Nailing down an authoritative definition of the boundaries of the Middle East is nearly impossible. But just about everyone can agree it's vast-perhaps as large as Europe-and it encompasses many distinct countries and traditions. And yet, in the U.S., the national cuisines and culinary variations of the region are often overlooked and instead packaged for consumption as a singular entity known as either Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food.

Nailing down an authoritative definition of the boundaries of the Middle East is nearly impossible. But just about everyone can agree it’s vast—perhaps as large as Europe—and it encompasses many distinct countries and traditions. And yet, in the U.S., the national cuisines and culinary variations of the region are often overlooked and instead packaged for consumption as a singular entity known as either Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food.

That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that. Many self-styled Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants are putting out exceptional food. But it’s increasingly common to see restaurants narrowing their focus to more localized traditions (see the Local Spin sidebar on page 57), providing intriguing flavors well outside of the hummus-falafel-shawarma norm.

For example, consider Shish Kebab Mediterranean Grill, one of the veteran Turkish restaurants in the area. Several years ago, they underwent a retooling, and the resulting menu updates are remarkable. Their ezme—a fresh and piquant salsa-like tomato and pepper dip—and baba ganoush—a rich, smoky, eggplant dip—both pair wonderfully with their fresh-baked, warm pide bread. Also enjoyable are the yogurt-based haydari, with dill, mint, garlic and walnuts, and cacik, flavored with cucumber, dill and garlic.

Shish Kebab offers a variety of kebabs far beyond shish, and the mixed grill kebab platter is a good introduction to the different styles. Their shaved doner (like a Turkish gyro) kebab is far superior to most renditions and is particularly enjoyable in the saucy doner special, served over a bed of baba ganoush-like eggplant puree and topped with tomato sauce. For a little kick, try the Adana kebab—a minced meat kebab similar to kefta and available in chicken or lamb—crusted with red peppers and grilled on flat skewers.

Good Turkish food can also be found at Cafe Ephesus in Dublin and at Cafe Istanbul—which is so popular that the owners now operate three Turkish restaurants in the city.

For Persian, Jeddo Kabab is can’t-miss. Their Kashk o Bademjoon, a silky eggplant and whey spread, makes for a great starter and is a welcome alternative to the more ubiquitous hummus. All of the mains at Jeddo are built upon a meticulously prepared, luxuriously tender, saffron-spiked basmati rice foundation. To that, a wide choice of skewered meats are added—barg (chicken, fish or cubed tenderloin or lamb), kubideh (ground lamb, beef or chicken) or shish kebabs. The pricier lamb chops are tender and flavorful and make for a worthwhile splurge.

Jeddo has been quietly plying their excellent kabobs on the Northeast Side of town for 13 years, they’re due to move to a larger location on Dublin-Granville Road this summer, where they can offer a much wider menu including Persian stews and their own freshly made Persian bread. If you get the chance, say hello to the voluble owner Ali Kaveri.

Little Lebanon Bistro and Bakery offers fairly standard Middle Eastern menu augmented with an intriguing range of savory Lebanese-style breads and pies. Their 9-inch bread pies are open faced (and vaguely resemble personal-sized pizzas), and toppings include za’atar, cheese, meat and spinach with feta. They also feature a wide range of pastries and desserts, including meghli, a uniquely spiced Lebanese rice pudding garnished with toasted coconut.

Columbus has exactly one Afghan restaurant, Cafe Kabul, where you’ll find a cuisine that intriguingly merges Middle Eastern and Indian flavors. Start with the Buranee Bonjon—a bed of sauteed slices of eggplant topped with homemade yogurt, tomato sauce and served with Afghan bread. The tangy yogurt can also be ordered separately. The Kabuli Pallow (written also as palao) is a variation on one of Afghanistan’s national dishes—Afghan-style rice topped with tender chunks of lamb, spiced sauteed carrot strips and raisins.

Bethia Woolf, owner of Columbus Food Adventures, blogs about the ethnic dining scene at">

Middle Eastern Spices

Many spices are used in Middle Eastern cuisine. Here are a few you can expect to find flavoring your food in Columbus.

Za’atar (zaatar) is a mixture of sumac, sesame seed and herbs (and often salt) and is frequently used in the Middle East and Mediterranean areas. It is commonly baked on or served with bread. It can also be used as a dip or condiment. There are many variations of za’atar using different herbs, but thyme and oregano are common.

Pomegranate molasses or pomegranate syrup is made by boiling down pomegranate juice. It is thick, tangy and tart and is used in a wide variety of dishes from salads to meat dishes to drinks and desserts.

?Baharat, which means “spice” in Arabic, is a combination of spices readily at hand. Typical ingredients include allspice, cinnamon, pepper, cardamom, cloves, coriander, cumin and nutmeg. Like za’atar, the blend differs with each country and between households. It can be used as a rub or marinade to deepen the flavor of dishes or as a condiment.

Cumin is often associated with Indian cuisine, but it is also heavily used in the Middle East and is commonly used in hummus. It can be used in seed or ground form and is quite pungent.

Sumac has a beautiful deep reddish-purple color and a tart flavor that is very popular in Persian and other Middle Eastern cuisines. It is found in powdered form, can be used instead of lemon juice and can be sprinkled on a wide variety of dishes from kebabs to salads to rice or hummus. Sometimes you’ll find a shaker on the table for seasoning your food.

Like cilantro, fenugreek is used as both an herb (leaves) and a spice (seeds). The leaves are used in Persian dishes like ghormeh sabzi. Like many spices, fenugreek was thought to have medicinal properties.

Saffron (not pictured) comes from the stamen of purple crocuses and is extremely costly due to the labor required to harvest it. The wisp-like strands are used for their grassy aroma and for the bright yellow color they add to dishes.

Local Spin

These local eateries offer some of the best traditional Middle Eastern dishes around, along with a few clever takes of their own.

Columbus boasts many Middle Eastern markets, and Salam Market, while small, is home to both a butcher and a baker. Their bread and pies set the bar in town and are made only in the morning—so get there early. Their savory hand-held pies make for an incomparable bargain lunch and include flavors such as za’atar, falafel, kebab and cheese.

Casablanca Grill is a new Mediterranean restaurant in Hilliard and offers many dishes not found elsewhere in town ranging from Moroccan tagines and couscous to Lebanese sambousik and Iraqi kebabs. While the Moroccan Hungry Man platter sounds like it is targeted at a small demographic, it’s truly a crowd pleaser—a mix of lamb and chicken sausage that’s been crumbled and cooked on the grill with onions, tomatoes, olives and peppers. Easy to miss, and filed under the sides rather than appetizers, is the Moroccan Zaalouk, an easy-to-like dish of eggplant, tomato and garlic that is eminently scoop-able with the ample bread provided.

Middle Eastern food is not limited to lunch and dinner. The Olive Tree offers an excellent Sunday brunch menu with a winning dish for those of a savory brunch orientation. The basis of shakshuka is eggs poached in a tomato and bell pepper stew served with a pile of warm bread. At The Olive Tree you can augment your shakshuka with spicy merguez (a style of North African sausage), feta cheese or fried eggplant.

Mazah Mediterranean Eatery is in new expanded digs on Grandview Avenue, another testament to the popularity of good Middle Eastern food in Columbus. Don’t miss the Za’atar and Labneh, a dish of house-made bread smeared with fragrant za’atar spices and served with thick, tangy house-made strained yogurt. Keep an eye out for their dish specials during their monthly Lebanese nights, too.

Lavash has been a Clintonville stalwart for many years and offers a solid Middle Eastern repertoire. My advice is to always check the specials before ordering and save room for some dessert.

While it’s hard to proclaim a best hummus in town, I really like the silky smooth and subtle hummus at The Pita House in Bexley. We will stick our neck out to proclaim their kubeh to be far and away the best we’ve tasted. Kubeh, more commonly listed as kibbeh, are football-shaped croquettes made with ground beef or lamb, bulgur wheat, onions and spices, and Pita House’s are far meatier, juicier and more flavorful than most.