Over the past few years, the authentic flavors of the Levant have made their way onto U.S. menus and into the collective consciousness of diners everywhere. Champions of this region are plentiful—Michael Solomonov, Ana Sortun and Alon Shaya, to name a few.
Their concepts have helped to increase visibility and to position Eastern Med as a hip and exciting “new” cuisine. Fast casuals are helping translate the flavors and formats of this region into more accessible fare. Places like Cava Grill, Little Sesame and Goldie demonstrate how this cuisine is primed for the average American diner.
What is the next opportunity stemming from the exploration and adaptation of Eastern Med cuisine? Hummus is moving from its position as a shareable to center of the plate (or bowl) with a creamier, warmer version that mirrors the ones found in Israel, Lebanon and Jordan.
Chefs are also taking inspiration from bold spice blends from the region, such as za’atar, dukkah and baharat, to breathe new life into trending vegetable-driven dishes.
And as healthy fast-casual concepts that serve the bold, fresh flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean proliferate, consumer familiarity and expectation grows in leaps and bounds.
“The familiarity factor has gone up, primarily because of the flexitarian diet, and consumers looking for more plant-based diets and the excitement around that,” says Adam Moore, chef and founder of Chicago-based foodservice consulting firm, Flashpoint Innovation.
“Hummus and falafel are two formats that really rose with the increase in plant-based diets.” He suggests that operators can move beyond the introductory flavors of hummus and falafel and leverage classic proteins to showcase other spice and flavor profiles from the region.
Hummus Makes Moves
Guests no longer need an introduction to hummus, but chefs can rethink the way they prepare and present it. We’ve already seen that with innovations in both add-ins and toppings, from beet or avocado hummus to hummus garnished with chicken shawarma or sumac onions.
Examples abound: At Zaytinya, the Eastern Med small-plates concept by José Andrés in Washington, D.C., hummus is served with spiced ground lamb, pine nuts, house-pickled vegetables and mint.
Fast-casual concepts like Little Sesame in Washington, D.C., and Dizengoff in Philadelphia both leverage hummus as center-of-the-plate items, served warm and topped with a medley of add-ins like in the hummus shops of the Middle East. These builds also lend well to the bowl trend. After extensive research overseas, Little Sesame co-owners Nick Wiseman and Ronen Tenne found a happy medium: capturing flavors and techniques true to the experience abroad, while also developing a distinctively seasonal and local approach specifically authentic to their D.C. location.
“Israel, like the U.S., is a confluence of ideas. There is no ‘one’ identity,” Wiseman says. “Authenticity, in my mind, is eating hummus not as a dip—hummus is a center-of-the-plate meal. During our research trip we ate hummus cooked by Yemenite Jews, Arabs from Lebanon—there’s so much influence across the region. Typically, it’s warm chickpeas and tahini, but each hummus is very different. One was super light; there was an airiness to it. In the north, it was very creamy, with lots of tahini. There are small variations and toppings. We went far beyond coming out of the plastic tub.”
Fresh Still Resonates
“Fresh” may sound like an overused buzzword these days, but one thing all chefs can agree on is that you really can’t skimp on your produce with Eastern Mediterranean cuisine. A quick look at the terroir reveals year-round availability of vibrant produce like cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, broccoli, garlic and fennel. Herbs like oregano, parsley, sumac, rosemary and saffron grow wildly and abundantly. Going fresh delivers a double punch of bold flavors and incredible color that appeal to the health-conscious and visually driven guest.
Olive oil and tahini are essentially the only imported ingredients at Little Sesame; everything else is sourced via relationships with farmers.
Sumac, which grows abundantly throughout the mid-coast of the Eastern seaboard, is easily bought fresh in bulk.
Za’atar—typically a custom blend that includes thyme, marjoram, oregano, roasted sesame seeds, sumac and salt—can easily be made from scratch and sourced locally.
Chickpeas are incredibly affordable for any operation. Wiseman and Tenne source from a farmer in Montana who grows a specific small chickpea varietal called kabuli that contributes to the flavor profile they desired.
“It’s about forging real relationships,” Wiseman says. “The sumac and the za’atar came from a grower in Washington, D.C., we’ve known for years who was willing to grow it just for us. We’re developing a supply chain that we can believe in and that can grow with us.”
After finding all the right flavors, they adjusted the hummus recipe, dialing back on the tahini to cut the richness so that it would fit within a working person’s lunch. They also left cooked chickpeas sitting overnight to add more flavor. Perfecting the hummus provided the ultimate canvas for experimentation.
In late summer, guests can choose among toppings like: whole roasted cauliflower with “everything” spice and green onion; chicken shawarma with pickled red onion; or sweet corn with salt-roasted onion, pickled Fresno chile and cilantro.
Come winter, hummus bowls are topped with combinations like roasted squash, pomegranate molasses, crispy chickpeas and cilantro, or winter greens, harissa sambal, smoked paprika and pita gremolata.
“For us, a big thing is being vegetable-centric,” Wiseman says. “The roots of this food are very vegetable-rich. They can grow things year-round. We don’t have that here, so we’re able to do it with our own seasonal approach.”
In this age of transparency in sourcing, this makes for a viable strategy in the efforts to connect brands to meaningful food narratives.
Flavors That Fit
Baked eggs with San Marzano tomatoes, red peppers and za’atar-spiced ciabatta sounds like a perfectly approachable brunch dish. Those happen to be the ingredients for shakshuka, a beloved Israeli dish that originated in North Africa, now surging onto nationwide menus.
Recognizing that guests would embrace the flavor profile but might find an unfamiliar term intimidating, Shane Schaibly, VP of culinary strategy and corporate chef of University Park, Fla.-based First Watch Restaurants, determined a menu modification was necessary.
“We’re about to roll out a dish called ‘Mediterranean Baked Eggs’ that’s basically shakshuka. But when we tested it and called it ‘shakshuka,’ we had less order frequency than we would have liked,” he says. “We’re cooking these things in an authentic way; it just comes down to the way we present it on the menu. Because we’re calling it ‘Mediterranean Baked Eggs’ instead of ‘shakshuka’ doesn’t mean we’re not being true to the ingredients—it just means we need to present it in a way that might make our customers a little more comfortable ordering it.” After changing the name, he estimates that orders went up by 50 percent.
Whether called shakshuka or baked eggs, there’s a whole lot to love about this dish. San Marzano tomatoes, fresh bell peppers, garlic and harissa paste are cooked down for the flavorful base. The stew is topped with a choice of egg preps (poached is recommended), cooked separately to speed up ticket times, and served in an au gratin dish along a side of ciabatta that has been buttered, sprinkled with za’atar and seared on the flattop.
First Watch is exploring other Eastern Mediterranean foods, too. “Shakshuka works the best for us because of the eggs, but moving forward, we’re looking at lamb, hummus, and a couple of dishes with falafel,” Schaibly says. “As long as you’re able to execute the dish properly and do it justice, you can introduce unique flavors. They’re pretty mainstream, except maybe harissa or za’atar. If you call out familiar ingredients like San Marzano tomatoes or red pepper stews, you’re able to introduce people to a new dish. Start with something familiar, like a hash or stew, then pepper in the things you want to introduce.”
The flavorful and veg-forward nature of Eastern Mediterranean cuisine sets up nicely for the very popular format of build-your-own dishes. That flavor-focused customizability is why it wasn’t too hard for Eden Grinshpan, executive chef and TV host, to sell Esquared Hospitality on Dez, a New York-based sister concept to its popular By Chloe healthy fast-casual chain.
Creative choices in bowl builds include items like baharat-grilled chicken, saffron rice, cumin cabbage slaw and beet hummus. “Middle Eastern food lends itself so well to heavy vegetarian and vegan options, and we’re focusing more and more on that—highlighting how healthy this food is and how connected it is to a whole-foods diet. It’s affordable, easy, accessible,” says Grinshpan.
Dez also offers enough versatility and flavor impact for unique salads, pita sandwiches and stand-alone mezes. Robust vegetables keep the menu wholesome and colorful, but popular proteins ground it for the guest who wants a satiating meal or familiar format.
Beef, lamb, goat and chicken make up the most common proteins in Eastern Med cuisine, typically cooked over live fire or braised with shawarma or baharat spices. At Dez, Grinshpan builds on the concept with her burger: shawarma-spiced beef piled with crispy eggplant, Persian cucumber, radish, red onion, tahini, amba (pickled mango), s’chug and parsley. Here, the ingredients are brimming with authenticity, but imagined in an entirely new way.
With more consumers looking for those big, bright, intriguing flavor combinations, dipping into Eastern Med profiles makes a lot of sense. And as the food culture from the Levant is ancient, storied, rich and vast, there’s always something wonderful to discover, experiment with and translate for eager American diners.
Take a cue from these Eastern Med-inspired dishes spotted across the country—they translate onto all types of menus, including global mash-ups and New American.
- Shishkatori: Savory shish kebabs with Middle Eastern seasoning served in traditional Japanese yakitori style
—Bowery Bungalow, Los Angeles
- Local mushroom and spicy harissa shakshuka with garlic stewed tomatoes, onions, poached eggs, feta and grilled bread
—Mishmish Cafe, Montclair, N.J.
- Hawajj-spiced Brussels sprouts with squash ribbons, tahina and cured lemon
—Shalom Y’all, Portland, Ore.
- Chopped freekah salad with Persian cucumber, tomato, watermelon radish, yogurt and lavash
—Cleo, Miami Beach, Fla.
- Chicken leg confit with saffron couscous, spicy harissa, poached leek, Persian limes, pickled mustard seeds and grilled lemons
—Zizi Limona, Brooklyn, N.Y.