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Best Middle Eastern/Afghan Food

Zahav Salads

Some cultures know how to entertain. Hospitality is an art, as it’s the elegant mix of a warm welcome, attention to detail, and of course the food. No one quite does it like Middle Easterners, who know how to put on quite the spread. But you don’t need to travel too far to get a taste. These are the spots with the top Arabic food in the states, along with a few of our favorite Middle Eastern recipes to enjoy at home.

Zahav, Philadelphia

This Philly fine dining staple takes the multi-course tradition of Middle Eastern eating and turns it into a tasting menu. We think it’s a pretty brilliant way to showcase Middle Eastern cuisine in a gourmet fashion. And it seems that Philadelphia agrees, considering Zahav has been open (and consistently packed) since 2008. Your meal here starts with wood oven-baked laffa bread (a type of flatbread), followed by your choice of mezze, a fish or chicken course, an entree for the table, and dessert. If you don’t live in the Philly area or are just having a hard time getting a reservation, Zahav also offers nationwide shipping. We recommend the lamb shoulder meal kit, their signature dish. For $280, you get a brined, smoked, confited, and glazed lamb shoulder, along with rice, hummus, pita, and a selection of veggie salads.

Chef Eyal Shani’s Concepts, New York

We’re not exaggerating when we say that Chef Eyal Shani changed the way people think about Israeli food. Starting with low-key pita joints and eventually expanding to a worldwide restaurant empire, he made a name for himself in the States when his street food concept, Miznon, opened in Chelsea. Other New York Shani classics include Hasalon, North Miznon, Naked Tomato, and Shmoné. While his menus all highlight inventive Israeli cuisine, every Chef Shani concept is unique. So, Naked Tomato focuses on meat skewers, North is the sit-down big sister of Miznon, Shmoné is a bistro with a seasonal menu, and Hasalon is true fine dining. Whichever one you choose, you really can’t go wrong.

Maydan, Washington DC

Maydan is best known for its “tawle” menu (meaning table in Arabic, and prix-fixe in restaurant terms), which is designed to encourage a free-flowing, communal meal. Each course has a fairly large selection to choose from, with breads, spreads, fire-roasted entrees, and traditional condiments. There are classics, like lamb shoulder and hummus, as well as more creative dishes like honey-soaked dates and walnut cacik. They also offer sommelier selections as an add-on, which are tailored to complement your meal and personal taste. The cheeky options of “Do You Trust Us” and “Seemingly Familiar” are both $75 each, while the non-alcoholic “Free Spirited” option is $35.

Zaytinya, Washington DC & New York

The concept behind Zaytinya? To take you on a voyage across the Mediterranean, from Greece to Lebanon, to Turkey. It’s a lofty goal, but one that’s clearly worked for the past 10-plus years. Chefs José Andrés and Michael Costa created a sprawling selection of menus, with options for prix-fixe, personalized mezze, small shareable plates, and of course, plenty of spreads to dunk your fresh pita into. In true Mediterranean fashion, much of the cuisine is veggie-forward, though meat eaters will still find plenty of decadent dishes across the various menus.

Once you’ve hit the best Middle Eastern spots in the US, it might be time to give the cuisine a go at home. Here are two of our favorites, both traditionally from Afghanistan.

Kabuli Pulao

Known as the “crown of Afghan cuisine”, Kabuli Pulao is most commonly eaten by upper-class families in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. Served on a large platter piled high with seasoned rice, meat, and sweet veggies, we can see why it’s an Afghan staple. There are certainly more traditional approaches to this dish, like building your own spice mix or creating a sugar solution to give the rice a caramel color. But for those of us who are new to Middle Eastern cooking, this simplified version is a great place to start. You probably have most of the spices on hand already, but feel free to omit any that are too hard to find.


½ cup ghee or veg oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 lb boneless lamb, cubed
2 yellow onions, julienned
½ tsp garam masala
¼ tsp cardamom
2 tsp sugar
1 cinnamon stick
¼ tsp black pepper
1 ½ tbsp salt
⅓ cup raw slivered almonds
2 cups basmati rice
1 ½ cup carrots, julienned
1 cup raisins


For the lamb

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat a few tablespoons of your ghee or neutral oil over medium heat. Once hot, add the julienned onions, sauteeing for about 15 minutes. They should be golden brown, but not quite caramelized. Add your minced garlic and saute for an additional 3 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside.

In the same pot, add ¼ cup ghee, along with your cubed lamb. Sear the meat over medium-high heat, turning occasionally, until well browned on all sides. Once browned, season the lamb with your cumin, garam masala, cardamom, black pepper, and a pinch of salt. Saute for a minute longer, then add 1 ½ cups of water, a cinnamon stick, and the reserved onion and garlic mixture from earlier. Cover the pot and let simmer over medium-low heat for about an hour, or until the meat is fork tender.

For the Rice

While the meat braises, you can get started on the rice. Make sure to wash the rice until the water is nearly clear, removing all the unwanted starch. Bring 6 cups of water to a boil, along with a pinch of salt. Add the rice, then bring the water back up to a boil. Let cook for about six minutes. In the meantime, add the remaining ghee to a frying pan. Once hot, add the sliced almonds. Toast over medium heat for just a few minutes, until they’re light brown. Be sure to watch these closely, as they burn easily.

Once the almonds are toasted, add your carrots and raisins. Saute over medium heat until the carrots are softened and the raisins are slightly rehydrated. Add the sugar, mix one more time, and set aside.


Once your lamb is tender and cooked through, remove it from the pot, along with about ½ cup of liquid it braised in. Don’t forget to discard the cinnamon stick as well! Add half of the cooked rice into the pot with the remaining liquid, and season to taste. Next, add the lamb, then the rest of your rice. Pour the last of your reserved braising liquid over the rice, then add the carrot and raisin mixture. Cover loosely with foil, then a lid, and place back on the stove over medium-low heat for about 25 minutes.

When ready to serve, fluff the rice with a fork, piling it onto a large platter. Place the cubes of meat in the center, with the carrot and raisin mixture over top. Lastly, garnish with the toasted almonds.


You’ll find a version of this dish in nearly every culture. It’s the ultimate comfort food: some sort of protein wrapped up in chewy, thin dough. Afghanistan’s take on it is Mantu, which feels like the Middle Eastern cousin of the Chinese dumpling or Italian ravioli. You’re likely to find it on the table at any family dinner or celebration in Afghanistan. And because sauce makes everything better, Mantu is typically served with two of them– a creamy yogurt and tangy tomato combo.


For the Yogurt Sauce:

½ cup unsweetened, plain yogurt
½ tsp fresh mint
Salt to taste
1 clove of garlic, grated

For the Red Sauce:

8oz tomato sauce
½ onion, diced
1 tbsp white vinegar
1 clove of garlic, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ tbsp chicken bouillon powder or MSG

For the Mantu:

One bunch of cilantro leaves, for garnish
2 garlic cloves, diced
1 lb ground beef or lamb
2 onions, diced
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
Neutral oil, for cooking
1 tbsp ground coriander
Wonton wrappers, store-bought or homemade
¼ tsp turmeric
1 tsp of chili powder


First, make the yogurt sauce. Combine all the ingredients in a medium-sized bowl, mixing well. If you find the sauce is too thick to be drizzled over the Mantu, add a tablespoon of water at a time until you get your desired consistency. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. The longer it sits, the better it will taste!

Next, begin sauteing your two diced onions with a few tablespoons of oil over low heat. Once softened and fragrant, add the garlic and saute for an additional 2 minutes. Add the beef, salt, pepper, coriander, chili powder, and turmeric. Use a wooden spoon to break up larger chunks of the ground beef, making sure the spices are evenly distributed. Once your meat is browned and most of the moisture has evaporated, remove from the heat and stir in half of your minced cilantro. Let this mixture cool for a few minutes before you start assembly. In the meantime, you can get started on your tomato sauce.

For the sauce, add 2 tbsp of oil to your pan and let heat over medium. Add the rest of your diced onion, sauteeing for 3-4 minutes. Next, add the tomatoes and spices. Bring to a simmer, and let simmer for about 7 minutes. Lastly, stir in the vinegar and set aside off the heat.

To assemble the dumplings, place a small dollop of your meat filling into the center of your wonton/dumpling wrapper. Using wet fingers, lightly brush water on the edges of the wrapper. Press two opposite corners together, pinching to seal the dough. Repeat with the other two corners, lightly twisting the end of the tips for a tight dumpling.

Repeat this process with the rest of the wrappers and filling, covering the Mantu with a damp towel as you work.

You can either bake or steam Mantu, but steaming is the more traditional method. Fill a steamer basket with the Mantu, then bring a pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, place the steamer in the pot and cover it. Allow to steam for about 30 minutes, or until the dough is tender and slightly translucent.

Once steamed, remove and serve with the sauces. Garnish with remaining cilantro and enjoy!

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