبن Both cows milk or goats milk yogurt is very popular and essential in Arab cooking. It’s both eaten raw and cooked. It’s used in salads as dressing like cucumber yogurt salad, found in desserts, in main dishes such as Laban IMO a cooked yogurt and meat dish flavored with garlic and mint and in mezze or appetizers. A variety of Labaneh cheeses are also made from yogurt. Jameed: is a dried sheeps milk sold in balls. Often soaked to soften and then mixed with a meat broth. Served with rice. You make mansaf out of jameed balls it’s defiantly a meal served at festivities, celebrations and special occasions. Nablusi cheese جبنة نابلسية is a salty briny white cheese studded with nigella seeds and flavored with mastic and mahleb. It’s delicious boiled or fried with eggs. Soaked in water and desalted is often used in desserts such as the popular stretchy sweet knafeh. Taboon, Pita and saj or griddle bread: the Arabic word for bread is khubez خبز There are bakeries in every corner and every neighborhood in Palestine where I grew up. We buy bread especially pitas and taboon piping hot straight off the oven belt. You buy your days worth and you may freeze the rest. As a kid I loved the chore to walk to the bakery and get the bread. I would eat an entire hot loaf on the walk home. Specialty bread like saj which is referred to the tool used to make the bread. It’s a metallic dome shaped pan made of cast Iron, heated over coals. The curved shape helps spread the dough so thin and creates beautiful charred pockets. Taboon bread: The taboon is refereed to the clay oven that’s been used in the making of this bread. It has hot pebbles at the bottom of it to give the bread it’s traditional shape and charred pockets. The pebbles will create indentations in the dough which makes it perfect to make Palestine most popular and loved dish the Musakhan مسخن. It’s taboon bread slathered with sumac sautéed onions in lots of good olive oil and topped with roasted chicken. Ghee: in Arabic it’s called Samneh سمنه: It’s clarified evaporated butter. Has a higher smoking point than butter. In Palestine they sell ghee spice or called huajit al samneh حواجة السمنه. It’s a spice mix to flavor the ghee and gives it its famous yellow hue. It’s often used in rice dishes, and to baste meats, and In sweets such as knafeh and baklava. Essential fresh ingredients: Produce such as Lemons, garlic, onions and potatoes are always available on hand. My grandmother would place them in a 3 tier wicker basket right by the side of her pantry. Cooking in the Arab world is pretty much seasonal. Although you might find cauliflower all year around the baladi variety will only pop up in spring. The produce you find at the market often defines your meal choices for the week. Cauliflower or eggplant may mean maqlouba, Swiss chard might mean lentil Swiss chard soup or fresh green beans it will be fassoulia stew. You get the idea.
*At the market "souk" in Ramallah- Summer zucchini called kousa
Lemons or laymoun ليمون Lemon and other citrus fruits are used liberally all over the region. I use lemons pretty much everyday. For salad dressing, marinates, drinks, desserts and simple syrup.
Olive oil: in Arabic Zait Zaytoun زيت زيتون Every Arab pantry has bottles or large containers of olive oil from the olive harvest. When the olive oil is first pressed it’s spicy and peppery. Palestinian olive oil is a beautiful green color it’s so delicious. my dad just eats it with bread and sometimes takes olive oil shots right after it’s pressed. Olive oil is used in almost every dish. It’s used to dress salads, sauté vegetables and finish dishes. It’s not used for deep frying as it will burn. When I came to Chicago to study and despite my attempts to tell my grandmother that I don’t have a kitchen in my dorm room she still sent me off with a bottle of olive oil from our land and a bag of her homemade zaatar. Till this day I would take a sniff of zaatar every time I miss home. Zait and zaatar go together just like peanut butter and jelly. Olives: in Arabic zaytoun زيتون: Often pickled in a salt and lemon brine mixture. Olive trees are not just like any other trees. They are tough, resilient, and gorgeous. The trees are draught-resistant and grow even under poor soil conditions. The olive trees live and bear fruit for thousands of years. To me and to all Palestinians they are the symbol of our lives. My grandfather planted trees over 100 years ago, that my dad still carefully cares for. Palestine has some of the world’s oldest olive trees, dating back to 4,000 years. The olive trees are so significant that Some families have trees that have been passed down to them for generations and some are even included in ones will. The olive harvest season in October meant that families got together, the elderly, the kids, moms and dads, sons and daughters, and neighbors they all had jobs during the olive harvest. There is a black and a green variety of olives all over the Middle East.
Pomegranates: in Arabic are called Ruman رمان Ruman is a ruby red fruit with delicious sweet and slightly sour pearls inside. It transforms any dish into something spectacular. Often used as a garnish in both sweet and savory dishes. When in season you will see juice vendors juicing it for the most delicious ruby drink that’s loaded with vitamins. And in its syrup format as in pomegranate molasses is used in stew like dishes.
* A pomegranate tree my grandfather planted at our home in jerusalem. Its almost a 100 years old.
Figs are called teen تين There are many varieties of figs in Palestine differing in taste, color and size. Figs are often eaten fresh. My grandmother loves them for breakfast with a piece of cheese. They are also popular dried. Fig and walnut jam is a very popular preserve in the Arab pantry. Apricots are called mishmish مشمش There is a variety of apricots in the region. They range from the orange variety to my absolute favorite المشمش المستكاوي that’s yellow and has pink hues. The fruit is firm it could be sweet or tart. In early spring we would even crack the seed inside open and eat its white kernels it’s so good. Apricots are popular in jams and preserves. Also dried and used in stews, and In desserts apricots are used to make Qamar al-Din "Moon of the Religion" a fruit Leather like treat and if steeped in water and then blended it will make a delicious apricot drink or as a fruit topping to creamy milk desserts like muhalabieh. The fact that apricot season is very short has given rise to the common Arabic expression filmishmish "in apricot season or when apricots bloom" في المشمش which is taken non literally to mean the equivalent of the English phrases "wishful thinking" or "when pigs fly. Dates called tamer تمر in Arabic: Used in both sweet and savory dishes. Medjool in the Middle East is considered the king of dates. They are soft and chewy with Carmel like flavor. The fruit is eaten by itself especially during the month of Ramadan before the iftar or breaking the fast. Once ripened it could also be eaten straight off its vine. Date syrup is often made from dates as an alternative natural sweetener. Palestinian dates often come from the city of Jericho due to its hot climate. Mint: in Arabic na’na’ is so loved in the Middle East. If you are outside the Middle East the closest variety would be spearmint. It’s used steeped in tea, or in salads. Dried mint is also used in salads and vegetarian and yogurt dishes. I recommend drying your own leaves as the store bought dried variety tend to lack flavor. Once you want to use dried mint rub the leaves between your fingers to crush them this will release it’s refreshing flavor. Grape leaves: warak enab ورق عنب
In the spring and summer time the Arab cook will use fresh off the vine leaves. They are cleaned and blanched in boiling water. Then stuffed with a vegetarian or a meat rice mixture. You can also find them preserved in brine at local Middle Eastern markets. Or like my grandmother does she packs the leaves solid in coke or Pepsi bottles. You can also use the grape leaves to wrap fish, cheese and meatballs before cooking. Stuffing dawali or grape leaves is a meal often left for the weekend as it requires a lot of prep. A lot of Arab women love forging for the tender grape leaves a happy tradition I passed into my children. I would love to hear about any other ingredients that are in your pantry and how do you use them. Head on to my post on Instagram to enter my Arab Pantry Giveaway. I have partnered up with my friends at Ziyad Brothers to give a wonderful follower a set of some of my essential pantry ingredients and to help you get started in your Arab food cooking adventure. Head on to my Instagram page @almondandfig to enter.