Middle Eastern Food offers so many incredible vegan dishes.

Vegan Middle Eastern Food

If you’re traveling to a new city, and your search for vegan restaurants comes up empty, it’s often easy to find fantastic Middle Eastern food. This cuisine includes restaurants that are Lebanese, Israeli, Iraqi, Iranian, and Egyptian. So use Google or Apple Maps to search for “Middle Eastern restaurants,” and if that doesn’t yield good results try, “Lebanese restaurant,” “Israeli restaurant,” and so forth. Also search for “falafel restaurants,” as these places offer delicious vegan-friendly Middle Eastern food at fast food prices.

There is no major world cuisine that’s so reliably vegan as Middle Eastern food—although that’s admittedly a surprising assertion given that most of these restaurants have an open kitchen that prominently features a tall stack of beef or lamb slices spinning on  a rotisserie. But as long as you avoid the meat dishes, traditional Middle Eastern food contains no eggs and largely avoids dairy dairy products.

With most other cuisines worldwide, the items that can be vegan often aren’t: the beans might contain lard, the rice could be boiled in chicken stock, or the potatoes may be cooked with butter. But at Middle Eastern restaurants, the best items on the menu are vegan nearly every time. It’s the go-to cuisine for vegans wanting to be confident that they’re avoiding animal products.

Classic Middle Eastern Foods

Let’s now run through the most popular Middle Eastern dishes. Unless indicated otherwise, the foods I’ll cover here are reliably vegan—the one exception being that Greek falafel restaurants usually add yogurt to their tahini sauce. Restaurants that put yogurt in their tahini sauce may offer a vegan version upon request. More on tahini in a moment.

Every dish I’m about to cover is popular throughout the Middle East, although the methods of preparation will vary from country to country.

vegan falafel
Superb overstuffed falafel in pita from Maoz Vegan in Amsterdam.

Falafel

The mainstay of Middle Eastern cooking is falafel—flavorful deep-fried balls made from garbanzo beans, onion, garlic, and parsley. In Iraq, falafel is often made into a larger patty with a doughnut-style hole in the middle.

Falafel is traditionally served in either pita bread or as a wrap. The first time I ate falafel sandwich I found it so delicious that I knew I’d never want a cheeseburger again. Falafel sandwiches or wraps typically contain shredded lettuce, chopped fresh cabbage, pickled vegetables, red hot sauce (if you like spicy), and tahini sauce—the quintessential sauce of Middle Eastern cooking. Tahini sauce is so creamy you’d swear it has milk, but unless it’s Greek-style it contains just sesame butter (tahini), water, garlic, lemon juice, and salt.

Some falafel restaurants also add cheese, but that’s not traditional and easy enough to avoid upon request. Inexpensive falafel places generally use mass-market pita bread, and if they do it’s invariably the weakest component of the meal. I have nothing good to say about commercially-made pita bread. But the best restaurants bake their own pita or source it locally, and the difference is striking. Freshly-baked pita takes a falafel sandwich to the next level.

When falafel is served as a wrap, the variety of flatbread included is called lavash. Typically they’ll put the finished wrap on a grill for a minute or so on each side, to give it grill-marks and to crisp up the lavash. If you know your restaurant offers a choice of commercially-made pita or lavash, go with the lavash since mass-produced lavash tastes pretty good, especially after being put on the grill.

Finally, watch out for tzatziki sauce, which always contains dairy. It’s made from yogurt, coarsely-chopped cucumber, and garlic. While tzatziki is not as popular as any of the previous foods we’ve just covered, it’s still commonly often to falafel wraps and sandwiches. If you see chopped cucumbers in a thin bright white sauce, look out!

Hummus and Baba Ghanouj

Better restaurants will add a spoonful or two of hummus or baba ghanouj added to your falafel order. Hummus and baba ghanouj are popular appetizers. When ordered ala carte, they come in a bowl served alongside wedges of pita, sliced cucumbers, or pickled vegetable slices.

Hummus is made from cooked garbanzo beans, blended until smooth with tahini, garlic, lemon juice, water, and salt. Yes, the ingredients are dead-simple, but excellent hummus is shockingly tasty. Most Middle Eastern restaurants serve pickled vegetables with their hummus, often spicy peppers, turnips, and beets. The tangy crunch of pickled vegetables makes them the ideal complement to the rich flavor and smooth texture of hummus. If you can order good hummus stuffed with some pickled vegetables into freshly-baked pita, as far as I’m concerned you’re eating one of the most delectable meals on the planet.

Middle Eastern restaurants usually serve better hummus than what any supermarket offers. If you do buy commercially-made hummus, try as many varieties as possible, since the flavor will vary tremendously from brand to brand.

Baba ghanouj has a similar consistency to hummus, and it’s made from baked eggplant, which is mashed and then combined with garlic, tahini, lemon juice and salt. One of the most reliable ways to judge a Middle Eastern restaurant is by the quality of its baba ghanouj. The best places will roast their eggplant in wood-fired ovens, which imparts an exquisite smoky flavor that blends wonderfully with the garlic and tahini. A minority of restaurants add yogurt or cream to their baba ghanouj, so if there’s any doubt always ask to be sure that it’s vegan.

Dolmas, Salads, and Fries

If it’s on the menu, ake sure to try a popular appetizer called dolmas—marinated grape leaves stuffed with rice, onions, and herbs. Dolmas sometimes contain meat—but even if they don’t you should ask whether they’ve been soaked in meat broth,  or if the rice has been cooked in meat stock, which is sometimes the case.

At Greek groceries (and specialty markets), you can find cheap canned dolmas. They don’t compare to restaurant or homemade dolmas, but most brands are tasty and make for a snack that requires zero preparation.

If you’re looking for salad, a Middle Eastern restaurant is a great place to be. Not only can you order delicious salads made with greens, tahini dressing, and pickled vegetables, they also serve an especially hearty grain-based salad called tabbouleh. If salads rarely do a good job of filling you up, you must give tabbouleh a try. It’s made from coarsely-ground wholegrain bulger wheat berries mixed with finely-chopped parsley and plenty of olive oil. Red ripe chopped tomatoes and chopped raw onions are then mixed in, and the dish is seasoned with lemon juice, black pepper, and salt.

French fries of course aren’t a traditional Middle Eastern dish, but every falafel joint keeps a deep fryer going anyway and so these places often churn out the best fries in town. They’re delicious dipped into the red or orange hot sauce that’s served with falafel.

Classic Middle Eastern Accompaniments

Rounding out the meal, upscale Middle Eastern restaurants serve a complimentary side dish of kalamata olives, roasted peppers, and pickled vegetables. Kalamata olives are the most popular olive in Greece. They’re a large oblong dark olive that is not usually served pitted, so be careful when biting into them. Olives of any kind provide a splendid accompaniment to hummus.

Egyptian Foods

Egyptian food is departs noticeably from other Middle Eastern cooking, although you can still find falafel, hummus, and baba ghanouj everywhere in Egypt. The most popular Egyptian dish is called kushari. If you’re a fan of Indian food, you may notice this word sounds like kitchari. The two dishes are loosely related, since both are based on rice and lentils. But kushari omits Indian spices in favor of tomato sauce and macaroni elbows, plus a heavy shot of  garlic-infused oil. What you end up with is a dish that’s full of protein and flavor, incredibly filling, and dirt-cheap. It’s beloved by rich and poor Egyptians alike.

Learning Middle Eastern Cooking

Although the foods we’ve just covered each feature just a handful of ingredients, Middle Eastern cuisine nevertheless ranks among the most challenging cuisines to cook authentically. For this reason, I avoid ordering this cuisine in restaurants that don’t specialize in its preparation. In my experience, most vegan restaurants do an excellent job with Mexican food, are hit-and-miss with Indian dishes, and completely botch Middle Eastern basics like falafel or hummus.

That said, I don’t want to discourage you from trying your hand at making these dishes, since they can certainly be cooked brilliantly at home. But if you’re new to cooking, or you haven’t eaten this cuisine extensively, I think you’re  better off starting with a more approachable cuisine like Mexican food. If and when you’re ready to try cooking Middle Eastern food, you ought to get ahold of an excellent vegan cookbook titled, Tahini & Turmeric. Alternately, just pick up any classic Middle Eastern cookbook you happen to find, and select only the vegan dishes—you’ll still have many delicious choices.

Falafel Wrap
Falafel with fried potatoes, hot sauce, and creamy tahini dressing wrapped in grilled lavash bread is hard to beat.

Ultra-Easy Middle Eastern Dishes

Despite my cautions about the difficulty of preparing this cuisine, there is one Middle Eastern item that even novice cooks can nail on their first attempt: the tahini sauce that’s used for salads and falafel sandwiches. Nothing could be easier to make: just blend some tahini with water, minced garlic, and a splash of lemon juice. Homemade tahini dressing is my default salad dressing. It’s much cheaper than bottled dressings, and contains simpler, fresher, and higher quality ingredients.

Oddly, unlike most other nut and seed butters, the flavor and quality of tahini varies enormously from one brand to the next. I recommend buying a brand imported from Lebanon or Israel, since it’ll be made by people who know what they’re doing when it comes to growing, roasting, and grinding sesame seeds. I especially recommend Al Wadhi brand tahini, which is produced in Lebanon.

Tabbouleh is the other classic Middle Eastern dish that’s perfect for beginning cooks. It’s hard to screw up, since the quality of the dish hinges primarily on obtaining plenty of fresh parsley and red ripe tomatoes.

Hummus is one of the most popular vegan foods, and it’s easy to make a batch that’s tastier than store-bought brands. For best results, use dried chickpeas rather than canned. Preparing top-quality hummus much is much easier if you own an Instant Pot and a high-powered blender or food processor.

The other top vegan-friendly Middle Eastern dishes—falafel, baba ghanouj, and especially pita bread—I leave to the experts.

Parting Thoughts

I hope this article has inspired you to make Middle Eastern food the first thing you look for when visiting a city with limited vegetarian dining options. All its vegan choices are delicious and wholesome, and no other cuisine so successfully repels the needless intrusion of egg and dairy products.

If I’ve accomplished nothing else here, I hope I’ve sold you on the idea of making your own tahini dressing, since it’s so easy to make and cheaper and tastier than just about any bottled dressing you can buy.

For further reading: check out our guides to hummus, tahini, and vegan-friendly cuisines.

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