A Taste of the Middle East

Be an adventurer and explore Middle Eastern food and grow Middle Eastern seeds — including sesame, eggplant, cilantro, fava bean, flax and more!

| Summer 2014

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.

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