Delicious vegan and vegetarian food to try in the Middle East

Delicious vegan and vegetarian food to try in the Middle East

I remember the first buffet lunch I attended in Doha, where I got stuck in front of the salad bar. What was that green stuff? Did that pate-looking thing have meat in it? Were there supposed to be pomegranate seeds in the salad? Even the little signs at the base of the bowls didn't help me... I had never heard of anything on the table except for hummus. 

Now, after travelling to five countries in the Middle East and North Africa (and having lived in one for over a year), I am a little wiser to what tastes good and what is veggie-friendly. To help other travellers who might find themselves in the same situation, I've put together a little guide to vegan and vegetarian-friendly foods you may come across on your trip to the Middle East. 

Before we begin (take me to the falafel!), let's start with some basics:

  • A helpful term to learn is "mezze" (sometimes spelled "meze"). This is a mixed platter of various small dishes, often served as a starter and designed for sharing. There are hot and cold mezzes, and the majority of the cold dishes are usually vegan or vegetarian, so it's always a good option if you're unsure about the words on the menu or can't find suitable main dishes. 
  • Because translations vary across countries, there are lots of alternative spellings for the English names of foods. Some restaurants may go with "hummus", while others will offer "houmous". Some say "tahini", some say "tahina". It's the same thing, don't worry. 
  • These dishes are made differently in different countries and regions (restaurants add their own spin too), so I haven't given a comprehensive ingredient breakdown for each dish, but rather the staple / main ingredients that are likely to be used. If you're unsure about the meals that are made where you are, it's always safer to ask what they use. 

Right... It's food time. Yalla! 

Hummus

Falafel, hummus and beyond: There are so many delicious foods served in the Middle East and North Africa, and many of them are plant-based! Here are some common vegan and vegetarian friendly foods to try on your travels in the region.

Pronunciation: Humm-mus
Alternative spellings: Humus, houmous, houmos, hommos, hammus
What's in it: Chickpeas, tahini (sesame seed oil/paste), lemon juice, olive oil
Vegan / vegetarian: Vegan

This delicious vegan spread, popular worldwide, is a staple in many Middle Eastern mezze platters and salad bars - you'll spot its creamy golden colour amidst a sea of green. The base of this dip is blended chickpeas and tahini, but some variations include different spices, pine nuts or paprika. It's usually served in little bowls alongside a basket of plain bread, which you fold into a scoop shape with your hands and use to shovel it into your mouth. 

Moutabbal

Falafel, hummus and beyond: There are so many delicious foods served in the Middle East and North Africa, and many of them are plant-based! Here are some common vegan and vegetarian friendly foods to try on your travels in the region.

Pronunciation: Moo-tubb-al
Alternative spellings: Moutabal, moutabel, moutable, mutabbal
What's in it: Eggplant (aubergine), tahini (sesame seed oil/paste), garlic, lemon juice
Vegan / vegetarian: Vegan

If you like hummus, you'll love moutabbal - it's the same tahini base, but blended with smoked eggplant. I could eat this creamy purée with a spoon! It can look a bit strange (kind of like a light grey sludge) but the taste is fantastic. This dish is often confused with / called baba ghanoush (listed below) which is also made with eggplant. 

Baba ghanoush

Falafel, hummus and beyond: There are so many delicious foods served in the Middle East and North Africa, and many of them are plant-based! Here are some common vegan and vegetarian friendly foods to try on your travels in the region.

Pronunciation: Bub-ah-gah-noosh
Alternative spellings: Baba ganoush, baba ghanouj
What's in it: Eggplant (aubergine), pomegranates, walnuts, garlic
Vegan / vegetarian: Vegan

Another vegan eggplant-y marvel, baba ghanoush is similar to moutabbal, but the two are actually separate dishes. The smooth purée with tahini is moutabbal, while baba ghanoush usually has more chunky, crunchy things mixed in, like pomegranates and walnuts. But some restaurants will add tahini to their baba ghanoush, or pomegranates to their mouttabbal (like in the featured image for this post), so it's a bit of a tricky separation. Either way, it's a popular option on the salad section in restaurants, and often served as part of a cold mezze platter. 

Fattoush

Falafel, hummus and beyond: There are so many delicious foods served in the Middle East and North Africa, and many of them are plant-based! Here are some common vegan and vegetarian friendly foods to try on your travels in the region.

Pronunciation: Fatt-toosh
Alternative spellings: Fattoosh, fattosh
What's in it: Tomato, cucumber, bread, radishes, mint
Vegan / vegetarian: Vegan

This salad gets its crunch from little pieces of fried bread, which are mixed in with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, radish, lettuce and a vinegary dressing. Even though the name is similar, it is not to be confused with "fattayer", which is a type of pie. 

Tabbouleh

Falafel, hummus and beyond: There are so many delicious foods served in the Middle East and North Africa, and many of them are plant-based! Here are some common vegan and vegetarian friendly foods to try on your travels in the region.

Pronunciation: Tubb-oo-lah
Alternative spellings: Tabboulah, Tabboula, Taboullah, Tabouleh
What's in it: Parsley, mint, tomato, bulgar wheat
Vegan / vegetarian: Vegan

This is kind of a Levantine version of your standard green salad... except there is parsley and mint instead of lettuce, some bulgar wheat, and the ingredients are chopped very finely. Hey, I said "kind of". It is a common component of the salad section of many restaurants, and the perfect accompaniment to cold mezze spreads like hummus or moutabbal. 

Foul

Falafel, hummus and beyond: There are so many delicious foods served in the Middle East and North Africa, and many of them are plant-based! Here are some common vegan and vegetarian friendly foods to try on your travels in the region.

Pronunciation: Fool (not fa-owl)
Alternative spelling: Foul medames, ful, ful muddammas, fool
What's in it: Fava beans, lemon juice, olive oil, spices
Vegan/vegetarian: Vegan

A popular breakfast food and a protein-rich addition to a mezze platter, foul is a simple, filling comfort food in the Middle East.  It is basically cooked fava beans, in a sauce of spices and olive oil, which is usually served with fresh bread. It can be puréed and smooth or include whole or mashed fava beans, and sometimes chickpeas too. 

Shakshouka

Falafel, hummus and beyond: There are so many delicious foods served in the Middle East and North Africa, and many of them are plant-based! Here are some common vegan and vegetarian friendly foods to try on your travels in the region.

Pronunciation: Shack-shoo-kah
Alternative spellings: Shakshuka, shakshooka
What's in it: Eggs, tomato, spices
Vegan / vegetarian: Vegetarian

This Middle Eastern omelette / baked egg dish is a popular breakfast food with many variations, although a base of tomato and onion is the most common. Instead of a traditional omelette that's usually folded over and served on top of toast, this dish is usually brought to your table still sizzling away inside its pan. It's a perfect brunch order before a busy day of sightseeing. 

Tagine

Falafel, hummus and beyond: There are so many delicious foods served in the Middle East and North Africa, and many of them are plant-based! Here are some common vegan and vegetarian friendly foods to try on your travels in the region.

Pronunciation: Taj-geene
Alternative spellings: Tajine
What's in it: Cous cous, mixed vegetables
Vegan / vegetarian: Vegan

This North African dish gets its name from the pointed conical pots it is cooked in, where the steam is funneled upward and then condenses to bring the moisture back into the food. While many tagine dishes are based around meat, there are vegetarian ones available too, which are made with various local veggies (like carrots and aubergine) and chickpeas. This is usually served on a bed of cous cous, or with cous cous as a side. 

Falafel

Falafel, hummus and beyond: There are so many delicious foods served in the Middle East and North Africa, and many of them are plant-based! Here are some common vegan and vegetarian friendly foods to try on your travels in the region.

Pronunciation: Fa-laf-fel
Alternative spellings: None that I've seen
What's in it: Chickpeas (sometimes fava beans), parsley
Vegan / vegetarian: Vegan

Another dish that has become popular far outside the Middle East, falafel is a mix of mostly chickpeas and parsley which is made into balls and then fried. Some variations use fava beans instead of chickpeas, or a combination of the two. Regardless, it is pretty much the default (and cheapest... and most delicious) veggie-friendly sandwich option you're likely to encounter on your travels. It's usually served in a wrap or pita with salad greens, radishes, and a tahini-based sauce. 

Other popular Middle Eastern veggie-friendly foods to look out for:

  • Lentil soup: The default veggie starter in many restaurants.
  • Koushari: A delicious Egyptian street food with lentils, macaroni and rice.
  • Fatayer: A kind of pie - look out for the one with cheese and spinach, as some versions have meat.
  • Labneh/Labna: A creamy yoghurt spread.
  • Manakeesh: A type of flat bread topped with zaatar (herbs) or cheese (some versions of this have meat too).

Have you eaten your way across the Middle East? What amazing plant-based food did you come across on your travels? Let me know in the comments!

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Falafel, hummus and beyond: There are so many delicious foods served in the Middle East and North Africa, and many of them are plant-based! Here are some common vegan and vegetarian friendly foods to try on your travels in the region.
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