Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I Left My Heart in Beirut: Lebanese Food, Part I

On Tuesday, September 11th, 2011, I was a senior in high school, waiting for a friend of mine to come to class so I could celebrate his birthday. He wound up staying home sick with a stomach flu, and my friend and I ate his present, gummy worms, because when something like 9/11 happens and you’re 17, eating gummy worms seems to be a good idea.

I also was applying to college, thinking of what I should write in my essays. That also changed abruptly when my mom had a heart attack in late August. I thought I almost lost my mom, and my siblings and I would have lost the one person who raised us, all three of us. She had to trek all the way from Queens to try to pick my friends and I up from school because we weren’t allowed to leave. Our school was in Manhattan, but farther uptown. On that Tuesday, none of us wanted to be in Manhattan.

After the attacks, a lot of people, including my teachers, were saying really fucked up things about Arabs and Muslims, which I hope by now most people know are two different animals. I remember people, both in my neighborhood and in the rest of the boroughs, being attacked because they were brown or because they wore turbans (newsflash: usually men who wear turbans are Sikhs, another different animal). 

I knew that what was going on around me was wrong, but I didn’t know how or why they were wrong. I knew next to nothing about Arabs or Islam. So in college when I saw a class on Middle Eastern politics, I signed up for it. I thought it would be fun, a nice change of pace from my initial studies in biology. When I realized the math involved was proving very difficult, and my fascination with the Middle East grew, I decided to study politics and international relations, focusing on the Middle East, Arabic and Islam. Another example of me saying, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and falling down the rabbit hole. 

This is the long version of why I have a special place in my heart for all that is Middle Eastern. I love Arabic as a language, I love the history, the culture (with its similarities to my own culture and others I’m familiar with), and most of all, I love the cuisine. 

Now, and Indian co-worker of mine seriously undermines the cuisine of the Middle East, because to him, it’s seriously lacking. I think he’s missing the point. Middle Eastern cuisine, which has similar tastes and themes as Mediterranean cuisine, also has Asian influences, but is one fine example of using simple ingredients, but that simple isn’t equal to boring. They use spices sparingly, focusing on simple flavors with little fuss. That’s what I love about it, and Italian cuisine. It’s less fussy than French, but just as (if not more) delicious. 

Well, enough of that, onto the food! I found out about this new Lebanese foodery opening up in Sunnyside Souk el Shater, related to another foodery only one block away, Habibi. I’ll write about Habibi next and compare how sibling fooderies  measure up. 

Despite driving in what seemed like a torrential downpour, The Fisherman and I made it under the 7 train and spotted Souk. It was its grand opening when we went, huzzah! It was also still Ramadan, so I commend all the staff there who probably had to cook gargantuan amounts of foods and not eat it. (Arabs, Chinese and Italians see eye to eye when it comes to portion sizes). 

I will warn you that Souk, like Habibi is more of a grocery store than a restaurant. There is a shelf table and stools to eat, but it’s more a grab and go place. However, the staff there are so nice and helpful, and their wares are so remarkable, you’ll want to stay if you can. 

So we have some pastries, variations on baklava, one of the advanced level desserts out there. I’ll buy rather than make, thanks. There was also some semolina cake. Another reason to return...

Next, some hummus and baba ghanooj. 

I am a sucker for these spreads, especially the smoky eggplant flavor in the baba ghanooj. I do make my own hummus, but it’s not this good. I will definitely jump off the train for some of this, and jump back on to get home, it’s that good. 

I would also get off the train for their sandwiches. We got shwarma (who doesn’t love that word, SCH-WAR-MA), and chicken shwarma. Great tahini sauce, and loved the picked veggies, great contrast.

I was also given the biscuit like thing that apparently is eaten during Ramadan. I never heard of this so it may be distinctly Lebanese, I’m not sure. It was very plain, more pretty looking than tasty. 

All in all, I missed Middle Eastern food so much that I was thrilled to find a place in Queens that had the food I missed so much (most good Middle Eastern food is in Bayridge Brooklyn, and there’s some Egyptian/Moroccan/Algerian in Astoria). I will be going back very soon.

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