Cooking Middle Eastern food is a passion and necessity for American Arabs
By Ray Hanania
I remember watching my mother standing in the kitchen in the afternoon preparing the evening’s meal. She was Palestinian from Bethlehem and all of her recipes were phenomenal Palestinian and Middle East food dishes.
One of my favorite is grape leaves stuffed with rice and lamb chunks. Wuriq Duwally. But she also made it all. Stuffed zucchini, Cousa Mahshi. Tabouleh salad, hummus, baba ghanouge, and falafel. That was just the tip of the culinary iceberg, though.
To make the grape leaves, we’d have to have grape leaves. In the 1950s and 1960s, you couldn’t just buy grape leaves the way you can today. We’d drive around and she’d see a large grape vine and she’d urge my dad to stop. She’d have plastic bags in the trunk of the car and we’d all quickly snip leaves one at a time from the vine and fill up the bags, which she would later put in a small freezer.
Today, there are and endless supply of Middle East recipe books. But back then, there was only one. It was in in a plastic comb binding called Sahtein! It was definitely the one and only book of Middle East recipes anyone every needed. I still have my copy. Published by the Arab Women’s Union of Detroit, it offers 312 pages of recipes. The copy I have is from 1976. But there was one produced even earlier in a less formal pamphlet format.
It had everything in it. Nowadays, I tap the growing recipe database offered free of charge by Ziyad Brothers Importing, based in Cicero, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. The Ziyad Recipe database has more than 100 recipes of favorite Middle East dishes with photographs.
Ziyad played a major role in the development of Arab food recipes in America. For many years in the 1950s and early 1960s, my mom would have to take several airplane trips on PanAm Airlines to Amman, Jordan and then travel to East Jerusalem which was an open city for everyone. Mom would travel with three suitcases, two empty ones and one with her clothing. On the way back to Chicago, the two empty suitcases would be packed with food ingredients. Her favorite was Mulukhiyah (mloukhiya, molokhia) which she used to make a sauce for chicken and lamb dishes. It was hard to get the spices for kibbee and falafel. There were so many things she’d bring back including Cracked Wheat to make the tabouleh salad, and couscous, Arabian pasta.
Try doing that today, carrying a suitcase filled with spices through an airport. It’s hard enough traveling through racist profiling security at most Western Airports even without a suitcase, let alone with a suitcase filled with anything but clothing.
But you can’t go to East or West Jerusalem any longer. West Jerusalem was occupied by Israel’s military forces in 1948 in violation of the United Nations proposed Mandate. Israel prohibited Arabs from entering the city. Under Israel’s military control, West Jerusalem was a closed city. But East Jerusalem was always the heart of Jerusalem and its famous market, The Souq, offered a wide array not only of key ingredients for Middle Eastern foods, but also many of the spices that are used. In 1967, Israel captured East Jerusalem and put the West Bank in a repressive military occupation, as they did in Israel, and banned most Arabs from traveling there. Even today, my relatives, who live in the West Bank, are prohibited from entering East and West Jerusalem because they are Christian Arabs. Israel also bans Arab Muslims from entering the city. Jerusalem is basically a closed prison for non-Jews. It’s a shame. (Check some of the videos below I produced on YouTube.)
Fortunately, right about that time in 1966, food wholesalers like Ziyad Brothers began importing foods from the Middle East, mainly Jordan, to Chicago and other cities around the country.
Today, Ziyad Brothers Importing owns hundreds of acres of date palms in Jericho where they employ Palestinians and produce naturally grown Palestinian Medjool Dates, a delicacy that is unmatched anywhere.
You can go to almost any city and any grocery retailer and find the ingredients you need to make any popular Arab food dish today. You don’t have to drive around with plastic bags in your car trunk to find grape vines, and you don’t have to travel with empty suitcases
I try to make at least one Middle Eastern food dish a week. Sometimes two. Usually on the weekends because preparing the foods are time consuming, although it is fun when you know the prize that will be ready at the end of the hard work.
My mom would roll a pot of grape leaves, one at a time. It took an hour to do several hundred tightly wrapped grape leaves. But it was great. I do that now myself. The trick is to make the rice “al dente,” not soft and mushy by hard and tasty.
Tonight, I decided to try one I hadn’t made in years. Fasulia or lamb (or steak) meat chunks in a tomato stew with long green beans and a side dish of rice. It’s so good. You can use steak or lamb, but lamb is the best. It’s still not easy to find lamb at every food store, Oftentimes, you have to drive to one of the growing number of Arab-owned grocery stores in regions where Arab populations are large.
Tabouleh is a mandatory side dish salad, too.
All those recipes are online at Ziyad Brothers Importing. Give it a try. Enjoy it. And if you do cook a Middle Eastern meal, take a picture and send me the recipe and we’ll post it, or go to The Arab Daily News Facebook Page and share it there.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall reporter and columnist. He is the Managing Editor of The Arab Daily News www.TheArabDailyNews.com. Reach him at rayhanania@theArabDailyNews.com.)
A Video Tour of the Israeli occupied East Jerusalem Souq:
Below, Making Tablouleh Salad
Making Stuffed Grape Leaves:
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Comment on “Cooking Middle Eastern food is a passion and necessity for American Arabs”
I dare anyone to say they are a better Arab food cook than I am …bring on the challengers. (Write your story, send me a photo and I’ll publish it here and on our Facebook page) rayhanania@TheArabDailyNews.com