Each month we explore interesting and lesser-known or used plant-based foods from around the world. This months focus is the Middle East.
Home of vegetarian favourites like falafel, tabouli and hummus, cuisine from the Middle East enriches plant-based eating with fresh ingredients and refreshing flavours. This month we focus on carob, sumac and pomegranate, which all have a level of intensity that makes for being star ingredients in a recipe. Carob is truly the answer to cacao in the Middle East, with an equally impressive nutritional profile and less need for sweetening. At the same time, Sumac is a spice that takes any savoury dish to the next flavour level. Pomegranate has a long history and scientists have placed it in the first five positions in the list of the oldest cultivated fruits, along with the olive, grape, date palm and fig. (1) The most versatile of the three ingredients, which can be utilised in savoury or sweet dishes, it is also the most well researched for its medicinal qualities.
Make sure you check out this month’s featured Middle Eastern recipe here and feel inspired to add these ingredients to your pantry essentials.
Carob is commercially available as a chocolate alternative mixed with cocoa butter and also found in powdered form. Carob pods are an excellent source of dietary fibre and polyphenols and contain low amounts of fat. An ideal cocoa and cacao substitute since the pods do not contain caffeine and theobromine; they are also an excellent source of potassium and calcium. (2) There are many different health benefits associated with carob, including anti-cancer, anti-diabetic and antidiarrhoeal.
The high proportion of polyphenols present in carob fibre differentiates it from other dietary fibre sources as well as its high polyphenol content carob stands out as a predominantly insoluble and practically non-fermentable dietary fibre. Add the powder to smoothies, bliss balls, use in place of cacao in recipes and enjoy as a chocolate alternative.
Sumac in its natural state is actually a fruit, and just like the majority of spices, the berries are used in powdered form. (3) Widely used as a condiment, it can be used on its own or in combination with other spices,(4) such as the popular spice mix za’atar, and sometimes in dukkah. (5) The bioactive compound of the berries has been shown to have a long list of therapeutic properties including antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiemetic, antidiarrhoeal, antiviral and hypoglycaemic potential. (4, 5)
This versatile spice is widely used in rice and vegetable dishes as well as in salads (like fattoush) and even desserts and the spice is so popular and versatile that sumac is even used like salt and pepper are consumed in the West(5) as an addition to the meal when serving. To get started using sumac in your household, try a fattoush salad where the sumac shines in the dressing.
You may have tried pomegranate in some form such as the fruit (arils) or juice, but the chances are that it doesn’t frequently feature in your diet. Apart from fruit and juice, pomegranate is available in various forms such as molasses and as an ingredient in jams, jellies, sauces, salad dressings, and kinds of vinegar. Anardana, which is the powdered form of pomegranate seed, is used as a form of spice. (6) Here is all the encouragement you need to get inspired to use pomegranate and given the therapeutic values it displays, with good reason.
Pomegranate is a potent antioxidant, so is it any wonder that it displays several health benefits including preventing and treating high blood pressure, high cholesterol, oxidative stress and hyperglycemia. (6) It is demonstrated that certain components of pomegranate such as polyphenols have potential anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic (anti-cancer) effects..(6)
Pomegranate is beneficial to the reproductive system(6) and in many religions and cultures is thought to be an auspicious symbol of fertility. (1) Consumption of pomegranate juice could increase sperm concentration and motility and other parameters associated with improved male reproductive health. (6)
A healthy plant-based diet incorporates a variety of foods that provide real nutritional value, versatility and medicinal virtues. Sourcing new ingredients and trying new recipes takes a little effort. Still, the fruits of your labour will result in full-flavoured food to enjoy time and again – that new recipe today could become a family favourite tomorrow!