Posted by Beshouy Botros on July 08, 2015 in Blog
Middle Eastern food is far more complicated than it is presented in the menus of tacky shisha bars and so-called Mediterranean restaurants. Every dish has several different names, regional versions, and each one has its own story. These are stories of power, culture, identity, and memory-- tales that illuminate an intricate mosaic of spices, sweets, and sumptuous dishes with regional and national character.
Nowhere is this poetry more evident than in the aisles of an Arab grocery. These stores invoke the souk, the marketplaces of Middle Eastern heritage and in so doing they curate a nostalgia for new immigrants and Arab Americans alike. It is in these indoor souks that we find sights, smells, and tastes we are deeply acquainted with, we hear Arabic we recognize (or Arabic we cannot understand), and witness the same aunties scrutinizing tomatoes, cucumbers, and greens. For those of us lucky enough to live reasonably close to one of these stores, these aisles become well-worn territory. Otherwise, a trip to the Arab market becomes a seasonal treat – a pilgrimage a whole family undertakes to stock up for Eid. Regardless of the distance, a trip to an Arab grocery store is always emotion laden, and regardless of the frequency with which a group treks to this hallowed ground it is an occasion.
Although this diasporal geography and sentiment is shared, the shelves and freezers of the Arab grocery exhibit both common ground and different styles. “Mediterranean” restaurants perhaps more accurately referred to as Eastern Mediterranean and “Middle Eastern” eateries often homogenize the cuisines and flavors of Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and many others in order to construct a simplified version of foods that taste generally similar or vaguely familiar. Arab groceries do not adhere to this scheme; these markets leave room for difference and nuance within a shared culinary vocabulary – do you prefer your frozen molokheya minced or whole and how is proper rice made in your mother’s kitchen? Questions like these are paramount; when recreating the tastes of the motherland humble cooks are as particular as esteemed grandmothers.
Arab grocery stores provide fertile ground for analysis and ripe ingredients for Arab Americans to reconstruct an essential element of home, the food. They are also rich gardens of flavors allowing different groups to be particular about their beans, rice, and greens. This is crucial because many of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants simply cannot capture the taste of home.
Arab grocery stores and foods become most elucidating prisms through which we can understand the complexities and diversity of Middle Eastern and Arab peoples. The Arab American Taam series of blogs seeks to do the work of these grand souks and humble grocers, to tell the stories of the multiplicity of Arab foods, of the many faces of Arabs in America, and of the wandering families new to the Arab grocery store. Yalla!
Beshouy Botros is an intern with the Arab American Institute