These Mediterranean flavor sensations can kick up your cooking every day.
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a ramiken of pureed spicy herb sauce
Photo by Buckwheat Queen
| Credit: Buckwheat Queen

While Passover always brings a spike in the sale of matzah and other ingredients used in traditional Jewish dishes, year-round interest in cuisine from the Mediterranean, and particularly Israel, has grown in recent years. Staple foods like olive oil and chickpeas have been recognized for their health benefits, and last year, the James Beard Foundation named an Israeli restaurant the best in America.

"There has definitely been a rise in culinary flavors from Israel," says Shani Seidman, chief marketing officer of Kayco Kosher Food Brands, one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of kosher foods in the U.S. "Things like sumac and pickles, which were always part of that traditional cuisine, are now entering the mainstream." She has also seen a growing interest in kosher foods, even among non-Jewish consumers, because "These days, people want transparency about what goes into their food."

If all you know about Israeli food is hummus, then buckle up. There is a world of delicious flavor out there, and the following spices, sauces, and condiments are a great place to start your culinary exploration.

Tahini

This sesame-seed paste is like the peanut butter of the Israeli world. "It is really versatile because it's sweet and savory," says Adeena Sussman, author of Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors From My Israeli Kitchen. It is the main ingredient in hummus, but she drizzles it over roasted vegetables or meat, and loves using it in desserts like tahini blondies and tahini caramel tarts. Find tahini sesame paste online.

Chef John's Tahini
Photo by Buckwheat Queen

Za'atar

This blend of dried herbs and spices features sumac (a ground dried berry with a tangy, lemony flavor), sesame seeds, salt, and ground thyme. You can even make your own. It's great to shake on pizza and salads or to use on meats like chicken. Sussman recommends substituting it wherever you'd use oregano or Italian seasoning. She likes the herby, almost piney flavor mixed with yogurt as a vinaigrette for a challah caprese salad. Find za'atar online.

Homemade Za'atar
Photo by Allrecipes

Amba

Pickles are a huge part of Mediterranean cuisine, and this tangy mango one, similar to chutney, can be found at every falafel or shawarma bar, Sussman says. Mangoes are fermented and seasoned with chili pepper, turmeric, garlic, paprika, and Indian spices. Trader Joe's sells a version in a pouch for drizzling over kebobs and zoodles.

Zhug

Heat seekers will love this bright green hot sauce, made from chili peppers and cilantro and seasoned with coriander, cumin, and garlic. And, just like any hot sauce, it goes on just about anything: falafel, grilled fish or vegetables, meat, eggs.

a ramiken of pureed spicy herb sauce
Photo by Buckwheat Queen
| Credit: Buckwheat Queen

Preserved lemon

Another kind of pickle, these salt-and acid-fermented citrus fruits are often added to sandwiches or chopped and put into stews. Sussman describes their taste as "mellower in acidity than a fresh lemon, but salty." Her book has a recipe for a preserved lemon paste that she uses like aioli, or spreads on salmon before roasting. Find preserved lemons online.

Moroccan Preserved Lemons
Moroccan Preserved Lemons | Photo by Allrecipes
| Credit: Allrecipes

Hawaiij

This mix of ground spices including turmeric, cardamom, cumin, and white and black pepper is commonly used in soups and stews, curries, and even Yemeni coffee.

Silan

Dates are a mainstay of a Mediterranean diet, and this syrup made from steamed, pressed dates can be swapped for other sweeteners in baked goods, drizzled on grilled meats and vegetables, or shaken into cocktails. Find date syrup online.

Pomegranate molasses

These jewel-toned fruits are popular in the Middle East, and the sweet and sour syrup made from them adds depth to dishes like marinades, sauces, and salad dressings. Think of it almost like a vinegar substitute.

Pomegranate molasses
Pomegranate Molasses BBQ Sauce | Photo by Buckwheat Queen

Labneh

This dairy product is made by straining the whey out of Greek yogurt, leaving behind an even thicker, creamier, more concentrated spread that is often used on pitas or other bread products.

Labneh (Lebanese Yogurt)
Labneh (Lebanese Yogurt) | Photo by Buckwheat Queen

Ras el hanout

With more than a dozen different components, this spice blend, whose name translates to "head of the shop" because it supposedly is a blend of a spice store's best wares, is bold. Its strong, mostly warm flavors make a great rub for meats and are often used on couscous.

Ras el Hanout
Ras el Hanout | Photo by Buckwheat Queen
| Credit: Buckwheat Queen


Check out our collection of Israeli Recipes and Middle Eastern Recipes.