Describing a dish as “Middle Eastern” is about as specific as describing a reality show as “that one where they all get in fights.” The catchall phrase includes plates of stewed meats, kebabs and grains combined with spices like cardamom, cinnamon and sumac. Beneath this umbrella term, there are subtle nuances based on the food’s country of origin. The cuisines of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen and Syria are heavily influenced by geography: Desert dwellers rely on ingredients that can withstand an arid climate, like grains and dried fruit, while areas with mountains, seas and pastoral land produce foods like olives and pomegranates. Following are four local Middle Eastern restaurants, each highlighting traditional dishes from a specific region. Renee Sklarew  (For Express)

Aldeerah (Saudi Arabia)
262 Cedar Lane SE, Vienna; 703-992-9994,
The D.C. area’s only Saudi Arabian restaurant draws inspiration from the Bedouins, desert nomads who herd sheep and goats. “Saudi Arabia is covered by desert, so the menu depends on things that last, are fulfilling and not expensive,” owner Mody Alkhalaf says. The Saudi staple jireesh, which resembles American grits, is made from cracked wheat infused with buttermilk and yogurt, then garnished with caramelized onions. Qursan, another traditional Saudi dish, consists of vegetables boiled in tomato broth with a thin bread called marqooq. Opt to eat Saudi-style — on the floor, without utensils and from a communal platter.
Kabob Bazaar (Iran)

3133 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-522-8999; 7710 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-5814,
Owner Behrooz Sarvghadi re-creates the restaurant experiences of his childhood in Iran. “The only time you went out was for kabobs, because you can’t make them at home,” he says. “You have to have the grill, charcoal, messy stuff.” Lamb, filet mignon, chicken and ground sirloin are highlights, but his specialty is ghormeh sabzi, a stew made with herbs, beef, beans and lime considered to be Iran’s national dish. Dishes come with bread, fresh herbs and yogurt,  “an Iranian salad,” Sarvghadi says. Wrap the herbs inside the bread, dip in yogurt and enjoy.
Saba (Yemen)
3900 Pickett Road, Fairfax; 703-425-1130;
Every week, Saba’s kitchen staff mixes 22 different spices to make a batch of Yemeni seasoning called hawaij. “We serve basic, traditional food from different areas of Yemen,” says co-owner Ali Khaled Alrabuoi. “We try to make it how it’s made in Yemen.” Dishes include saltah, a steaming hot soup brimming with okra, yams and tomatoes with fenugreek, a nutty herb, floating on top. Saba’s most popular dish is haneeth, meaty lamb bones served on a bed of spiced rice. Another hit is the masoob, a dessert resembling bread pudding, with bananas, honey and freshly baked dough.

Layalina (Syria and Lebanon)
5216 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-1170,
When husband and wife Souheil and Rima Kodsi opened Layalina in 1997, one of their first guests was the then-Saudi prince. Many dignitaries choose this restaurant for its authentic dishes, many of which come from recipes from Rima’s grandmother. Try the m’hammarah, a pureed dip make with red pepper, walnuts, pomegranate and herbs like cinnamon and cardamom. Like many other dishes here, it’s a combination of sweet and sour, chunky and smooth. Rima pairs her tender, slow-cooked lamb shank with vegetables, including baby okra. “Every day I go to the market to buy what’s fresh,” Rima says.