Yalla Eat! showcases an ethnic neighborhood

For the third time, my husband and I joined an Arab-American culinary walking tour sponsored by the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, a suburb adjacent to Detroit that has the highest density of Arab-Americans in the country. These families began moving to Dearborn in the 1920s for factory worker at Ford Motor Company. The Arab population burgeoned in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly with immigrants from Lebanon. Others came from Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen and Iraq.

In the 1980s, our guide told us, one particular village in Lebanon had 2,000 residents while Dearborn had 6,000 people who had originated there!

The museum calls the program “Yalla Eat!” which means “Let’s go eat!”

The first Yalla Eat! was in Detroit’s Eastern Market, where we visited a number of wholesalers, cafes and retail stores, including Gabriel Import Co. Last year we toured Warren Avenue in Detroit, on the border with Dearborn, which was run-down and derelict until around 40 years ago, when recently arrived Arab immigrants began opening restaurants and other businesses there. The district is now thriving and is the heart of the city’s Arab-American community. Of the 200 Arab-owned businesses on Warren Avenue, about half are food-related.

This year the museum added a new tour, of food-related businesses on Michigan Avenue, about a mile from Warren. This wide and busy thoroughfare was once the commercial heart of Dearborn. There was a Montgomery Ward on one corner and a Federal’s Department Store—where the museum is now located—across the street, as well as numerous restaurants, banks and retail establishments. Then, in the early 1980s, a large, enclosed mall opened just over two miles away. You can guess the rest.

An expanding commercial area

But where everyone else saw empty storefronts, the Arab-American community saw opportunity. With few vacancies on Warren Avenue, younger restaurateurs, tradespeople and professionals (salons, accountants, pharmacies, physicians) started moving onto Michigan Avenue. We visited a half-dozen of them and came away impressed and sated. (For the hosts, it was great,cheap advertising—give away a few taste samples and leave your visitors with an overwhelmingly positive impression!)

Our first stop was Dearborn Fresh, a former Kroger supermarket that now sells a huge variety of foods preferred by those from the Middle Eastern—everything from sour plums and green almonds to a wide variety of cheeses, fresh meat and baked goods. We sampled hummus, tabouli and baklava.

Then it was on to Sheeba, run by immigrants from Yemen, with a cuisine somewhat different from the more common Lebanese fare.

Our host brought out bubbling bowls of fahsah, a stew of shredded lamb and mashed potatoes, and seltah (most recipes, like the one I copied below, spell it “saltah”), a vegetable stew topped with whipped fenugreek, along with large loaves of “tandoori bread” similar to pita. Both stews were served in stoneware bowls that kept them bubbling for about 10 minutes after they were set on the table. The recipe for the lamb dish, the owner told us, includes 43 different spices.

Mocha Cafe is not a coffee shop

On we went to Mocha Cafe, which everyone expected to be a coffee shop. Not so—the restaurant is named for Mocha, a city in Yemen. We associate the word with coffee because it was major marketplace for coffee from the 15th century until the early 18th century.

At Mocha we nibbled on a variety of sweets, including moshabak, made from dough dyed red with food coloring that was deep-fried and then covered with a sugary glaze, kind of like a bright red funnel cake. The star of the dessert plate, though, was the “mango smoothie,” which we all thought of as a drink. At Mocha Cafe, it’s a mango custard topped with fresh banana, strawberries, pineapple and raisins. It’s served and eaten like an ice cream sundae and is every bit as yummy.

At Habib’s Cuisine, a higher-end restaurant, we were served pita with basil-infused olive oil, beef shwarma in a pita, and Chef Habib Bazzi’s “famous” potato balls, tiny whole potatoes coated in a secret blend of spices and deep-fried until crispy.

Finally we rolled over to Adonis, a small catering hall with a smaller attached restaurant next door to the museum, to wake ourselves up from our food stupor with steaming cups of Turkish coffee.

For me the moral of the story is that if you want to make friends with people, feed them! It’s hard to be angry with a full stomach and tingling tastebuds. Maybe Donald Trump should visit Dearborn and take one of these food tours.

The recipe below is from the Queen of Sheba Yemini Recipes blog, where there are lots of other intriguing offerings. It doesn’t look like an easy one, because each step includes something else that you first have to make from scratch. If you want to be adventurous, give it a try. It was certainly tasty!




The great gefilte fish fight


Editor’s Note: Today’s piece is by Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written in this space before about pickles, rumtopf and celery.

Gefilte (pronounced guh FILL tuh) fish is a Jewish delicacy that’s eaten year-round, but it’s popular at Passover because we celebrate the holidays with festive meals. Those who make gefilte fish from scratch don’t often do so for an ordinary meal–it has to be worthy of the considerable bother.

Gefilte fish literally means stuffed fish. Originally the European Jews who developed this dish would take a whole fish, scrape out and debone the meat and chop it (often adding chopped vegetables), put it back in the fish skin and bake it.

These days, few bother with the fish skin, instead forming balls out of the ground fish mixture and boiling them. You can get gefilte fish in jars and cans in supermarkets in Jewish areas–but it doesn’t hold a candle to home-made. Recently stores have also started selling frozen “gefilte fish” loaves that you can boil whole and then slice. These products are tastier than the canned or jarred products–but home-made still reigns supreme.

There are as many variations as there are European towns where Jews once lived. The biggest dividing line seems to be sweet vs. non-sweet. Sugar in a fish dish may sound weird, but trust me, the end result is delectable!

Here is a link to a delightful 14-minute film about three generations of women and their relationship to gefilte fish.

By Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman

My grandparents made the big family seder at their apartment in the Bronx every year. When Grandma could no longer do all the preparation, other women in the family, including my mother, teamed up to clean and cook.

When Grandpa died, my father took over the role of leading the seder. When my mother fell ill and could no longer prepare for the seder, my sister Miriam (Mimi) took a few days off from work to get the house ready, and to help get Dad ready to host the seder each year.

This was a declaration, not a proposal to discuss.

The first seder without Dad

And so my sister came to visit us in California a few days before Passover, in time to help with the planning and cooking to get us ready for the seders. My wife, Marilyn, and my sister Mimi did the work together, to prepare; other relatives would come later, to join the celebration.

But it would be a bittersweet celebration. Dad had died in November. The seder would be in California, as he had foretold, but he would not be there.

By 1993, my wife and my sister had known each other for 24 years.  They had become friends almost immediately after they met, good friends. By 1993, they might have even been best friends to each other. On the rare occasions when they disagreed, they talked things over and decided together. They even worked together smoothly in the same kitchen.

And so preparation for the 1993 seders went smoothly, as everyone expected.  Marilyn and Mimi planned the menus, shopped together, assigned each other tasks, and cheerfully worked together preparing festive meals. Until they had a fight, their first real fight ever.

It had to do with who would prepare the gefilte fish.  My sister – who generally does not insist — insisted that she would prepare the gefilte fish. My wife – who generally decides in an instant what is important and what is not important – refused. This was important; she was going to prepare the gefilte fish. They could not talk this one over; they could not break the impasse. Neither of them could do any more cooking that day.

My wife suffered a night of interrupted sleep.  How could she sleep well, in the middle of a fight with her best friend? And why did they have to fight over a pot of fish?

Why did it matter?

By morning, Marilyn had figured out why who made the gefilte fish mattered, and why it would not matter anymore. Either recipe would taste fine, but the fish had a back story, or rather, two back stories.

My wife learned her recipe from her Grandmother Keanig. Her grandmother did simple cooking, only a few foods she learned to cook the old-country way.  Grandma did not work from written recipes – who knows if she had learned to read in any language? – but her hands knew what to do.

The last decade of Grandpa Keanig’s life, Grandma had stayed right beside his sickbed every single day.  After he died, Grandma Keanig flew out to visit us. During that visit, she taught my wife her recipes by showing her and cooking with her. My wife would recite her grandmother’s instructions out loud, and my daughter – then a first-grader — sat in the kitchen with a pencil and a notebook writing down those instructions in a childish hand.

Every year, in a ritual telephone call before Rosh Hashanah and another before Passover, Grandma would want to know how the fish came out. And every year, before Rosh Hashanah and before Passover, my wife would report, “The fish came out good, but not as good as yours.”

In my family, Grandma did just about all the preparations for the seder herself.  Grandpa made fresh grated horseradish with fresh-squeezed lemon juice,  touch of sugar and fresh grated beets. Grandpa made haroshes, a sauce of apples, nuts and sweet red wine. But Grandma did the cooking.  She had daughters and daughters-in-law, whom she loved and appreciated, but who were not allowed in the kitchen when Grandma worked.

Also unwelcome in the kitchen were the granddaughters, except for my sister. Grandma appreciated the way Miriam, even as a young girl, got things done, efficiently and quickly, with a minimum of fuss, cleaning up as she worked, taking instruction easily. Making gefilte fish was among the many skills Miriam learned in Grandma’s kitchen.

The question did not really hinge on the difference in flavor between the two recipes. My grandma, originally from Zlotopol in Ukrainian Russia, made a peppery version, perhaps in the Ukrainian style, or perhaps just because Grandma liked pepper. Marilyn’s grandma, from Brisk in Byelorussia, used less pepper and more sugar.

The root of the question

The real question hinged on whose traditions would go into making this seder. Which style of fish got served, and which person made the fish, really stood for whose seder we would have.

Of course in practice, the seder would have elements from both families. The fight was over. Mimi made the gefilte fish that year. The next day, Marilyn summarized the experience with the observation that she and her friend Mimi could manage “one fight every 24 years.”  I hope that does not mean they have another fight coming up next year.

As for the recipes, the notebook with Grandma Keanig’s gefilte fish recipe showed up a few years ago as we packed for a move. We gave the notebook to our daughter, who has become quite an accomplished cook.

A recipe in my wife’s card catalogue reads “Grandma’s Gefilte Fish.” It does not specify whose grandma, but it has sugar and not much pepper.

Note: Buy fresh fish and ask the person at the counter to fillet it for you and give you the skin and bones in a separate bag.


Let’s hear it for charoset!

Jews all over the world are getting ready for Passover, which starts this year on the evening of April 22.

As an aside, you may wonder why this holiday, which normally starts betwen late March and mid-April, is so late this year. It has to do with the peculiarities of the Jewish calendar. It’s a lunar calendar, with months of 28 or 29 days. This means that every year, the lunar calendar dates are approximately 11 days earlier than they were the year before on the coinciding Gregorian calendar.

Many Jewish festivals, including Passover, are tied to a particular time of year. It wouldn’t do to have Passover fall in February! So to keep the calendar kosher, so to speak, we periodically insert a “leap month” into it. This happens seven times in 19 years. You have to admire the people who figured this out!

This is a leap month. After the month of Adar in February-March, we had “Second Adar.” This pushes the next month, Nisan, back to where it belongs. The earliest date Passover can start is March 25. The latest is April 25.

As we’re cleaning our houses and shopping for Passover food,  we’re also planning our seders, the ceremonial meals that take place on the first two nights of the eight-day holiday.

The centerpiece of the seder table is the seder plate, which holds the ceremonial foods used in the meal: greens, bitter herbs, a roasted egg, a roasted shankbone, salt water and charoset.

What’s charoset?

What is charoset?

First of all it’s pronounced to rhyme with “Pa HOSE sit,” with a guttural “ch” to start.

It’s a paste made of fruit, nuts, spices and wine and is meant to symbolize the mortar that the ancient Hebrews used to hold together the bricks they made as slaves in Egypt. The word may come from the Hebrew “cheres,” meaning clay. The Passover festival celebrates the Hebrews’ freedom from hundreds of years of captivity in Egypt.

You eat charoset with the bitter herbs during the ceremonial part of the seder, and then as a relish for the festive meal that follows.

There are just about as many versions of charoset as there are countries where Jews have lived.

In America, the most common type of charoset uses chopped or grated apples, chopped nuts, sweet wine and maybe a little cinnamon, because those were the ingredients available to our ancestors in Central and Eastern Europe.

Many, many varieties

Jews in other countries used dates and other dried fruits and honey. Some incorporated oranges and bananas. The only constants seem to be some sort of fruit and some sort of nuts. The mixture should be sweet.

For years I made the standard apples-and-nuts mixture.

Then I got a copy of Gloria Kaufer Greene’s fabulous Jewish Holiday Cookbook – not to be confused with Joan Nathan’s equally fabulous Jewish Holiday Kitchen.  Greene offers recipes for Moroccan-Style Charoset, Israeli-Style Charoset, Turkish-Style Charoset, Sephardic-Style Date Charoset, and Yemenite-Style Charoset. I also have in my recipe stash charoset recipes from Persia, Venice and Surinam.

I like the traditional apple-and-nut charoset, but it’s a little boring. And what do you do with the leftovers? It’s not easy to spread on matzoh because the apples make it runny, and it doesn’t keep more than a few days in the fridge.

So I tried this recipe for Moroccan-Style Charoset, which you can serve in a bowl as a paste or make into little balls. It keeps for weeks in the fridge, which is good because the recipe makes a large amount (you may want to halve it if you’re not serving a horde). My kids loved it; they thought it was candy!

Give this a try, even if you’re not Jewish and getting ready for a seder. It’s a nice dessert, lunchox snack or party item.


Lessons from the Garden for Passover

Today’s piece is written by Rebecca Starr. Past assistant director of the Detroit Jewish Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education, she currently serves as an independent educational consultant and an instructor for Melton, an adult Jewish education program. This article originally appeared in myJewishDetroit, the online community journal of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. 

I was raised on a sheep farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in a small town called Pickford.

This isn’t a phrase you hear very often, especially from a Jewish girl, but nevertheless, it is the life my parents chose for me for the first 18 years of my life.

We lived off of the land. Our farm produced everything we needed to fill our bodies with healthy, wholesome foods and we were deeply connected to the land on which we lived. Our garden produced more vegetables than our freezer could hold and we ate the lamb that we raised.

My connection to food and where it comes from is rooted in my rich past and I am regularly reminded of it as the Passover season approaches.

As we break bread . . . for matzoh

Matzoh (unleavened bread) is the bread of affliction, the lechem oni, or the bread of poverty. The Jewish custom of eating matzoh for seven or eight days (depending on your custom) during the holiday of Passover reminds us that we were once slaves in Egypt. It reminds us that we did not have the resources to diversify or even complete our meals in bondage.

The act of eating matzoh takes us back to a place and time when food and freedom were scarce. It is truly amazing that such a simple food can bring such a strong and important message about the journey of the Jewish people. In truth, it also offers a very modern message to us as living in the 21st century.

Bondage takes many forms

Bondage and slavery can present themselves in many forms. The Israelites were literally slaves to the work of Pharaoh, but chains need not be present for us to feel as though we are victims of certain types of injustices today. When we consider the ways in which we access food on a daily basis, we realize quickly that sustainable, healthy, local, fair trade food is extremely difficult to find and even more difficult to find in less affluent areas.

In many ways, we are slaves to a food system that is not just and may even use unfair, illegal or unethical practices to create a product for our grocery store shelves with the single goal of turning a large profit.

The way in which we access food in today’s world looks a lot different than it did even 50 years ago. Local family farms exist, but in smaller numbers; animals are raised in unimaginable conditions that don’t resemble traditional farm habitats at all; agricultural workers are treated and paid unfairly; and food is processed so far from its natural form that it doesn’t resemble real food any longer.

We worry about pesticides and chemicals on a daily basis and we waste unbelievable amounts of food, fuels and resources on production. These are the things that keep me awake at night as I worry about which foods to offer my children and in what state we are leaving the planet for them.

There is no doubt that this message is concerning, and I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but I am hopeful that we can work together to bring about real change. The Passover season is the perfect time to make a commitment to learn more about food justice and sustainability.

Today’s recipe is a vegetable kugel that can be used on Passover because it contains no grain that hasn’t already been baked into matzoh (in this case, in the form of matzoh meal). There are many types of kugel, which simply means pudding. It’s a side dish that is baked and cut into squares for serving.


A Russian Tart to celebrate Spring Equinox

This week we mark the Vernal (Spring) Equinox, when the hours of light and the hours of darkness are approximately equal. Such occasions were important in pagan societies, and today the Spring  Equinox is known by Wiccans as Ostara (O-STAR-uh), one of their minor Sabbats (festivals).

The name of the festival comes from the Teuton lunar goddess Eostre, whose chief totems were the rabbit, noted for fertility, and the egg, a symbol of creation and rebirth. (Can you say “Easter bunny” and “Easter egg”?)

Eggs are important in many faiths, and they play an important part in the spring religious festivals of two major religions, Judaism and Christianity.

A roasted egg is one of the foods on the Passover seder plate. Jewish scholars will say the egg represents the sacrifices made at the Temple in Jerusalem, and that because hard-boiled eggs are traditionally the first food served to mourners after a funeral, the egg symbolizes mourning for the Temple’s loss. But no one will convince me that there’s no connection to our pagan past.

Similarly, Christians may have adopted use of hard-boiled eggs from their Jewish forebears. The Last Supper was a Passover seder, and early Christians may have wanted to preserve some of its symbols. Or it may have come directly from ancient pagan practices, many of which were co-opted into Christianity. Eventually the egg, a symbol of renewing life, began to be associated with the resurrection of Jesus.

Whatever meaning you want to assign to eggs, the Spring Equinox this week seemed like a good excuse for providing an eggy recipe.

This Russian Tart is also vegetarian so it’s a good one for those refraining from meat during Lent. It’s a bit of a to-do to make, and the ingredients may strike you as a little odd, but it’s worth the bother.

There’s quite a lot of filling, so be sure to use a large and deep pie plate for the baking.

Remembering Sinai Hospital: Making muffins, back when work was fun

What makes a good work team? I’ve been thinking about that lately, because of all the jobs I’ve had, the most fun was when I worked at Sinai Hospital of Detroit in the 1980s.

It wasn’t because the work itself was particularly meaningful. It certainly wasn’t because I was earning the big bucks.

What was extraordinary about that work experience was the people I worked with. Many of us are still friends today, 27 years since our group was blown apart when a bunch of us were “laid off” after some political maneuvering at the C-suite level.

I’ve worked with many good people before and since, so I’ve been trying to put my finger on what made this team so special.

For one thing, most of us were around the same age, so we grew up with the same frame of reference about music, movies and other cultural touchstones.

We all had a good sense of humor, and we could tease each other without anyone taking offense.

There was also a Jewish ethos about our group – Sinai was a Jewish-sponsored hospital after all – even though we weren’t all Jewish.

Learning Yiddish

When our department was moved to a former apartment on campus, I brought in an old copy of The Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten and put it in the bathroom. Soon the Catholic members of our group were spouting Yiddish like they’d learned it from their bubbies.

But occasionally something tripped them up.

Our media relations pro, Suzanne, was a good Catholic girl but she looked like a Yiddishe maidel, with what some would call a Jewish nose and long, curly, black hair.

One day she came into the office looking distressed and asked, “Bobbie, what’s daven mean?”

Daven  (DAH ven) means to pray. No one is sure where the word comes from; Rosten says maybe from divin, French for divine.

Suzanne had been in an elevator at the hospital when a middle-aged Orthodox Jewish man got on. He looked her up and down–probably thinking what a good match she’d make for his son—and said, “So, where do you daven?

It would be like saying to a stranger, “So, what church do you go to?”

Suzanne, not knowing what in the world he was talking about, stammered. “I don’t!” and beat a hasty retreat as soon as the elevator stopped.

We still laugh about that one.

And maybe part of the reason why that job was so much fun was that our jobs were manageable. Our team was extremely productive, but we didn’t feel we were understaffed and overworked as so many do today. We had time to goof off when we needed to; it kept the creative juices flowing.

Memorable muffins

All the above is an excuse to write about today’s recipe, which comes from the Sinai Hospital cafeteria.

Whenever they had these muffins on the menu, we’d all make a beeline for the cafeteria.

Sinai Hospital is gone now, first merged into the Detroit Medical Center and then closed. Its name is memorialized in the unmellifluous DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital and DMC Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital. The building itself was torn down and is now the site of a high school.

But Sinai Hospital lives on in our hearts!

A few weeks ago one of my Sinai colleagues was back in town for a family visit, so I invited her and two others we worked with, and their spouses, to lunch.

I served these Glorious Morning Muffins, which they all recognized immediately. We ate, and laughed, and reminisced about the good old days.

Dining for Women: Helping the world 1 meal at a time (with a recipe for beans and rice)

My friend Sharona invited me to dinner last week–but I had to bring a dish to pass and pay $25. The dinner was part of an international movement called Dining for Women.

Here’s the idea: Instead of eating out in a restaurant, groups of women get together for a potluck in someone’s home, church or community center, and donate the money they would have spent on a restaurant meal–usually $25 to $40–to a nonprofit in a third-world country that benefits women and girls.

It all started in 2002. Marsha Wallace, a former nurse and mother of four, read an article about a group of women who met for potluck dinners and donated the money they would have spent in a restaurant to needy families.

“Dining out dollars” to help the needy

Marsha liked the idea of using “dining out dollars” to help others. On her birthday in 2003, she invited some friends to her home to celebrate, passed the proverbial hat, and raised $750 for Women for Women International.

The idea spread. Every month Dining for Women chooses one charity in one third-world country, and all the Dining for Women groups across the US and other countries hold a potluck featuring food from the chosen country. They learn a little bit about that country, and then see a short video about the chosen nonprofit and how it will help women.

Maybe a few hundred dollars won’t go very far – but multiplied by 428 Dining for Women chapters, the program can raise a significant amount.

The group’s founding values:

  • All women deserve to be self-sufficient
  • Education transforms the giver and the receiver
  • Connections are the engine that power giving
  • Transparency and integrity will mark our work
  • To reach all, we must believe we can

Help for Nicaragua

The dinner I attended was to benefit the Americas Association for the Care of Children in Nicaragua. The organization aims to reduce the impact of poverty through compassionate, holistic education to enable the empowerment of primary caregivers, nutritional adequacy and preventative healthcare, special needs therapeutic support and sustainable community and economic development.

Our host read some background information about Nicaragua, the poorest country in South America, and we feasted on foods that had a South American flavor, including lots of beans and rice.

The group’s website has a wealth of information about projects they have funded and how to get involved by joining an existing chapter or starting a new chapter. There are even recipes tied to that month’s featured country.

Dining for Women also sponsors trips to third-world countries, where members can see the good work being done with their dollars and get a sense of additional needs.

This would be a great project for church or synagogue women or for any group of friends that wants to have a good time and do good at the same time.

My recipe today comes from the Dining for Women website, where it was reprinted with permission from: http://www.whats4eats.com/grains/gallo-pinto-recipe. The recipe photo is by Lablascovegmenu via Flickr Creative Commons.