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Soups, Stews & Tagines – Part 1

Meat in the Middle Eastern kitchen

Meat is enjoyed throughout the Middle East, slow-cooked with spices in rich tagines, quickly flame-grilled over charcoal as a street-side snack, or ground and blended for meltingly soft kabobs. For feasts or special occasions, a lamb might be spiced and roasted whole, stuffed with rice and raisins. For everyday cooking, inexpensive cuts of meat are used to flavor soups and stews, while ground meat is a popular filling for pies and pastries and more expensive cuts are cooked quickly, often as street food.

Lamb and mutton are eaten all over the region, whether grilled, simmered in stews, or roasted, although in many dishes beef can be substituted for lamb, if you prefer. Ground meat is especially common, because it’s a thrifty way to use fatty, cheaper cuts, such as beef or lamb shoulder, flank steak, or lamb neck pieces. If you’re making your own ground meat at home, be sure to use this type of cut, because the fat helps to prevent the meat from becoming dry when cooked. In Middle Eastern homes, meat is pounded repeatedly until it is soft and almost pastelike. It creates particulary tender meatballs, kofte (Lebanese Seven-spice Beef Kofte Broth and Lamb Kofte with Yogurt & Mint Dip), and kibbeh, which can be eaten by themselves or incorporated in miniature form into soups and stews. You can replicate this pounding process by using a food processor to further grind meat.

When they’re not used for ground meat, cheaper cuts such as lamb shoulder and chuck steak are the perfect choice for slow-cooked tagines, biryanis, or stews, because they’ll fall apart beautifully after a long, slow cook over low heat. Chicken tagines and stews should also be cooked on very low heat to keep the meat from becoming tough, and again the best cuts are the cheaper thighs and drumsticks, with the bone in for additional flavor.

Organ and variety meats are found in a wide variety of Middle Eastern dishes, with whole sheep heads, stomachs, and feet cooked in broth, known as pacha in Iraq, and lamb brain, liver, heart, lungs, testicles, and kidneys used for kabobs in Iran. Lamb or calf brains, often regarded as a delicacy, are eaten crumbed and fried, in salads or as a filling for small pies. In some regions, cooking fat is derived from rendered sheep tail, known as alya, although olive oil or clarified butter are now more commonly used.

More expensive cuts of meat should be saved for quick-cooking steaks or skewers. Traditionally, meat skewers are cooked as street food over charcoal braziers, but you can replicate the process at home under a hot broiler or over a barbecue. Thread cubes of tenderloin steak, top loin (strip) steak, lamb loin, or chicken breast onto skewers to make kabobs—the Middle East’s most popular street food. You can find recipes for chicken kabobs and beef kabobs.


Iranian Fish Stew

This herbed fish stew, also known as ghalieh mahi, uses a sour-sweet combination of dried lime and tamarind that is popular in Iranian cooking. It is easy to cook and perfect with steamed basmati rice. You can find dried limes, tamarind pulp (or block), and fenugreek leaves in Middle Eastern grocery stores or on the Internet.

PREP : 30 minutes
COOK : 45 minutes

  • 3 ounces tamarind pulp
  • about 3 cups boiling water
  • 1 dried lime
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 3 celery stalks, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh or dried fenugreek leaves
  • 1½ cups coarsely chopped fresh cilantro, plus 2 tablespoons finely chopped to garnish
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
  • 1½ teaspoons ground turmeric
  • 1¼ pounds firm white fish, such as cod or halibut, skinned, bones removed, and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt flakes
  • 2 tablespoons clarified butter
  • 8 ounces raw jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined, defrosted if frozen
  1. Put the tamarind into a shallow heatproof bowl, add enough of the boiling water to cover, then let stand for 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, grind the dried lime in a mortar and pestle. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over low heat. Add the fenugreek seeds and cook for 2 minutes, or until aromatic. Add the onion and sauté for 5 minutes, or until softened. Add the garlic, celery, and crushed dried lime, cover, and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Meanwhile, press the tamarind and its soaking water through a strainer into a liquid measuring cup, using the back of a spoon to push all the pulp through and leaving behind only the seeds and fibers. Scrape underneath the strainer using a clean spoon to get all the pulp. If necessary, top up with enough of the remaining boiling water to make 3 cups.
  4. Stir the tamarind water, sugar, fenugreek leaves, and half the cilantro into the onion mixture. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, partly covered, for 15 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, mix together the flour and turmeric on a large plate. Dust the fish generously with it, then sprinkle with the salt.
  6. Line a plate with paper towels. Heat the clarified butter in a large skillet over high heat. Working in batches, fry the floured fish for 2–3 minutes, or until golden brown, turning halfway through. Transfer to the prepared plate.
  7. Add the fried fish, shrimp, and remaining roughly chopped cilantro to the stew. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer gently for 3 minutes, or until the shrimp turn pink and the fish is cooked. Serve hot, sprinkled with the finely chopped cilantro.

Cook’s tip : You can prepare the base of the stew in advance and store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to a day, then reheat it slowly on the stove and proceed from step five just before serving.


Chicken Tagine with Freekeh

Tagine takes its name from the earthenware pot in which it is traditionally slow-cooked over an open fire. Freekeh is toasted wheat and makes a delicious accompaniment.

PREP : 30 minutes
COOK : 1 hour

  • 1 teaspoon rose harissa
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 2¼ pounds mixed root vegetables, such as carrots, turnips, and potatoes, cut into large chunks
  • 8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs (about 5 ounces each)
  • 2 onions, coarsely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • ⅔ cup hot chicken broth
  • 1⅓ cups freekeh, rinsed
  • 3 cups water
  • ⅓ cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro, to garnish
  1. Whisk the rose harissa, cumin, pepper, half the salt, and 5 tablespoons of the oil together in a bowl. Put the root vegetables into a shallow dish, pour half the marinade over them, and toss. Put the chicken into another shallow dish and pour the remaining marinade over it.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the remaining oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium–low heat. Add the onions and sauté for 5 minutes, or until softened. Add the garlic and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the marinated vegetables, cover, and cook for 10 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a skillet over medium–high heat. Add the chicken and cook for 6–8 minutes, until browned all over, turning occasionally. Transfer the chicken to the vegetables. Pour in the broth, cover, and bring to a boil. Stir, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through.
  4. Meanwhile, put the freekeh, water, and remaining salt into a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 25 minutes.
  5. Put the chicken and vegetables into a colander set over a large bowl. Pour the drained juices back into the skillet and simmer for 5 minutes, or until thickened.
  6. Drain the freekeh and put it into a large serving dish. Arrange the chicken and vegetables on top and pour over the juices. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve immediately.

Cook’s tip : A tablespoon of finely chopped preserved lemons is a good addition with the broth before simmering in step three.


Vegetable Tagine

Tagines can be made from almost any North African vegetable, but they must be prepared with classic flavorings, such as preserved lemon, dried apricots, ginger, cumin, and coriander, and then slow-cooked.

PREP : 30 minutes
COOK : 40 minutes

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • large pinch of saffron threads
  • 2 red bell peppers, seeded and coarsely chopped
  • 2 cups peeled, seeded, and coarsely chopped butternut squash or other squash
  • 1 (14½-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • ¾ cup coarsely chopped dried apricots, figs, or prunes
  • ½ preserved lemon, rinsed and thinly sliced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 14 sprigs of fresh cilantro, leaves and stems separated, stems tied together and lightly crushed, leaves chopped and
  • reserved to garnish
  • 3 pinches of sea salt
  • 2 pinches of pepper
  • 1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas in water, drained and rinsed
  • 1 zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced
  • 2 cups baby spinach
  • 1 tablespoon toasted slivered almonds, to garnish
  • 2⅓ cups couscous, to serve
  • 1 tablespoon butter, to serve
  1. Heat the oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium–high heat. Add the onion and sauté for 3–4 minutes, or until softened, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and sauté for 1–2 minutes, or until softened. Stir in the ground coriander, cumin, ginger, crushed red pepper flakes, and saffron and cook for 30 seconds.
  2. Add the red bell peppers, squash, tomatoes, tomato paste, dried apricots, preserved lemon, bay leaf, fresh cilantro stems, and enough water to cover by 3 inches. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, put the couscous into a shallow heatproof bowl. Add the butter and season with a pinch of salt. Pour over enough boiling water to cover by 1 inch, place a folded dish towel over the top, and set aside for 10 minutes, or until the couscous is tender and the liquid has been absorbed.
  4. Stir the chickpeas and zucchini into the tagine and simmer for 5–10 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Stir in the spinach and let it wilt, then season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Discard the bay leaf and cilantro stems.
  5. Fluff up the couscous using a fork. Garnish the tagine with the almonds and cilantro leaves. Serve the tagine with the couscous.

Cook’s tip : Don’t be afraid to change the vegetables according to what you like or have available. Eggplants work particularly well, chopped and added with the other vegetables in step two.

Authentic dishes from the Middle East

Rukmini Lyer