Middle Eastern Cuisine: Food, Hospitality, and Etiquette

Your Guide to Middle Eastern Cuisine: Food, Hospitality, and Etiquette

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Updated on June 9, 2024

In the Middle East, a shared meal isn’t just a quick stop to satisfy hunger; it’s a deep dive into the culture’s rich traditions. Generosity and respect are fundamental to dining customs, turning every meal into an opportunity for connection and the creation of lasting memories.

Let’s unlock the secrets of Middle Eastern cuisine and dining etiquette and embark on a delicious exploration that will transform you from a curious observer to a confident guest. This guide aims to lead you through the intricate web of Middle Eastern cuisine customs and traditions, providing a deeper understanding of Arab hospitality and warmth. Get ready to be embraced with open arms, and prepare to be enchanted by the distinct flavours and traditions that lie ahead.

The Importance of Food in Middle Eastern Culture

Middle Eastern Cuisine: Food, Hospitality, and Etiquette

Food holds a special place in Middle Eastern culture. It acts as more than just nourishment; it’s a symbol of hospitality and generosity deeply rooted in the region’s traditions. I’ve learned that sharing a meal is one of the most common ways to welcome guests and strengthen bonds among friends, family, and even business partners.

This practice stems from ancient tribal customs where honour was associated with treating visitors well.

Middle Eastern cuisine offers an array of dishes rich in flavours and history, reflecting the diversity and cultural significance of the region. Each bite tells a story of trade routes, migrations, and social changes over centuries.

My experience has shown me that being invited to share a meal by someone from the Middle East is considered an honour, showcasing their genuine desire to spend time together. In these moments, food becomes more than just sustenance; it turns into an act of love and respect.

Understanding dining traditions here involves appreciating how meals facilitate connections between people. As we move on to exploring traditional Middle Eastern cuisine next, keep in mind how these culinary practices highlight Arabic hospitality’s intricate relationship with food.

Traditional Middle Eastern Cuisine

Traditional Middle Eastern cuisine offers a rich tapestry of flavours and ingredients, reflecting the diverse cultures and traditions of the region. Meals hold great cultural significance, with communal dining being a common practice in Middle Eastern households.

Dishes and Ingredients

Middle Eastern cuisine is characterised by its diversity, with dishes that echo the cultural and historical influences of the region. Key ingredients include lamb, yoghurt, chickpeas, and a variety of aromatic spices such as cumin, coriander, and cinnamon. These staples are used in preparing popular dishes like hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, and kebabs. Olive oil is a fundamental component, frequently used for cooking and flavouring salads.

The vibrant flavours of Middle Eastern cuisine are further enhanced by fresh herbs like parsley, mint, dill, and cilantro, which add a fragrant touch to many traditional dishes. Pomegranates are also a common feature, incorporated into both savoury and sweet recipes for their unique taste and health benefits. Nuts such as almonds, pistachios, and walnuts add richness to various entrees and desserts.

Regional variations within Middle Eastern cuisine highlight the uniqueness of each area. For example, North African dishes often feature a different array of spices compared to Levantine cuisine, reflecting the varied landscapes and historical trade routes.

Overall, these ingredients form the backbone of many delectable dishes that celebrate Middle Eastern culinary traditions.

Mealtimes and Typical Food Customs

In the Middle East, mealtimes are central to daily life, with lunch typically being the main meal of the day. Families often gather for a leisurely lunch, which consists of several courses. Dinner is usually lighter and served later in the evening, providing an opportunity for socialising and relaxation.

Middle Eastern food customs emphasise generosity and abundance. Hosts often present a lavish spread to guests as a display of hospitality, filling the table with an array of dishes that encourage indulgence in various flavours and textures. This practice fosters an inclusive atmosphere where everyone can share and enjoy different culinary delights.

Communal dining is intrinsic to Arabic food culture, where the experience is about more than just satisfying hunger. It’s a time for fostering connections through the shared enjoyment of good food, reflecting the warmth and openness of Middle Eastern hospitality.

Dining Etiquette in the Middle East

Middle Eastern dining etiquette reflects deep-rooted cultural traditions and social customs. Central to these practices is the use of the right hand and proper utensil usage, as well as the gracious acceptance of food and drink.

Accepting Food and Drink

When offered food or drink in the Middle East, it is customary to accept graciously, signifying respect and appreciation for the host’s generosity. This practice underscores the region’s strong emphasis on hospitality and honouring guests. Using the right hand to accept food or drink is essential, as the left hand is considered impolite.

In Islamic tradition, accepting food and drink extends beyond mere sustenance; it represents a mutual connection between the guest, host, and God. The act of receiving nourishment symbolises trust, care, and goodwill, reflecting the deep cultural significance of hospitality.

Using Your Right Hand

In Middle Eastern dining etiquette, using the right hand is crucial due to Islamic traditions. When eating or passing items, always use your right hand to demonstrate respect and adherence to this cultural norm. This practice also symbolises sincerity and trustworthiness, enhancing the dining experience and fostering positive relationships at the table.

When dining with Middle Eastern hosts or colleagues, following this custom shows cultural understanding and appreciation, ensuring harmony during communal meals. Being mindful of using your right hand showcases respect and openness to new experiences, which are key aspects of embracing Middle Eastern hospitality.

Business Lunch Etiquette

Middle Eastern Cuisine: Food, Hospitality, and Etiquette

Middle Eastern business lunch etiquette places a strong emphasis on relationship building, reflecting the region’s deeply ingrained values of hospitality, honour, and respect for guests.

Business Lunch Customs

Engaging in a business lunch in the Middle East is an opportunity to nurture meaningful connections that extend beyond the dining table. By sharing a meal, participants symbolise their commitment to building trust and rapport, which is fundamental to successful business dealings in the region.

During a Middle Eastern business lunch, it’s essential to accept all offered food and drink graciously, demonstrating respect for the host’s hospitality. Using the right hand for eating is crucial, aligning with cultural and religious beliefs that emphasise cleanliness and etiquette.

Prioritising relationship-building over discussing business matters is a vital aspect of Middle Eastern business lunches. Engaging in casual conversation and showing genuine interest in others’ lives fosters a sense of camaraderie and trust. This emphasis on enjoying each other’s company during dining aligns with the Arabic tradition of hospitality.

Etiquette Dos and Don’ts

Observing etiquette dos and don’ts ensures a smooth and respectful business lunch experience.


  • Accept all offered food and drink graciously as a sign of respect.
  • Use your right hand when eating to adhere to cultural norms.
  • Show appreciation for the host’s hospitality by complimenting the food and ambience.
  • Wait for the host or the senior-most person to start eating before you begin your meal.
  • Offer to refill others’ glasses or plates as a gesture of goodwill.
  • Express gratitude to the host at the end of the meal for their generosity and hospitality.
  • Prioritise building relationships by engaging in casual conversation and showing interest in others’ lives.


  • Avoid bringing up sensitive topics or engaging in heated discussions that may disrupt the harmonious atmosphere at the table.
  • Refrain from using your mobile phone during the meal unless it is absolutely necessary for business purposes.
  • Avoid rushing through the meal; instead, pace yourself and engage in unhurried conversation.
  • Refrain from making negative comments about the food or any aspect of the dining experience.
  • Do not leave the table until the host or the senior-most person indicates that the meal is over.

By observing these customs and etiquette guidelines, participants demonstrate their respect for Middle Eastern traditions and values while laying the groundwork for fruitful business relationships.

Sample Menu from Middle Eastern Cuisine

A true Middle Eastern feast is a vibrant and flavourful affair, often meant for sharing amongst family and friends. Here’s a sample menu to give you a taste of the culinary delights of Middle Eastern cuisine that await you.

Appetisers (Mezze):

  • Hummus: A creamy chickpea dip flavoured with tahini, lemon juice, and olive oil. A staple across the Middle East and a crowd-pleaser.
  • Baba Ghanoush: Roasted eggplant dip with tahini, garlic, and lemon juice. Smoky and delicious.
  • Tabbouleh: A refreshing salad made with finely chopped parsley, mint, bulgur wheat, tomatoes, and onions, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.
  • Falafel: Deep-fried chickpea fritters seasoned with herbs and spices. A vegetarian delight.
  • Sambousek: Savoury pastries filled with spiced meat or vegetables. A delicious handheld treat.

Main Course:

  • Shish Tawook: Marinated chicken cubes grilled on skewers, a classic Middle Eastern dish.
  • Lamb Kofta: Ground lamb seasoned with herbs and spices, grilled on skewers or baked in patties.
  • Molokhia Stew: A rich and flavourful stew made with jute leaves, chicken or lamb, and garlic. Molokhia is a hearty and comforting dish from Egypt.
  • Chicken with Machboos: Fragrant chicken dish cooked with rice, vegetables, and aromatic spices like cardamom and saffron. A staple in Saudi Arabian cuisine.


  • Pita Bread: Warm, fluffy flatbread perfect for scooping up dips and stews.
  • Basmati Rice: Aromatic long-grain rice that pairs beautifully with main courses.
  • Aromatic Herbs: Fresh herbs like parsley, mint, and cilantro add a refreshing touch to any dish.


  • Baklava: Layers of flaky phyllo dough filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup. Baklava is a decadent and popular dessert in Middle Eastern cuisine.
  • Kanafeh: Layers of cheese pastry soaked in syrup and topped with pistachios. A sweet and cheesy treat from the Levant region.
  • Om Ali: A bread pudding made with flaky pastry, nuts, raisins, and milk. Om Ali is a comforting and delicious way to end the meal.

This is just a small sample of the vast array of dishes found in Middle Eastern cuisine. Feel free to mix and match these suggestions or explore other regional specialities to create your own unique Middle Eastern feast!

In closing, our exploration of Middle Eastern food and hospitality has revealed a beautiful culture where meals serve not just as sustenance but as a cornerstone of connection and generosity. We invite you to delve deeper into the rich tapestry of Middle Eastern cuisine with our guide to traditional Egyptian food and its significance in history and Egyptian festivals.

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