Editor's note: This is the seventh in a series exploring grocery stores in the Baltimore area, finding the best shops that cater to specific cuisines.
To many Americans, Middle Eastern food is synonymous with kebabs, and their knowledge of the region's cuisine doesn't extend much further. But Middle Eastern cooking encompasses far more than skewered meats.
Stews of all kinds, rice and bean dishes, cheeses, yogurts, meats and vegetables flavored with a variety of spices are typical elements of the region's fare. From country to country, specific preparations differ, drawing on local history and geography.
Most sources define the Middle East as a broad region with borders that span three continents: Turkey, part of which is in Europe, to the northwest; Egypt in Africa to the southwest; and Iran in Asia to the east. The Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf make up sections of its shoreline. Numerous languages are spoken.
In Baltimore, many Middle Eastern restaurants have Persian (Iranian) or Lebanese roots; both cuisines are heavily influenced by the French.
"Throughout the Middle East, even in the Gulf or Egypt, there are a lot of Lebanese restaurants because that's the cuisine that's been popular," says Grace Abi-Najm Shea, one of the owners of the Lebanese Taverna in Harbor East and its sister restaurants in the Washington area. "Here in the States, it's rare to find a Syrian or Jordanian restaurant."
Though Lebanese food, with its French and Mediterranean influences, is vegetarian-friendly, cow and lamb are integral parts of Middle Eastern cuisine.
In the U.S., Middle Eastern grocers are often advertised as halal butchers. Halal, or "permissible" in Arabic, is a certification that means meat that has been butchered in accordance with Islamic law. To be halal, the animal must have been fed a natural diet without animal byproducts; must be slit at the throat, humanely and while conscious, by a Muslim or a member of an Abrahamic religion that predates Islam; and must be hung upside down to bleed dry.
In addition to meat, local Middle Eastern groceries carry a variety of rice, beans, lentils and spices, among other items.
Some of these ingredients, like basmati rice, are available at regular grocery stores, but Sina Negahban, a Columbia resident who writes about Persian and American cooking on his blog, The Unmanly Chef, prefers to buy his rice at Middle Eastern markets. The traditional grocery store brands "don't taste the same for some reason," he says.
Shea confirms that the products available at regular grocery stores are often different from those sold at Middle Eastern shops. "What you get from the grocery store might be made in the USA or even Israel," she says. "If you're looking for a specific quality or brand, you should go to Middle Eastern [or Mediterranean] stores."
Shea attributes those differences to ingredients and production. "They have been doing it longer and may use more traditional methods. Production could be smaller," she says. "Even the water makes a difference."
Middle Eastern groceries are also a good source for spices like saffron, sumac and fenugreek, and for unusual ingredients with distinct flavors, like dried limes.
"Limoo amani is an intense lime that is sun-dried," says Jason Bulkeley, the co-owner of Orchard Market & Cafe, a Persian restaurant and store in Towson. "Food just explodes" when it's used, he says.
Bulkeley also loves the brilliant orange-gold color and nuttiness of good saffron — "a little goes a long way," he warns — and the tang of sumac, which is the crushed flake of the sumac berry (no relation to the plant poison sumac).
"Persian stews are primarily two colors: red or green," says Negahban. "All green stews have an herb base — usually dried parsley and all sorts of fresh herbs — and one of the main ingredients is fenugreek." Fenugreek, a slightly sweet and nutty herb, is also a common element of Indian cuisine.
Middle Eastern groceries often carry soft, fresh cheeses from across the region, and many have whole cases devoted to yogurt-based drinks and condiments, frequently including labneh.
In her cooking, Shea uses labneh like a condiment. "It goes on bread," she says. "It's a version of Greek yogurt. You strain it through a cheesecloth for a day, until all the liquid drains out, and add a bit of salt and it becomes a spread."
Other Middle Eastern finds include olives and olive oils, dates and nuts, pomegranates, pickled vegetables in jars and sweet infused waters, which are used in desserts like rosewater-scented custard.
Though the products will be somewhat familiar, American shoppers may be intimidated by those without English on the packaging. But shoppers shouldn't be afraid to ask questions, says Negahban. "Shop owners are more than willing to guide you in terms of what you need, what ingredients to get," he says.
He also warns that people new to cooking Middle Eastern food should try to be patient. "It's very inexact — never the same recipe," he says. "A dash of this, a handful of that. It can be maddening to make on the first try, especially if you don't know the flavor profile.
"It's trial and error," he warns. "But don't give up."
To find the most authentic Middle Eastern ingredients, check out these markets in and around Baltimore:
Al-Noor Halal Meat & Grocery
2507 Plainfield Road, Dundalk; 410-288-8880
This shop sells Middle Eastern and South Asian products; the mix includes some Egyptian and Moroccan brands, as well as halal meat and a number of Pakistani products.
2015 Lord Baltimore Drive, Woodlawn; 410-265-5555
Don't miss the Al'ard Olive Oil display at Alqd's; in addition to the Palestinian olives and oil, the shop sells a wide range of spices, dates and hookahs.
7530 Ritchie Highway, Glen Burnie; 410-590-9549
Large and well-stocked, Bismillah sells items including toiletries and housewares, plus a wide array of Middle Eastern staples.
9191 Baltimore National Pike, Suite 1, Ellicott City; 410-313-8072
Caspian's friendly owner is happy to answer any questions; the shop carries a large range of produce, desserts, meats, yogurt and cheeses.
246 E. Burke Ave., Towson; 443-275-2592; cedarcafeshop.com
This Towson cafe stocks a handful of Middle Eastern ingredients, like labneh, tahini and cheeses.
Columbia Halal Meat
6520 Old Waterloo Road, Elkridge; 410-799-1910
This small shop carries a variety of frozen meats alongside breads, desserts and many types of lentils.
International Grocery Market & New Bazaar Halal Meat
2701 Huntingdon Ave., Baltimore; 410-366-3753
This small store is well-stocked with staples like beans, rice and spices, as well as American and South Asian products.
International Halal Meat Store
8722 Town and Country Blvd., Ellicott City; 410-480-0066
International offers halal meat in addition to South Asian and Latin products.
6020 Eastern Ave., Baltimore; 410-633-6030
In addition to American products, this corner store carries a good selection of frozen and fresh halal meats.
6955 Oakland Mills Road #A, Columbia; 410-290-3464
Nazar's well-organized shelves are well-stocked with a wide variety of fresh, dry and canned goods, as well as halal and deli meats.
Neima Halal Meat
228 S. Broadway, Baltimore; 410-522-0410
City dwellers can find a useful selection of staples like yogurts, cheeses and meats at this Fells Point store.
Pars Middle Eastern & Mediterranean Market
9400 Snowden River Parkway #109, Columbia; 443-259-0002
In addition to a great selection of olives and Middle Eastern staples, Pars carries many different hookahs.
Rose Market & Deli
8923 Old Harford Road, Parkville; 410-661-0233
The shelves of this small shop are well-stocked; check out the wide variety of flavored waters, from rosewater to dillweed water.
SuperFresh Halal Meat
6600 Baltimore National Pike #K, Catonsville; 410-788-4075
Located next to Lotte Plaza, this long, narrow shop is very neat, with many frozen options and an impressive selection of lentils, chilies, rice and beans.
Turkish Family Market
8457 Baltimore National Pike #16, Ellicott City; 410-750-0679
In addition to Turkish products, including coffee, cheeses, spices and meats, this shop carries Bulgarian, Greek, Cypriot and French brands.