P R O L O G U E : It’s a strange and interesting thing to be a first generation American. It’s a sad and lonely and bittersweet thing at times, too. You may find yourself born and raised in, say, Los Angeles, and, naturally, very, very American; but let’s say you don’t have an accent in public but maybe you have a bit of one at home, speaking in the same rhythmic tones of your parents’ language, say, Arabic, and sometimes even bits of Turkman, and cursing always in their language, but not even the cool hip words kids use these days, but the softer words your parents used because, after all, you’re only children and it was a different time then. You may have unconsciously or consciously developed your own ways to fit in at school or work or parties, maybe omitting your last name or Muslim identity from conversation, or maybe secretly spending years diligently working on your enunciation, you know, those years reading aloud to yourself in your room to hear the words come out as Hollywood as possible. And, you see, you grew up in a house with parents from, in my case, the Middle East, specifically Iraq -- the Iraq that people always have an opinion about at dinners, the Iraq we’ve been intermittently at war with since I was in first grade -- with a different language, different foods, different rules than the rest of your friends. And even if you mainly answered back in English, you still inherited all the sounds and rhythm and feeling of the language, the pain and beauty of the language, too. It’s as if you have two feet firmly planted in American soil, because, hey, that’s what you know, and yet there is one emotional ghost-leg dangling, reaching, searching for some distant place you may never see in your own lifetime but contributes so heavily to your makeup. My dad always says “Don’t visit Iraq -- you’ll think me and your mother are liars.” And you know, Iraq has unfortunately been put through so much destruction, haramat, as it is, of course, a country that has the inherent misfortune of rich soil. For now, it seems it is no longer allowed to be the prosperous country of my parents’ youth; and it is this Iraq, their Iraq, the Iraq of the fifties, sixties, even seventies, where my heart searches for belonging. It’s a sad and lonely and bittersweet thing at times, too, this business of being first generation. [END PROLOGUE.]
It was a Thursday morning, and a very early morning, at that. It was a five o’clock in the morning kind of early morning when Mousa Kraish found me via Instagram, of all places, and sent me that enthusiastic and confusing but lovely email. We met up hours later for coffee at the Intelligentsia on Sunset to have our first conversation about Bedouin, his soon-to-be Mid East inspired cafe. It all happened in a blur, and it took about twenty minutes before I could make out something about my possible role in it all, a mezze dinner, and complete creative control. Wait what? The next minute we are in front of the building that in months will be Bedouin.
Mousa is Palestinian American. This comes as a relief in a way that’s hard to explain; maybe because I don’t have an Arab community in Los Angeles and am thirsty for that kind of understanding, a secret comfort in an unspoken familiarity. At least, finally, someone to consider the important questions: Palestinian Kadayif is nothing like Iraqi Kadayif, and why, exactly, is that? Why do we call it the same thing if the only thing it has in common is that it’s a dessert? Okay maybe the sugar and walnut filling. But sometimes Iraqi Kadyif has cream. Does the Palestinian one ever have cream? And sometimes it has cheese, but why, then, don’t Iraqis call the cheese one kanafeh like everyone else? These are the thoughts that keep me up at night.
A little over a week later I find myself hosting a small mezze and wine gathering at Mousa’s place in Angelino Heights. More specifically his beautiful backyard, on the deck that he built. Most everything for this mezze is made from scratch and with so much care. Some might say unnecessarily so, but when most of the guests are not entirely familiar with the complexities of the region, heart matters. In Los Angeles, there is limited exposure to Middle Eastern food, especially from Arab countries. Just hummus and kebabs. Sometimes falafel and tabouleh. Oh and the misrepresentative grape leaf dolmas, slimy and from a can. And pretty exclusively Armenian, Lebanese, or Iranian style dishes. There are no, say, Iraqi or Palestinian or Syrian restaurants in Los Angeles, at least not to my knowledge, each with its own unique styles and flavors and textures. What ends up happening in this city is that, in order to expose those who are maybe unfamiliar or even afraid, everything sits comfortably and romantically under the umbrella of “Middle Eastern” or “Mediterranean,” generalizing the region, which is problematic because we already politically generalize the region. Many people don’t think of the Middle East as vast and complex, with varying ethnicities, languages, dialects, religions, cultures, histories, cuisines; they think of the Middle East as one big blob of hummus and falafel and camels and war. It’s a little annoying, actually. With that said, my Iraqi mother’s hummus is going to have a different taste and texture and secret – of course there are always secrets! -- than what most Angelinos are familiar with, especially on the Eastside.
Mezze means something to the effect of “tastings.” It’s the tapas of the Middle East. For this mezze I wanted to focus primarily on ingredients and flavors and textures from Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey; and yet, without being too unfamiliar, while also being representative of the farmers-market-part-time-vegetarian-health-conscious culture of Los Angeles.
Cardamom, saffron, za’atar, sumac, nigella seeds, olive oil, pomegranate, dates, cumin, garlic, garlic, garlic, mint, dill, lebneh, lemon, lemon, lemon, sea salt, tahini, parsley.
Many of the mezze dishes of the evening are meant to be dipped with warm pita. The hummus was prepared with the utmost attention and care since it is usually so critically judged, even by amateurs. They were the Rancho Gordo heirloom chickpeas, soaked for hours, and cooked until the perfect texture. Time was spent pealing all the skins. All the skins. The ingredients were organic and fresh. And that heirloom garlic with the purplish hue, the spicy one I picked up from Cookbook in Echo Park, now that has to be some of the best garlic around – it ended up in almost everything that night. To test my patience I waited until the bell peppers were blackened before peeling them for the muhammara, a Syrian dip made from roasted peppers, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses. A bowl of the thick and creamy lebneh, topped with olive oil and za’atar. A smaller one of just the olive oil and za’atar with Maldon salt to dip. The jajeek dip, too: lebneh, cucumbers, garlic, mint. All the pickled things we call tourshi. The classic: beet and turnip tourshi; the thin, crispy dill cucumber tourshi; and even the garlic I pickled in apple cider vinegar two years ago. Olives, olives, olives. A feta sampler, even. Grilled halloumi cheese, my favorite. The organic, grass-fed beef koftas with parsley, onions, spices, and drizzled with a lemony tahini sauce. The filo dough boreks stuffed with diced golden and purple beets, beet greens, and Bulgarian feta, and served with lebneh. The roasted cauliflower salad made of green, yellow, and purple cauliflower, shaved almonds, golden raisins, garlic, lemon, Maldon salt, and black pepper. And an Ottolenghi-inspired spicy purple beet dip that made the table POP! with added color. All with endless pita and red wine.
Dessert was a simple three ingredient Palestinian semolina cake called harissa, topped with shaved almonds and then soaked in a cardamom-cinnamon-infused simple syrup. Semolina cakes vary across the Middle East and Mediterranean. Iraqis, par example, bake the almond into the cake, giving it a grainier texture. This was served with Mousa’s special Palestinian fresh sage tea, pronounced in his own dialect as shai instead of chai, which I personally never heard before. Overall: a success.