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!