Edmund Fattal, like many Middle Eastern businessmen in metropolitan New York, is tired of talking to reporters in these post-Sept. 11 times. If it's about politics or religion, "I am not interested," says this owner of one of the largest Arab food markets in the metro area. "If it's just about food, then I am happy to talk."
It's easy to talk with Mr. Fattal about food - especially a favorite dish from his native Syria, a stew called fasoulia. "I just think of it," he says, "and I can remember the smell coming out of the kitchen when I was a kid."
Fasoulia isn't a word that rolls off the tongue of every American, but perhaps that will begin to change. With heightened interest in the Arab-American community since Sept. 11, and with Middle Eastern immigrants more eager to tell their neighbors who they truly are, the time may be right for food to fulfill - once again - its role as the great door-opener between newcomers and mainstream America.
"My mother used to make fasoulia," Fattal reminisces, "and now my sisters still use the same recipe. It is made with kidney beans, ground lamb, and tomato, served with rice."
Fattal's face glows with a warm smile as he speaks, and in that smile there is a simple lesson: Regardless of religious, political, or philosophical differences, we all have that favorite dish our mother made, and the sensory memory of sitting around the family dinner table. Undoubtedly, it is an experience unique to each family, but it is also universal to all of humanity. In fact, by simply asking people to talk about the favorite foods from their culture, one seems to enter a place where borders are dissolved in the most basic human pleasure: a good meal.
There are Middle Eastern communities all across America, populated equally by immigrants who arrived yesterday and those whose ancestors arrived four generations ago. Many are forced to move for reasons that, sadly, are typical: war, persecution, or economic hardship back home.
But all come with the same dreams of promise for a better life, and all - be they Lebanese, Iraqi, or Palestinian, Muslim, Christian, or Jew - bring with them the secrets of their kitchens.
The night air is crisp atop the hills of Encino, Calif., a community of sprawling homes and sweeping views above the San Fernando Valley, but inside the home of Shirzad and Sherona Abrams, the feeling could not be warmer.
There is a huge Persian (Iranian) population in Los Angeles, and here a group of Persian families are gathered for something that most Americans would never associate with Iran: They are here to celebrate the Sabbath.
"There are about 30,000 Persian Jews here in L.A.," explains Daryoush Fakheri, editor of Chashm Anadaz, a Persian Jewish magazine for greater Los Angeles.
"And if you want to bump into them all, just go to Elat market on Robertson Boulevard," he says, referring to a wildly popular Persian Jewish supermarket.
The group laughs.
"It's true! It gets so crazy there," insists Sherona, as she serves gondi, which she has prepared that afternoon. A typical Jewish Sabbath treat different in every region of Iran, gondi are essentially large poultry meatballs - Sherona uses turkey thighs - served as an appetizer on a fragrant bed of fresh sabzi (herbs), or with rice as a main course. They are a tender delight and, despite their relatively simple appearance, are surprisingly robust in flavor, especially in combination with the sprigs of fresh basil, mint, tarragon, and watercress.
Later, the sight of a sumptuous meal, spread out buffet style around the dinner table, sets appetites brewing. But first the men don yarmulkes, and Dr. Abrams leads the group through traditional prayers over wine and bread. Sherona lights the Sabbath candles, and then plates begin to fill.
Persians are fond of rice, so there are three heaped platters: one blended with tangy currants, another served crisp with slices of potato, and a third cooked with lima beans and delightfully fragrant sprigs of dill. There is a filet of salmon, broiled chicken, two khoresh (delicate stews) - a Persian specialty - and of course, a basket full of fresh herbs. The deep-green koresh-e sabzi (herb stew) blends richly complex flavors of fenugreek, coriander, and a host of other herbs with the sour note of whole dried Persian limes, and the earthiness of kidney beans and tender cubes of beef.
The bright red khoresh-e bademjan (eggplant stew), which features whole baby eggplants in a tomato sauce, has been made meatless this evening, and is thick with yellow lentils instead.
Over dinner, Shirzad, who is a serious student of Persian Jewish history, is asked to explain the major cultural differences between Jewish and non-Jewish Iranians. He arches his eyebrows. "You know, people love to focus on differences. Yes, we are Jewish. And for almost 500 years, we suffered terribly for this fact in Iran. But we spent 2,700 years in Persia, living as Persians. We share the same music, the same poetry, the same language, even a great deal of the food is the same. Truthfully? There's not much difference. We are Persians."
"Here in Dearborn, you can have Iraqi food for breakfast, Lebanese food for lunch, and Yemeni food for dinner," says Miriam Bakri, a Lebanese social worker at an Arab community center in Dearborn, just outside Detroit. "It all started with Henry Ford's Model T plant in nearby Highland Park, when Arab workers came seeking work," Ms. Bakri explains.
By the early 1900s, there were already a number of Arab markets, coffeehouses, and other businesses within walking distance of the plant. And today, metro Detroit is second only to Paris as the largest Arab community in the world outside the Middle East.
Bakri's Saturday lunch table is a visual delight, overflowing with Lebanese mezza, or appetizers. These are dishes so light and utterly irresistible that they have found their way into many American supermarkets. There is a heaped bowl of hummus, a creamy dip of chickpeas puréed with a buttery sesame paste called tahini, and baba ghanouj (roasted eggplant also puréed with tahini). Tabouli, a parsley salad with tomato and bulgur wheat, dressed with lemon and olive oil, is tangy and refreshing. The rice-stuffed grape leaves are rolled long, like cigars, and piled high in a towering spiral. And falafel - balls of mashed, seasoned chickpea lightly deep-fried to golden brown - are crunchy and tender at once.
There are also homemade pickled vegetables, a tangy yellow-lentil soup with lemon juice, and bahtlit kousa (bulgur wheat cooked with squash, peppers, and tomatoes). But most irresistible of all is the bowl of labneh, a heavenly thick cream of yogurt laced with mint, drizzled with olive oil, and garnished with black olives.
"It's fantastic for breakfast," explains Ms. Bakri's older daughter, Nada, and the comment sets off a passionate dialogue about how to best prepare and eat labneh - as a spread, on a sandwich, with more salt or less, with sliced tomato or not. What is certain is that labneh is fundamental to Lebanese life, and everyone would be wise to try it.
Here in metro Detroit, labneh is easy to find. There are more than 6,000 Arab businesses, and if you spend an afternoon wandering the shops along Warren Avenue between Greenfield and Wyoming streets in Dearborn, you may feel as though you've been transported to the Middle East.
While the majority of the area's Arab population is Syrian and Lebanese (about half of them Christian), there is a huge Chaldean population (from ancient Chaldea, now in Iraq), and sizable Palestinian, Jordanian, and Yemeni groups, among others.
"Look at that," says Marwan Mawiri, a young Yemeni man, as an older Arab man in a traditional gown walks down the sidewalk. "Where else in middle America could a man dress like that and nobody even looks?"
Mr. Mawiri has invited American friends for dinner at his family's home this evening. Special Yemeni treats are prepared, and the meal is eaten with the fingertips, as is customary. Assid, a thick purée of boiled milk and flour, is molded into a towering cone in bowls of spiced lamb broth with helba (salsalike sauces) and chunks of lamb served on the side.
"This is a dish that every Yemeni woman knows how to make," Mawiri offers, and his sister and mother, the cooks, smile at the sighs of approval from the diners. There is also a beautiful sabaya, a huge, layered flatbread that is both chewy and flaky. Made in 30 thin layers and glazed with egg and caraway seeds, the sabaya is baked in a round tray and eaten with a drizzling of honey.
After dinner, spiced tea is served, and Mawiri's father, who was the palace electrician to the last king of Yemen, regales the crowd for hours with eye-popping tales of quashed revolutions, warlords, and executions.
"So much violence, so much conflict," one of the American guests finally remarks. But here around the dinner table, there are no Jews, Christians, or Muslims, no warlords, Americans, or Yemenis. There are just people sharing human stories with one another, and enjoying a good meal.
For a spicier, less tart flavor, add a teaspoon of cumin.
1 cup yellow lentils
1/2 cup short-grain white rice
1 onion, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine lentils, rice, and onion in a large pot, and cover with about 10 cups of water. Bring to a boil, turn down heat, cover, and let simmer for about 45 minutes, until lentils are tender. Add more water if needed for a brothy, not stewlike, soup. Add lemon juice, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste, and cumin if desired. Serves 4 to 6.
You may wish to garnish this stew with either fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley or cilantro. For a spicier stew, add a pinch or two of cayenne pepper.
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 small onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon allspice
2 (15-ounce) cans kidney beans (with their juice)
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1 plum tomato, diced
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat oil in a large pot. Add onions and garlic, and cook about 1 minute. Brown lamb with onion and garlic. Blend in allspice, kidney beans, tomato paste, and diced tomato. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes. Serve with basmati rice.
Serves 4 to 6.