Stock Up on These Products from Your Local Arabic Market
If you’re not walking out with a tub labne, you’re doing it wrong.
In Arab culture, food is everything. Your grandmother’s (tata in Arabic) cooking is a symbol of love and acceptance, and finishing your plate is always bound to leave a smile on her face. Tata will insist, of course, on seconds and thirds. Turn them down? Not an option.
Being a second-generation child of a family from Palestine, I was frequently oscillating between feasting on kibbeh and mahshi with my relatives—while absolutely indulging in my intense desire for cheeseburgers from In-N-Out. Growing up, the more time I spent at friends’ houses entrenching myself in American culture, the less I appreciated the beauty of Arabic cooking. I practically forgot the effort, passion, and creativity that goes into chopping cauliflower to make mshat or shaping the dough into rings for anise cookies.
I realized, though, no matter how far I strayed from my roots, I would never forget the smell of allspice wafting throughout the house or standing at my tata’s legs in her tiny, hectic kitchen as she cooked a plethora of dishes completely from scratch for our rowdy extended family. These memories never leave. Still today, nothing makes me feel more grounded than drinking my fennel seed tea or sautéing my chickpeas with turmeric; reminders that she is always with me.
And despite the fact that there really is nothing like the warmth and love that emanates from being served freshly cooked food from an Arab grandmother, there are plenty of ways to replicate that experience and venture into the world of Arabic ingredients and snacks. While there are some classics that go without saying (za’atar, pita bread, medjool dates, etc.) these are the deep cuts to look out for when shopping in an Arabic grocery store.
Our favorite Arabic snacks and ingredients
Seven Spice Mix
Also known as baharat, this spice mixture is every Arab cook’s secret weapon; the intoxicating aroma itself is life-changing. The blend is a combination of allspice, cinnamon, cumin, ground cloves, black pepper, ground coriander, and white pepper. It plays an important role in giving many Arabic dishes their distinct, delicious flavor and can transform pretty much any dish, whether you’re cooking up something as intricate as maqluba or simply putting together a rice pilaf.
Some of my earliest memories consist of my mother and I sucking on sticky sheets of tangy amardeen when we were craving something sweet. Even if you’ve never heard of it, the treat is bound to muster up feelings of nostalgia, as it (unofficially) serves as the ancestor of the fruit roll-up. Unlike its American counterpart, however, the dried apricot paste has a juicy, leather-like texture that is far more refreshing and can be treated as an on-the-go snack or used to make puddings, baked goods, and even beverages.
Thicker, with a more velvety consistency, labne is akin to greek yogurt with its whey strained out. Serve the tart dip with a pool of olive oil, a sprig of mint, and a generous dusting of za’atar sprinkled on top. It can also be spread on sandwiches, spooned atop soups and stews, and paired with a slice of pita bread or some chopped up cucumbers. You can even channel your inner–Tik Toker and make a labneh board. Labne is typically not available in general grocery stores, so it’s crucial to grab a tub whenever you see it.
You’ve most likely seen rosewater as a main ingredient in popular skin care products. In Arab cuisine, however, it’s included in a myriad of desserts. Stirred into rice puddings, incorporated into cookie dough, drizzled on top of knafeh—a drop of rosewater adds a subtle, floral taste that is both sweet and refreshing. It’s always good to have a bottle on hand just in case. Hot tip: my tata throws it into her homemade honey syrup that she pours on her freshly baked baklava.
These crispy cookies are one of the more popular Palestinian desserts; trust me when I say any Arabic bakery you walk into will have these on display. Covered in sesame seeds and containing bits of pistachio, barazek bears a resemblance to shortbread, with one particular difference: the biscuits contain mahleb, a spice made from the seeds of the mahaleb cherry tree. As a result, the cookies have a deep, nutty flavor and a buttery texture that practically melts in your mouth. You can always find a tin of bazarek at your local Arabic market, and since they have a long shelf-life, you can stock up on as many as you want.
Similar to the seven spices, fennel seeds can add dimension and complexity to any dish, as their sweet, anise-like flavor livens up any stew, soup, sauce, or marinade. However, my favorite way to consume fennel seeds is by crushing them up and steeping them in boiling water to make a rejuvenating tea; my mother gave me this all the time as a child when I had stomach aches, and to this day there is no cure I swear by more. The tea also helps with digestion and cramps, but its warmth and comforting smell is going to make you want to drink it all the time, especially on cold winter nights.
My mother grew up picking grape leaves from local vineyards and blanching them in a homemade brine for hours on end. Thankfully, the laborious process of foraging is no longer necessary, as grape leaves are now sold in jars in a premade brine, tender and ready to be stuffed with any mixture your heart desires. The most common way to use grape leaves is in the Arabic staple warak dawali, which typically contains rice, ground beef or lamb, and the seven spice mix.
Like grape leaves, lupini beans (referred to as turmus in Arabic) are also typically sold in a brine. In my opinion, they are the chickpea’s underrated cousin, bound to blow up in mainstream culture at any moment. After you remove them from the jar and rinse them, you can pop them into your mouth immediately (some people like to remove the skin first) or toss them into a soup or a salad. In fact, in recent years, the lupini bean has been used as dairy alternatives in recipes and to create plant protein.
Where to shop for Arabic products
In the past, my mother would have to drive half an hour to pick up all of her favorite ingredients from an Arabic market. As the cuisine becomes more and more popular, certain products like za’atar, fennel seeds, and lupini beans are popping up in national grocery stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Costco (believe it or not, my tata stands behind the Trader Joe’s falafel mix when she’s in a pinch).
However, in order to get the full experience, try to find an Arabic market near you; you’ll discover it’s akin to being a kid in a candy store. If you live in New York City, Atlantic Avenue is home to a bustling Arab community, with beloved shops like Sahadi’s, Damascus Bakery, and Oriental Pastry & Grocery. Bay Ridge (which has been nicknamed “Little Palestine”) also has a bevy of Arabic food stores like Balady Market, Bay Root Meats, and Mideast Bakery.