7 Veggie Friendly Cities in the Middle East
When talking about Middle Eastern food, the most common image that comes to mind is either grilled and roasted meats or platefuls of mezze, with baskets of warm bread and salty cheese. But there is much more to Middle Eastern veggie culture than meets the eye, with each country adding its own unique flair. For instance, there are over 150 eggplant dishes from around the region.
Here’s a look at 7 of the most veggie-friendly cities in the Middle East and some of the tasty delights they have in store for the hungry traveler.
1. Dubai, UAE
First up is Dubai, considered by many to be the gastronomical capital of the region. This cosmopolitan city boasts a huge expat population and a trendy and vibrant social dining scene, including high-end dining, mouth-watering street foods and everything in between. Small-scale Arabic and Indian restaurants are also quite popular and are frequented by residents and tourists alike.
While there is no shortage of choice when it comes to multicultural cuisine, there is also lots of delicious local fare to sample. Falafel sandwiches, sambusa (stuffed turnovers) and fattoush salad (mixed greens with pita bread croutons) are a must.
Health-conscious foodies will be pleased to learn that the UAE health movement has been on the rise in recent years, creating a demand for more raw, vegan and organic food options. Dubai has also been promoting local produce, with farm-fresh fruits and veggies available any day of the week!
Whether you’re looking for a quick bite at a neighborhood café, a relaxed evening at a casual dining venue or indulgent high-end or Michelin star fare, Dubai is the place to be.
2. Beirut, Lebanon
Lebanese cuisine has a strong Mediterranean influence, which is good news for vegetarians. Typical Lebanese ingredients include plenty of fresh herbs, garlic and lemons, and every meal features different types of mezze such as hummus, moutabel, stuffed battatavine leaves, spicy fried potatoes and green salads. Vegetables are seasonal, and are often eaten raw or pickled.
Most traditional dishes are made with olive oil;richer ingredients like butter and cream are mainly used in desserts, so feel free to get a second helping of the savory dishes! Special mention must be made of Lebanon’s variety of stuffed pastries such as fatayer, sambousek and rekakat, which can be enjoyed with a savory cheese or spinach filling. If you’d prefer a more guilt-free indulgence, grab a bite at some of the city’s organic eateries.
Beirut is also a very popular party city, so it has a large variety of international cuisines. And don’t forget that Lebanon is the region’s only wine-producing country, in case you needed some extra incentive to visit!
3. Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul has enough breads, dips, lokum (Turkish delight) and coffee to keep a vegetarian foodie content. If you’re worried that local cuisine is mainly comprised of kebabs and doner, then ease your fears by sampling some gozelme (spinach or potato pastry), pide (Turkish flatbread with various toppings), mercimek koftesi (spicy balls of bulgur mixed with chopped herbs, tomato paste, veggies and spices) or gavurdagi (salad with chopped tomatoes, onions, walnuts with pomegranate dressing). Ezme, cacik and muhammara are a trio of tasty and hearty dips that can be combined with some local bread to make for a simple and tasty meal!
Start the day off with a smile by trying some kaymak (clotted cream) with honey, yogurt, eggs and bread. And after you’ve had your fill of veggie mains, indulge in some classic sweets such as lokum, kunafeh, halwa (tahini based sweet) and baklava (flaky pastry with chopped nuts and sugar syrup).
You can also head over to the House Café, a great casual lunch venue for a large selection of international foods, or Zencefil, a great vegetarian restaurant off Istiklal street. If you’re looking for some great high-end options, you could check out Zuma or Ulus 29, which have a great ambiance, and some delicious vegetarian options on their menus. But whether you go the traditional or non-traditional way for food, be sure to wash it all down with a shot of strong Turkish coffee!
4. Amman, Jordan
There is no shortage of local vegetarian fare in Amman, where mezze reigns supreme. Try not to salivate when confronted with plates of tabbouleh (chopped parsley with tomatoes, onions and olive oil), warakeneb (stuffed vine leaves) and shanklish (salad made of cheese chunks, tomatoes and onions accompanied with pita bread).
Baked goodies abound in the form of manakeesh (flatbread topped with thyme or cheese) and shrak, which is a whole-wheat bread created by the Bedouin and baked on special dome-shaped griddle known as saj. Shrak is eaten with almost every meal, and is a well known delicacy throughout the region. If the mezze doesn’t fill you up, try some magluba, a rice dish made with eggplants and cauliflower, or shourbat adas, a classic Middle Eastern lentil soup.
5. Doha, Qatar
Brunch spots, business lunch venues and dress-to-impress dining scenes rule Doha. Famous resorts and hotels such as the Sheraton, Kempinski, Radisson and Intercontinental serve up high-end cuisine to satisfy the discerning veggie foodie. But eating in Doha need not be hard on the wallet; there are eateries of all price ranges available here.
International restaurant chains, especially American eateries, are more popular than home grown concepts and the vegan scene hasn’t quite taken off yet, but whether you’re craving a good ol’ curry or a three course a la carte affair, Doha will leave you satisfied. Also be sure to check out The Pearl-Qatar, an artificial island that has a wide array of dining outlets, encompassing everything from South American cuisine to casual coffee shops.
6. Marrakech, Morocco
To eat well in Marrakech, your best bet is to do what the locals do. Scour the local markets for red lentil harira soup, a hearty vegetarian tagine, pastillas (spiced pie with chickpeas or sweet potato), couscous and fried aubergines. For breakfast, keep an eye out for Morocco’s take on a crepe, known as riifa.
There are also varieties of salads, pizzas, pastas and omelets to please the international palate. One or two veggie cafes, such as Earth Café Marrakech or Beyrout, may surprise you with some vegan alternatives.
After that, make sure to leave plenty of room for dessert and Moroccan shay (tea)! And make sure to try some pickled lemon before you go – it’s a true Moroccan delicacy!
7. Jeddah, KSA
Eating out is a major component of Jeddah’s food culture, but it comes with a local twist: every restaurant has separate sections for families and single men! For mixed company, it’s better to get takeout or eat at a friend’s home. Hospitality is also part of the culture, so if you get an invite, don’t hesitate to accept! Whether with family or friends, Saudis love their food and enjoy the best of local and foreign cuisines.
As far as local specialties go, any trip to Saudi Arabia would not be complete without trying ful muddumas – mashed fava beans blended with seasonings and spices, generally eaten with tamis, a large round flatbread garnished with sesame seeds.
Keeping up with food trends in Jeddah will not be difficult, as any new restaurant immediately becomes the talk of the town. Hardly surprising, given that the KSA has the highest number of social media users in the region!
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