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The Sweetness of My Middle Eastern Vegan Kitchen

by Beliz Tecirli

The dish is famous in kitchens across the Middle East. My mother taught it to me, and tonight I am preparing it for my family. Taze Fasulye—fresh bean casserole—has proven to be a rich, nourishing comfort food amid duress over the past year. But in my kitchen, the butter and lamb my mother used have been replaced by my olive oil and chickpeas.

I am far from the only cook in the Middle East choosing to replace dairy, meat and other animal products with plant-based ingredients. The headlines and news features tell me it’s a growing trend across this part of the world, too. What once had a reputation for bland flavors and strict rules has become abundant, delicious and popular, especially among the younger generations.

Last year the California-based trade group Plant-Based Foods Association released data showing that plant-based food sales in the United States increased 90 percent over the previous year and were outpacing conventional retail food sales by 35 percent. Across the Middle East and Africa, according to a 2019 report by UK-based Triton Market Research, the meat substitutes market is expected to grow annually over the next six years at a fraction under 10 percent. The same report details the rise in vegan cafes and restaurants in the region that parallels growing consumer access to plant-based food products. This year, Veganity, which claims to be the world’s largest vegan restaurant, opened in Dubai with a menu of more than 200 choices. 

This trend is especially significant because Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food, the cuisine I grew up on, so often features meat and fish. However, a number of the region’s most famous foods have always been plant-based: hummus, the chickpea-based dish that is popularly consumed as a spread, dip or a base for sandwiches; falafel, a classic street food that usually comes as a deep-fried, spiced ball of either ground chickpeas or fava beans; kushari, the Egyptian comfort bowl of lentils, rice, chickpeas and tomato sauce topped with crispy onions; baba ghannouj, grilled eggplant mixed with tahini, olive oil and seasoning topped with pomegranate seeds; and tabbouleh, a salad made of finely chopped tomatoes, mint, onions, burghul and parsley.

As I have attempted over the past year to reimagine my mother’s home cooking (and add inventions of my own), I have found it relatively easy to make adaptations. I’ve also found it’s healthy. And perhaps most of all, it’s changed the way I experience food: It tastes better than ever.

“Processed foods are engineered to hit a ‘bliss point’” of salt, sugar and fat “that dig into our evolutionary survival drives,” says Dr. Michael Greger, a Maryland-based author and physician specializing in clinical nutrition. He’s also a member of the Council of Directors for True Health Initiative comprised of 350 academics, surgeon generals, athletes, doctors and environmentalists in 35 countries who support plant-based eating.

I have found it relatively easy to make adaptations—and food tastes better than ever.

What many people find most surprising about plant-based eating, he says, is that after only a few days, taste buds start to readjust, and the combinations of vegetables and legumes take on an unexpected depth of flavor—even before the spices that Middle East foods are particularly famous for get taken into account.

“Vegan diets can be followed quite easily in the region,” says Hanan Sayed Worrel, a longtime resident of the United Arab Emirates and author of Table Tales: The Global Nomad Cuisine of Abu Dhabi. Worrel has been a constant guide in my meatless culinary adventures, and her expertise in the traditions of Middle Eastern cooking include the powerful role plants have played in Arab cuisine for thousands of years.

“Our dishes in the Levant have a nonmeat and nondairy option,” she says. “All the stuffed dishes like grape leaves and courgettes can be made without meat.”

So much of Arab cooking with meat is, like many other world cuisines, bound up in cultures of hospitality and holidays. For example, a guest at an Arab dinner table must by custom be offered the largest, most tender portion of meat. Eid al-Adha, the Islamic Feast of the Sacrifice, traditionally features lamb, sheep or goat for the dinner. This day is also the year’s leading occasion for zakat, or charity, one of the five pillars of Islam, which is performed by the giving and receiving of meat, from those with the means to buy it to those without.

But among the rising generation, Earth- and health-conscience choices are often top of mind, and new alternatives may emerge. A 2016 University of Oxford study published in the UK-based Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences journal found that by 2050, “food-related greenhouse gas emissions could account for half of the emissions the world” and “adopting global dietary guidelines would cut food-related emissions by 29 percent, vegetarian diets by 63 percent, and vegan diets, 70 percent.”

Worrel’s vegan adaptations of classic Middle Eastern recipes include dishes such as a simple and bright fennel and beetroot salad with tahini and dill, usually served with yogurt. She also loves cooking falafel and hummus dishes, runner beans with tomato sauce, and harira soup with mushrooms. 

“My most-recent favorite is a fresh coconut drink with cashews,” Worrel says.

Reflecting on why veganism is on the rise in the region, Worrel also notes millennials’ exposure to special dietary preferences and acceptance of accommodating food restrictions.

“Now when I have dinner parties, I need to remember to ask my guests whether they have dietary restrictions. Five years ago, I didn’t have to do that,” she says.

She also notes how younger generations are growing up with a more open ethical question regarding the human relationship to other animals. For older generations, she says, meat represents culture, nourishment and stability, but younger people often see over-processed foods, health hazards and a globally shared sense of responsibility for sustainable lifestyles.

Sukkari Life is the YouTube channel and website of Saudi-based yoga instructor and plant-based diet teacher Raoum AlSuhaibani. She speaks to more than 265,000 followers each week, many in the Arabian Peninsula region, from long-time vegans to those newly curious. She explains that in Arabic, sukkari means “sugary,” and it’s her way of reminding viewers that plant-based eating can make life a little better, a little sweeter. It also has a personal connection: “I named it after my favorite types of dates, the Sukkari dates that are grown in my hometown al-Qassim, Saudi Arabia.” Her favorite ingredients, she says, “are simple and local. I love to add dates to my recipes and legumes, such as fava, garbanzo and lentils.” 

But more broadly, she says, plant-based diets and veganism resonates with her sense of how the world could be. And though she approached the recipes as a challenge, she has favored the simple kinds of dishes most of us can make with limited time and resources. She encourages experimenting with tastes and textures, for example sometimes adding edible flowers to style her dishes.

“I have noticed the rise of veganism in the region, firstly among Millennials and then more broadly. Now when I have dinner parties, I need to remember to ask my guests if they have dietary restrictions. Five years ago I didn’t have to do that.”

—Hanan Sayed Worrel

She’s also no absolutist. She feels that claims of all-or-nothing lifestyles can be off-putting to newcomers. This is where “flexitarian,” or part-time plant-based eating, is important. “Personally, I find it easy to eat plant-based,” she says, “but it gets tricky sometimes when it comes to other aspects of life.”

Does her success surprise her? “Sometimes,” she says. “Especially when I meet people in person and they tell me how much my channel has affected their lives.” 

The food culture is changing in the Middle East, she says. “When I was a vegetarian, a lot of people commented, teased and showed signs of concern. Now, even though I’m vegan, people are usually asking questions out of curiosity, as they want to try to live this way.”

As I pull my taze fasulye from the oven, its aromas fill the kitchen, and my cats Mimi and Koko weave around my feet. They are as much a part of my family as anyone, and my affection for them carries me over to other non-human animals—pets, wild and on farms. Such thoughts make me feel good about the plant-based eating journey I set out on. It makes the taze fasulye as delicious and as filling as ever it was when I was a child—and even a little sweeter.

iStock 1347317568 The Sweetness of My Middle Eastern Vegan Kitchen

Taze Fasulye (Fresh Green Bean Stew)

Recipe by Emine and Beliz Tecirli

This dish can be prepared in just 10 to 15 minutes,

with a cooking time of an hour. Serves four.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

5 garlic cloves, minced

1¾ cups canned diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon sweet red pepper paste

340 grams (12 ounces) fresh green beans, cut into 5-centimeter pieces

1 cup cooked or canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1½ cups vegetable broth

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh parsley for garnish

  1. Add olive oil to a medium pot and place it over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook for about 25 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion starts to caramelize. Add the garlic and cook about 1 minute more.
  2. Add the vegetable broth, tomatoes, tomato and sweet red pepper paste, green beans, chickpeas, and cumin to the pot and stir. Raise the heat to high until it begins to simmer. Lower heat and allow to simmer until the base has thickened and the beans are tender, about 20 to 30 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide into bowls and garnish with parsley. Serve and enjoy!
iStock 1324152060 The Sweetness of My Middle Eastern Vegan Kitchen

 

 

 

Traditional Moroccan soup Harira

Harira (Moroccan Tomato Lentil Soup)

Recipe courtesy Hanan Sayed Worrel 

Harira can be considered the national soup of Morocco, prepared in unending variations in every city, street and home. Comforting and nourishing, it feeds the soul as well as the stomach. It is especially popular in Ramadan, when families cook it to break the fast at sunset, often serving it with a couple of dates on the side. This recipe serves 8 to 10.

2 tablespoons olive oil

340 grams (12 ounces) yellow onions, finely chopped

450 grams (1 pound) portobello mushrooms

225 grams (8 ounces) celery stalks with leaves, finely chopped

½ cup parsley, finely chopped

1 cup fresh coriander, finely chopped

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon coriander powder

1½ teaspoons paprika

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon white pepper

1 teaspoon turmeric or Moroccan yellow colorant

255 grams (9 ounces) cooked chickpeas

½ cup lentils, washed

900 grams (2 pounds) tomatoes, peeled and pureed, or canned

2 tablespoons tomato paste

¼ cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons vermicelli, uncooked

¼ cup lemon juice

In a large Dutch oven, heat the oil and butter over medium heat; sauté the onions for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the meat, stirring until it is browned on all sides. (If using mushrooms instead of meat, heat the oil and sauté the onions for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue with the next ingredients.) Add the celery, parsley, fresh coriander, salt, cumin, coriander powder, paprika, cinnamon, ginger, white pepper, and turmeric or colorant; stir well for 2 minutes.

Add the chickpeas and 1 litre (1 quart) of water and bring to a boil. Add the lentils and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the tomato puree, tomato paste, and 1 litre (1 quart) of hot water and simmer for 45 minutes. Check the liquid occasionally and add more water if needed.

While the soup is cooking, make the tadouira by mixing the flour with ½ cup of water. Stir or whisk the mixture occasionally. The flour will eventually blend with the water. If the mixture still has lumps, pass it through a sieve.

When the lentils and chickpeas are soft, sprinkle the vermicelli into the soup and let it simmer for another 10 minutes. Drizzle the tadouira into the soup in a steady stream while continuously stirring so the flour doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Simmer for 5 to 10 more minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice.

Serve in individual soup bowls with a lemon wedge on the side and a couple of dates in the tradition of breaking the Ramadan fast.

iStock 177324894 The Sweetness of My Middle Eastern Vegan Kitchen

Fennel, Beetroot, and Orange Salad with Cumin Dressing

Recipe courtesy Hanan Sayed Worrel 

Serves: 6 to 8

Salad

3 large beetroots

Coarse salt

3 large oranges

3 large fennel bulbs

¼ cup dried cranberries

½ cup pecans, whole

Dressing

1½ tablespoons walnut oil

1½ tablespoons hazelnut oil

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon orange zest

½ teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon coriander powder

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Salt and black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius (400 degrees Fahrenheit).

Sprinkle each beetroot with the salt and wrap individually in aluminium foil. Bake for 1½ to 2 hours, until tender when pierced with a fork. Test them periodically. Unwrap and set them aside to cool.

Measure the dressing ingredients into a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Shake well to combine and chill until ready to use.

Peel the oranges and remove as much of the white thread-like material as possible. Slice them into 1-centimeter (½-inch) thick circles, discarding the small circles. Peel the beetroot and slice into 1-centimeter (½-inch) thick circles, discarding the small end pieces. If the beetroots are bigger than the oranges, use a round cookie cutter to make them a similar size. Remove the outer leaves of the fennel and slice it thinly.

When ready to serve, arrange the beetroot and orange circles in alternating layers on a large, round serving platter. Pile the fennel in the center and sprinkle with dried cranberries. Decorate with the whole pecans.

Lightly drizzle the dressing over the salad and serve the extra dressing on the side.

This article first appeared on AramcoWorld September/October 2021 edition.