Aviation Catering Tips: Understanding Middle Eastern Cuisine

PT 4 M minute read
Aviation Catering Tips: Understanding Middle Eastern Cuisine

This is a post by author Roger Leemann. Roger is senior vice president of Culinary Operations for Air Culinaire Worldwide, headquartered in Tampa, Florida, with kitchens in Aspen, Colorado; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Las Vegas, Nevada; London, U.K.; Long Beach, California; New York, New York; Paris, France; San Francisco, California; Seattle, Washington; Van Nuys, California; West Palm Beach, Florida; and Washington, D.C. Also, Air Culinaire Worldwide provides in-flight catering services at hundreds of airports around the world via hundreds of catering partners. Roger is an expert on catering menu development and training for business aviation operators. He can be contacted at rogerleemann@airculinaire.com.

One of the pleasures of traveling is having the chance to experience cuisines and flavors from around the world. Middle Eastern cuisines have unique flavor profiles and styles of cooking that have evolved over the millennia. More and more in-flight caterers are now offering regional cuisine menus – including selections of Middle Eastern-inspired dishes. There’s never been a better time to experiment with regional cuisines from the four corners of the world.

Here is an overview of what you need to know about this type of food:

1. A short history of Middle Eastern flavors

Many of the foods and flavors in Middle Eastern cuisine are a result of early communications (either trade or conflict) among different cultures. Middle Eastern cuisine was influenced over the millennia by flavors and products (such as rice, tea, spices and cooking styles) from India, Mongolia and elsewhere. Because the Middle East is perfectly situated between Europe, Asia and Africa; it became an epicenter of food and recipe exchange.

2. Know the basics of Middle Eastern cuisine

In the Middle East, religion and culture play important roles in what foods are consumed. For example, the "Fertile Crescent," the land between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, is where wheat was first cultivated. Today, the most prominent religions of the region (predominantly Islam and Judaism) guide much of the dietary norms. Some religious preferences include restrictions on pork products and the absence of alcohol. Breads are not leavened with yeast; however, a full range of flatbreads, and breads leavened by steam and heat, are available. Common ingredients include legumes like chickpeas; dried fruits like dates and figs; grains like rice, wheat and barley; and fermented dairy products like yogurt. Herbs and spices include parsley, mint, cumin, coriander, clove, cinnamon, turmeric and sumac to name a few.

Items you might find familiar include pita bread, kebabs (beef, chicken or lamb), hummus, tabouleh and a wide variety of both pickled and cured olives. Some items that might be less familiar but are worth trying include "kibbeh," "shwarma" and savory (salty) pastries. Kibbeh are crispy delights of wheat filled with lamb or beef and pinenuts. The football-shaped snacks are delicious dipped into a "tzatziki" (yogurt) sauce or mint yogurt. "Shwarma" is a sandwich consisting of a soft flatbread filled with grilled meats and lettuce, tomato, pickles and yogurt sauce. The bread is too thick for the sandwich to be considered a wrap, but it is delicious and should be served with extra napkins. There is also wide variety of savory pastries that are either filled or topped with everything from cheese to lamb. These are finger food delights and are the perfect hot appetizer or "mezze."

3. Middle Eastern cuisine is becoming more popular worldwide

In recent years, many Middle Eastern food items and flavors have become increasingly popular. That is partly due to unique flavor profiles but also a result of a trend toward healthier food. Middle Eastern cuisine is both simple and flavorful, and some of its core ingredients are in the still-popular "Mediterranean Diet." For example, Greek or Arabic yogurt is known for lower sugar and higher protein.

4. Know the nature of Middle Eastern cuisine

Of all the cuisines available worldwide, Middle Eastern cuisine is perhaps the purest in the sense that it’s not overly masked by sauces and spices. The cooking techniques include grilling, baking and braising. The flavor profiles are typically a mixture of grilling with freshness from either citrus fruit or sumac. The typical recipe consists of limited ingredients with the flavor focus on the main item or cooking/preparation process. Overall, Middle Eastern cuisine is often considered a healthier option than other cuisines.

5. Re-heating at altitude

Onboard heating of Middle Eastern cuisine options is similar to the re-heating of other types of catering. Sauces, meant to be served hot, are often packaged together with the protein dish. Cold yogurt sauces are delivered and stored separately. For re-heating of stuffed pastries, it’s recommended to vent the bulk pan so that air/steam can escape, and the food stays crispier. Kibbeh and falafels are fried and can be heated by just removing the bulk pan cover. Foods from this region typically store well in-flight.

6. Onboard presentation

If you’re not familiar with Middle Eastern cuisine, have your in-flight caterer supply a regional menu. If it’s your first time with this cuisine, try the kebabs, flatbreads, hummus, samosa, tabouleh and kibbeh. Middle Eastern food is meant to be shared and is usually served on larger plates, family style, to be eaten by hand or with flatbread as a scoop. Many clients, however, will prefer to eat from separate plates. The best option may be to serve the cuisine on larger plates but to also have individual plates for each passenger (this requires more room on the table).


Many in-flight caterers now offer wide selections of regional cuisines. Foods and flavors inspired by the Middle East – from hummus, kebabs and yogurts to assorted flatbreads – are not only becoming more sought after, but they’re straightforward to prepare and serve at altitude.


If you have any questions about this article or would like assistance making your next in-flight catering order, contact me at rogerleemann@airculinaire.com.

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