Spotlight: International cuisine

The evening snuck up on you, and you still have no plans set for supper. How about take-out? Wondering if you should sample the menu at a Middle Eastern restaurant? Is this regional cuisine a healthful meal choice? Here are a few reasons you should give it a try:

Go for a dip. Hummus and baba ghanoush blend mashed chickpeas and pureed eggplant with olive oil and garlic. Chickpeas - also known as garbanzo beans - make hummus a low-cal source of protein, iron, and fibre that can be nearly fat free, depending on how it's prepared. The eggplant in baba ghanoush also boasts fibre and is rich in B vitamins and minerals. And garlic and olive oil have both been linked to heart healthy benefits. Remember that these dips can be high in fat, depending on how they are prepared. It's the good kind of fat, but you still need to watch your portions!

Fill up on falafel. The humble, healthful chickpea finds itself at the heart of another popular Middle Eastern dish: falafel. Mashed, spiced with onions and herbs, and fried in olive oil, these vegetarian-friendly treats are tasty on their own or tucked into a pita pocket with tahini and yogurt sauce. One falafel patty contains around 60 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 50 milligrams of sodium.

Be open to sesame. Tahini is a paste made from ground sesame seeds, which are rich in calcium, iron, and monounsaturated fat - a "better-for-you" fat. Boosted by the benefits of sesame seeds, tahini is a nutritious condiment or garnish. The paste may be thinned and served as a dip, blended into hummus, or dolloped into a pita pocket.

Try tabbouleh. Tabbouleh is a finely-chopped salad combining parsley, pepper, tomatoes, mint, garlic, onions, and a whole grain - usually bulgur, but quinoa can be substituted for those avoiding gluten. Dressed lightly with lemon, olive oil, and salt and pepper, tabbouleh tastes tangy and fresh and provides all the bountiful nutrients of its components.

Say "yes, yes" to couscous. Couscous is a dish of steamed and dried durum wheat. Like other grains, the teensy yellow couscous granules absorb the flavours of the foods and spices around them. And like other grains, couscous has a strong nutritional profile. A cup of cooked couscous contains 9% of the recommended daily fibre intake, as well as 6 grams of protein, and only 176 calories and zero fat. It's also very low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.

Be mindful of your meat choice. Scan a Middle Eastern restaurant menu, and you'll note many meat dishes, like kebabs and shawarma. Consume these flavourful foods in moderation, opting when you can for leaner cuts or cooking methods that add little or no fat (roasting, baking, poaching).

Amy Toffelmire