INGREDIENTS AND PREPARED FOODS HAILING FROM TURKEY TO TUNISIA, AND FROM ISRAEL TO IRAN are commanding more attention than ever before. Hummus is the number-one growing deli item across the U.S., and the snack of choice on United Airlines. Blazing-hot harisa and fruity-tart sumac are among the top-selling items at spice wholesalers Le Sanctuaire and the Spice House. In recent years, pomegranate—as rich in nutrients as it is in symbolism throughout the Middle East—peaked in popularity in the U.S., with consumers snatching up the succulent and certifiably restorative fruit bottled as juice or iced tea, or packaged in breakfast cereals.

“We were in the Fancy Food Show each year for the last 15 years, and never won an award. In 2008, for the first time, we were up for no less than three [sofi™] awards. That goes to show you how tastes, trends and the market have all changed,” says Ziyad Brothers’ Nassem Ziyad, general manager of the family-run, Cicero, Ill.-based importer of premium-quality Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods.

“Interest in Middle Eastern flavors seems to be at an all-time high,” notes Christine Whelan of 60-year-old importer and Brooklyn, N.Y. institution, Sahadi Fine Foods. “American taste has expanded to include flavors once considered exotic, such as rose, fig, pomegranate, orange blossom and date. There is also much greater interest in traditional grains and spices, including couscous, mograbieh (large couscous), frik (green wheat), bulghur wheat, allspice, sumac, mint and mixed spices,” she explains.

Steven Millard, senior merchandiser at New York City’s Dean & Deluca, believes that the challenge for retailers is getting to know the cuisines of “this vast region of the world,” which many in the food world consider to stretch across North Africa as far west as Morocco, and to include the whole of Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Afghanistan and sometimes Pakistan, in addition to Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Armenia and Iraq. When it comes to Middle Eastern foods and flavors that are most evidently evolving in the U.S., Millard says, “the first thing that comes to mind is spices.”

Spices for All Seasons
Cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger and turmeric all found their way into the Middle East thousands of years ago, being used for commerce well into antiquity, and appearing as leading ingredients in national dishes throughout the region up to present day. Millard points out two spices that seem to be currently growing in popularity in the U.S.: nigella (also known as black cumin or black caraway seed, and often used in Jewish rye bread as well as in traditional Lebanese dishes) and cardamom (used in the Middle East to flavor coffee and pervasive in Persian stews).

“Turmeric has become popular in the U.S.,” adds Fari Soofer, owner of Los Angeles, Calif. wholesaler Sadaf Foods. “Americans are recognizing its health benefits [it’s an anti-inflammatory, has powerful antioxidants and purportedly helps boost the immune system],” she explains. Similarly, sumac spice, not to be confused with North America’s poison sumac plant, is drawing greater interest from health-conscious consumers. Sumac spice, which figures heavily in Arabic, Turkish, Armenian and Lebanese cuisine (it’s used a lot in kebabs), is often substituted for lemon or vinegar in many dishes because of its more favorable tart and tangy flavor. And it’s a good source of vitamin C, she says.

Stephen Brooks, manager of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Hiller’s Market, indicates that the family-owned retailer has recently added several new prepared food items featuring za’atar. This Arabic term for a species of wild thyme is also the name of a Middle Eastern mixture of wild thyme, sumac spice, fennel, cumin and oregano. Explains Brooks, “We carry a prepared Lebanese bread that has za’atar baked right into it, and we like to add the spice to our house hummus or mix it into yogurt to give it a real aromatic flavor similar to but not quite as floral as oregano.”

“The hellfire of harisa is hard for a heat junkie to resist,” writes blogger “The Well-Seasoned Cook” about the most important element in Algerian and Tunisian cooking, and the condiment fast replacing salsa picante and Louisiana hot sauce for adventurous palates wanting to feel the heat. Traditionally made by the exacting method of pounding hot chilies in a mortar, harisa “always includes a base of hot, red chilies, but it can come in different forms: as a gritty purée of dried peppers, as a paste and as a thinned liquid or sauce,” says Dean & Deluca’s Millard. “Our recipe is for the latter variation, and we recommend that consumers stir it into black olives, stews, soups and salads; rub it on brochettes and grilled meats; or serve at table as a sauce for couscous.”

At Raymond’s, a popular neighborhood restaurant in Montclair, N.J., that features American bistro food, a surprising menu item that is gaining ground is the grilled lamb sandwich with harisa mayonnaise. And contagious enthusiasm for the wickedly hot has made Santa Monica culinary boutique Le Sanctuaire’s Harissa Spice Mix a top seller. Adds Millard, “Charmaine Solomon’s concentrated Harissa Spice Paste, which comes in a 9-ounce jar, is moving well this year.”

Breads, Spreads and Bites
The Middle Eastern table is empty without bread, and without a medley of delectables to scoop up or wrap into a sandwich with favorite flatbreads. Lavash is a staple in Armenian cuisine. Similarly, “in the Lebanese home, pita is served alongside kibbeh (the national dish) and plates of sliced raw sweet onion, hummus, tahini and maybe a cucumber and yogurt dip, and the leftover pieces are toasted and broken into bite-sized pieces for fattoush every Friday,” states Simon Joseph, Lebanese-born owner of La Scala restaurant, in East Amherst, N.Y., who specially prepares these time-honored delicacies for customers of his “Mediterranean-inspired” restaurant. “While our menu focuses on Italian fare with a Mediterranean flair, our select Lebanese offerings weave into it well, with garlic being the key ingredient that ties everything together,” Joseph says, pointing out that “foods from the Middle East and Mediterranean naturally cross over,” and that, interestingly, “the fattoush is our number-one seller among salads.”

The Middle Eastern-Mediterranean crossover is not lost on Ziyad Brothers Importing, whose 2008 NASFT sofi™ Award-winning Wild Garden Hummus Dips come in a variety of Mediterranean-inspired flavors, including Black Olive, Roasted Garlic and Sundried Tomato. “Our products are all natural, preservative-free and shelf-stable, and are expanding into schools and airlines as Wild Hummus To Go single serve,” says Nassem Ziyad. “We are witnessing a market change similar to what other ethnic dips like Mexican salsas saw decades ago,” he explains. “There was a time when you could only get salsa from the deli section, limiting availability. Once it moved to the refrigerated sections of stores, mainstream salsa purchases soared. Today, Wild Garden Hummus Dip is available with bean dips, salsas and other shelf-stable condiments, and doing remarkably well.”

“For many Americans, Middle Eastern food begins and ends with hummus,” says Hiller’s Stephen Brooks. “But we understand that Middle Eastern cuisine includes dishes and flavors from many nations across an extensive region, with influences from the Mediterranean, and we take pride in introducing our customers to the building blocks of this widely varied cuisine—from the expanding flavors of hummus and Labne yogurt to stuffed grape leaves and tabouli salad.”

What are Hiller’s customers demanding most? “Our Middle Eastern deli salads—with a big emphasis on regional spices and traditional grains like couscous, wheat berry or quinoa—are doing exceptionally well,” says Brooks. Dean & Deluca’s Millard agrees that consumers are showing more interest in traditional grains. “Couscous is always popular and gaining ground as more people become familiar with it and how easy it is to cook,” he says, and adds, “Falafel is a wonderful snack and popping up all over.”

“Our customers understand the health benefits of Middle Eastern food—low-fat, low-calorie, rich in fiber and vitamins—and seem to be gravitating to the bold and aromatic flavors of lemon, garlic, mint and cumin, all drizzled with olive oil,” says Millard.

Exotic Oils
No Middle Eastern/Mediterranean dish is complete without a drizzle, or dousing, of olive oil. “We are seeing a lot of olive oil and argan oil coming to market,” says Millard. “Our customers are seeking out organic and artisan products, those made using time-honored traditional methods.” Les Moulins Mahjoub Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a recent favorite among Dean & Deluca customers. Manufactured in a family mill in north-central Tunisia, on the actual site of a Carthaginian olive oil mill from 2,000 years ago, the olives are hand-picked just as they turn from green to black, ground to a paste, and then pressed in ancient gear presses driven by leather belts. Decantation of the oil from the vegetable water is accomplished by a distinctive process of hand skimming.

“Harrington Trace olive oils from Israel also are exceptional,” Millard points out. “All three Israeli Gold™ olive oils I import are kosher, and single-note varietals—that is, pressed from a single variety of olive—so you experience the aroma and flavor that can only come from a specific variety grown in Israel,” explains John McBride, president of Harrington Trace, International Traders of Fine Foods and Beverages.

The rare argan oil, from nuts of the argan tree, which takes root only in the arid soil of the Moroccan desert, is gaining popularity, as consumers are discovering its versatility as a great cooking oil, refined finishing oil, and wonderful ingredient in body care products. “Extracting this oil is a long and tedious process, so its price reflects that,” says Millard. To make a liter of the precious oil requires 30 kilograms (roughly 66 pounds) of fruit and about 15 hours of labor. The result is a tasty oil that imparts a distinctive nutty flavor similar to toasted sesame oil. It refines the flavor of mashed sweet potatoes, adds a new dimension to a salad of oranges and carrots, and beautifully brings out a finishing touch for fish.

Syrups and Sweet Delicacies
“Consumers are asking themselves: ‘Why drink OJ for breakfast, when I can add some variety to my life and pour myself a mango juice or guava juice?’” states Nassem Ziyad. “Americans are looking for new versions of the same old,” he explains.

“Pomegranate juice has to be one of our biggest sellers,” says Fari Soofer. “Americans recently have learned to drink it as a healthy drink, as it is loaded with antioxidants.” The Los Angeles, Calif.-based Sadaf Foods has a juice made exclusively from California pomegranates.

“I have seen pomegranate molasses (essentially, pomegranate juice boiled down to a syrup with sugar and lemon juice), which traditionally is used to give a tart flavor to specific salads and vegetable dishes, now used by chefs in so many interesting ways, from fruity to sour, to add wonderful flavors to non-traditional dishes,” says Sahadi’s Christine Whelan. “Like when it is drizzled on pancakes, for one.”

Youmna Ghoraieb thought there was an opportunity in selling traditional Lebanese syrups, preserves and jams to the local market—and helping preserve traditional Lebanese foods. Ghoraieb, who along with her sister Leila Maalouf launched her company, Mymoune, with rose syrup, followed by mulberry syrup, rose water, orange blossom water, pomegranate molasses and fig jam. “All our products are hand-made with as much as a 75 percent fruit content,” Ghoraieh explains.

“Turkish Delight is an item that I think will be seeing broader acceptance in the market,” says Millard. Though still relatively unfamiliar in the U.S., this delicately floral-flavored jelly candy—also known as lokum—dates back to the time of the Ottoman Empire, and garnered sudden interest in the West when it played a pivotal role in the 2005 movie, The Chronicles of Narnia. Unlike other jelly candies, Turkish Delight does not contain gelatin or pectin to firm it up—a big plus for vegan customers. One of the most popular items of Canadian manufacturer Bayco Confectionery—producers of Turkish Delight since 1984—is the children’s gift box The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which includes a copy of the popular book with the famed sweet treats.

Lynn Santa Lucia’s writing has appeared in Health, Food Arts and Yoga Journal.