The Middle East comprises a vast area with perhaps the most amazingly varied crop species and varieties to be found anywhere on the planet. That's not surprising, considering that agriculture has been going on there longer than virtually anywhere else on Earth.
At the very heart of this region includes the Fertile Crescent, the literal birthplace of human agriculture. The Crescent's western limit is the Nile river valley, while to the east flow the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which encompass the vast, irrigated land that the ancient Greeks called Mesopotamia, which simply means “the land between the rivers.”
There was considerable “borrowing” of crop species between the two areas from the earliest times. The pace of contact increased during the successive occupations by the Greeks and Romans. Throw in the expansion of Islam, centuries later, over the entire region from North Africa and even Spain, all the way east to northern India, and what you get is a vast melting pot that is influenced by every major Old World agricultural society except that of China, thousands of miles to the east and isolated by the Himalayas. What this means to agriculture is simply this: For centuries, crops and cuisines have flowed across the entire region; both have been embraced and adapted by the numerous peoples within the area.
Experts say the earliest known agriculture began in Mesopotamia. Crops that were essential to the founding of this civilization are believed to have been grains such as emmer, einkorn, and barley. Other early crops included flax, peas, chickpeas, bitter vetch, lentils, figs, oats, olives, sesame, cumin, cilantro, dates, spinach, lemons, favas, pistachios, dates, and more.
The need for a settled lifestyle to raise crops provided the impetus to forsake these early people's nomadic ways. In turn, the need arose for irrigation, cooperative labor, and the invention of writing. Farming truly is the mother of civilization!
Most of the region experiences a fairly uniform climate, being primarily arid or semi-arid, with hot, dry summers and cooler, but not frigid, moist winters. This basic similarity made it easy for crop species to make the rounds within this enormous bioregion, with the ebb and flow of ancient conquest and trade. Later, contact with India added other regional staples, like rice, eggplant and cucumbers. Finally, the modern era (after 1500 A.D.) saw the introduction of New World crops like tomatoes and peppers.
This lengthy list of Middle Eastern crops forms a veritable lexicon for the many cuisines and dishes of the region—falafel, hummus, tahini, and tabouleh; but also curry, moussaka, baba ganoush, and halva. So many dishes are very common in traditional cultures throughout the region, sometimes under similar and sometimes very different names, but transcending the boundaries of language and ethnicity. Good food is, after all, good food!
Crop Types & Varieties
These crop types and varieties can be grown in temperate-zone gardens.
Sesame (Sesamum indicum)
Possibly the first oilseed crop to have been domesticated, sesame seeds and oil presses have been found at archeological sites dating back thousands of years. Called “sesemt” by the ancient Egyptians, sesame is grown as a summer crop throughout the region, as indeed it is in warmer districts of the United States. In addition to being pressed for oil, the seeds from the striking plants with their trumpet-shaped flowers can also be roasted and made into cookies and confections, like halva, in which delightful product the seeds are used either ground or whole. Tahini is made from the ground seed and is a main ingredient of hummus. Sesame oil is a staple cooking and flavoring oil throughout the region.
Fava Bean (Vicia faba)
Origin: North Africa, Southwestern Asia
Actually an oversized vetch, fava is a cold-tolerant legume, cultivated as a winter crop throughout the Middle East, as an early spring or fall crop in North America. Widely grown by the Greeks and Romans, the crop was a particular staple of ancient Egypt; it is still so throughout the region to this day.
The high-protein seeds are sometimes ground and used in falafel, in place of chickpeas. Via the Spanish/Muslim connection, favas are now a favorite food in Latin America as well. Favas are widely consumed throughout the Middle East as a breakfast dish known as “ful medames” — cooked, mashed, and served with oil, cumin, lemon juice, and other enhancements. The “beans” are used both when immature and after drying.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
Origin: North Africa to southern Europe
A container of the seeds was included in the burial of Egypt's King Tutankhamen; physical evidence has been found of its use millennia ago in Israel. The piquant leaves are freely used as a garnish; the seeds of the same plant are coriander, and are used whole or ground. Paradoxically, the plant is sensitive to heat, bolting quickly to seed, making it ephemeral in American gardens where it is commonly grown in spring or fall.
Eggplant (Solanum melongena)
This heat-loving annual is ubiquitous throughout the Middle East, as well as southern Europe. Its splendid fruits come in a range of colors, including the run-of-the-mill purple types long familiar to Americans; in its traditional range, lavenders, whites, and stripes are very common.
Baba ganoush is a dip spread made of mashed roasted eggplants, tahini and garlic, not so different from Italy's caponata, really. Moussaka is a Greek casserole of eggplant and meat, topped by meringue-like custard. In Syria, makdous is eggplant stuffed with a walnut filling and pickled in olive oil. Iranians make khoreshteh, a stew of eggplant and any number of other ingredients.
Chickpeas (Cicer arietinum)
One of the original domesticates, chickpeas, also known as garbanzos, were widely distributed even among ancient cultures of the region. The crop has been found in very ancient sites in Jericho, Greece, and even France. Ancient Roman sources describe several distinct types and provide several recipes. Hummus is the Arabic word for chickpeas, but also describes a dish consisting of cooked chickpeas, ground into a paste, mixed with tahini and spices and served as dip. Falafel, probably the first Middle Eastern dish to be popularized in the United States, is the delicious deep-fried focal-point of a pita-bread sandwich known by the same name.
Worldwide, chickpeas are the most widely grown legume after soybeans. In addition to the familiar plump, buff-colored type, smaller, dark brown-to-black forms are also known, and may be similar to the original form before thousands of years of cultivation gave rise to the many types now grown. There are other colors known as well.
Emmer (Triticum dicoccum)
Actually the name “emmer” includes a confused continuum of wild and domesticated types of wheat. Wild forms occur throughout southwestern Asia; the discovery of them in Israel around the turn of the 20th century inaugurated modern interest in the crop.
It turns out that, while the wild form is widely distributed throughout the Tigris-Euphrates area, the domesticated form had largely disappeared except in a few locations in Europe (it's called “faro” in Italy) and some mountainous regions of North Africa. Emmer was the staple wheat of Egypt in Pharaonic times, being the main ingredient in both their bread and their beer. It is of value to modern folks for the quality of its gluten, which is believed to be well tolerated by those with gluten sensitivity.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum)
Origin: Tigris-Euphrates region
This ancient crop was one of the original foundation plants of agriculture and was most likely the first plant grown for fiber. The sky-blue flowers atop one-foot plants are very easy to grow in temperate climates as well, and have been cultivated in America since the first Europeans settled here.
The straight stems contain the fibers that are extracted (by a fermentation process known as “retting,” cleaned, then spun and woven into linen, which is probably the world's earliest textile. The seeds may be processed into oil (which is called linseed oil) but today, they are appreciated for their healthful Omega-series oil content.
The Seed Keepers
Chronic unrest, political turmoil and corporate expansion have threatened the traditional underpinnings of agriculture in the Middle East, and this rich storehouse of diversity has become threatened. Fortunately, some courageous individuals have stepped up to preserve and share local heirloom types.
Aziz Nael is a well-known collector of Iraqi varieties. Several of his accessions have become very widely distributed. The most famous is ‘Ali Baba’ watermelon, which is now widely grown by commercial organic growers. But he has also distributed a number of Iraqi tomato varieties. In a letter written in 2006, Aziz wrote: "In Iraq the globalization and U.S. occupation have finished the whole heirloom way of life ... what I am sending are the last tomato seeds coming from this country. The first tomato according to my Iraqi friend who sent me it, it is coming from Mosul (Nineveh) in the north of Iraq.
"The second heirloom, ‘Al Kuffa’, tomato is a delicious one, useful for any purpose, strong bush plant cultivated in the south Iraq in cool greenhouses for late spring or earlier summer popular markets. Both tomatoes were cultivated by familial farmer groups for small popular markets or for personal kitchen needs ..."
Raghad Gorani is a native Syrian who has contributed accessions of rare seed from her native land. Thanks to her efforts, gardeners world-wide now have access to wonderful varieties like ‘Kittaa’ cucumber, ‘Tadifi’, ‘Homsi’ and ‘Syrian Stuffing’ eggplants, ‘Three-sided Syrian’ pepper and others. She wrote in 2013 that her “grandfather farmed for many years, growing heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, peppers, gourds, zucchini, watermelons, and melons, although his main crop was wheat. He proudly saved his own seed, year after year ... Unfortunately, later this changed when his farm was sold and new farmers got influenced by false advertisements of hybrid and GMO seeds: that they are good for production, economy, and endurance. This seems to be the case for other produce in other villages and farms, as hybrid and GMO seeds became a new common problem in Syria.
“My interest in heirloom vegetables started when I no longer could taste delicious tomatoes like the old tomatoes I ate when I was a child or a teenager.” Gorani said. “This drove me to look for heirloom good seeds to eat, [like] the delicious dark red tomatoes I used to eat from Safira village. This also is the case with watermelon, melons, zucchini and some other vegetables. I searched for the old tomato seeds with difficulty. I found some heirloom seeds and I always try to obtain more. Later on, I wanted to share our Syrian heirloom seeds ... whenever I can find them.”
Randel A. Agrella lives, works and gardens in central Connecticut, where he also manages historic Comstock, Ferre and Co. An heirloom seed saver since 1982, he offers heirloom plants in season on his website, www.abundantacres.net. His articles have appeared in Heirloom Gardener since 2005.