Tracing the History of Middle-Eastern Cuisine and Setting Roots in Los Angeles | KCET
Tracing the History of Middle-Eastern Cuisine and Setting Roots in Los Angeles
My entire life, I have felt a connection to the Middle East. So much so that whenever I meet someone from that part of the world, I inevitably ask, “Where are you from? When did you get here? Do you still have family there?”
These questions are almost always met with an apprehensive look; the same look you might give someone when they ask you about politics at a bar. I counter by explaining that my grandfather, Kenneth Robbins was from the Middle East and that his last name was given to him when he came to the United States. They look at me with even more skepticism; I look nothing like someone from that part of the world. I am a 6’1’’, blonde-haired, blue-eyed white guy who grew up in Torrance, California.
However, it is true. My mother’s father was born in the Middle East to an Assyrian family close to Lake Urmia, which is now in the Northern part of Iran. My grandfather came to the United States when he was 13 to escape the Assyrian genocide that occurred during World War I. The story of my grandfather’s journey has been passed down through the generations, like The Odyssey must have been before it was physically written. But that’s a story for another time. Right now, I’m going to discuss the Middle East and its presence in my current city, Los Angeles.
The history of the Middle East can be traced to nearly the beginning of humanity and civilization as we know it. For as long as I can remember, I was told that the Middle East is the cradle of civilization.
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As the rise of civilizations transformed the region’s agricultural landscape, the Middle East secured a vital role in food history. Evidence of the earliest forms of plant domestication have been found in what we call the Fertile Crescent — an area that consists of modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Northern Egypt, Israel and Southern Iraq. As empires grew, more time was spent refining how food was cooked and consumed, a transition seen in two ancient tablets dated at 1550 BC. Made from clay, the texts-tablets have proven to be the oldest examples of cookbooks from Babylon and contained recipes for dishes that were passed down for generations. In all likelihood, these recipes weren’t meant for the common person, given that most people ate the same food every day. The luxury of food choice was left to the wealthy who had access to abundant resources.
The location of the Middle East also contributes to the region’s rich culinary history. At a geographic crossroad between Asia, Africa and Europe, the area served as the conduit that connected trade routes between empires on the famous Silk Road. Along this route, diverse goods were traded, permanently transforming the cuisines of participating areas.
From 130 BCE till 1453 CE, the foods of the Middle East were widely sought out. Deep flavored spices such as coriander, cinnamon, cassia, turmeric, saffron and garlic were popular and became building blocks of the regional cuisine. Much of the protein in the area at this time was neither fatty nor flavorful and came from ruminant animals. Historically, we see cows and goats in many Middle-Eastern recipes out of a principle of sheer practicality: use the protein that’s most prevalent — and use it all. Traditionally, goats are slow roasted whole over a fire, adding tenderness and smoke, allowing for the deep flavors of the spices to penetrate the meat. Early culinary traditions such as these were based upon survival, but continue today through religious practices.
Over the last 100 years, these cooking techniques have also made their way to the City of Angels by the hands and hearts of a diverse Middle-Eastern population. The story of people migrating from the Middle East to the United States is no different than the stories of other migrants leaving their countries in search of a better life. During World War I, a large wave of Christians fled the region to escape religious persecution. Although my grandfather ended up in Detroit, a great many more moved to California’s Central Coast. In the 1950s and ‘60s, many Persians came to the United States to study at universities, laying the groundwork for another influx of Persians after the ousting of the Shah of Iran in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Similarly, a large Lebanese population came to Los Angeles during the 1980s and ‘90s to elude the 15-year civil war that plagued the state. Today, the city’s climate continues to make it a welcoming destination for Middle-Easterners immigrating to the West Coast. No matter the era, however, they continue to bring their fantastic cuisine.
The wonderful variations of shawarma available throughout Los Angeles provide a perfect example of the profound impact Middle-Eastern immigrants have had on the city’s culinary landscape. Shawarma has been used to identify a person’s religion throughout the world, with the type of protein it contains identifying the religion that is being practiced. My love for this spit-roasted meat began when I moved to Mexico in my mid-twenties. The Mexican version of shawarma is called al pastor, and is usually made with pork. The Middle-Eastern iteration we see around Los Angeles is usually made from chicken, beef or lamb that has been marinated in spices, lemon, tahini and other ingredients, depending upon the maker. Once the meat has been layered onto a spit, it is roasted over an open flame and carved off when it is crispy and flavorful. Instead of the tortillas used with al pastor tacos, shawarma is accompanied by pita bread and is commonly served with hummus and pickles.
The importance of pickles in Middle-Eastern cuisine cannot be understated. I learned this at my new obsession, the Kobee Factory, run by Syrian immigrant Wafa Ghrier. I stumbled upon the Kobee Factory in Van Nuys over a year ago while driving from a class I was teaching in Encino. In the window, I saw the words, “Syrian Kitchen” and was immediately intrigued. What was Syrian food like? This is where I learned the purpose for eating pickles or olives while dining at a Middle-Eastern restaurant. Patrons are given a side of pickles and/or olives to help with digestion.
While at the Kobee Factory, Wafa also explained to me that garlic is used to cut the fat out of dishes with beef and goat. All of these integral elements have a purpose on a plate of food and have been tried and tested for thousands of years. At the Kobee Factory, every item is house-made, including the restaurant's namesake kobee — a dish similar to the Lebanese kibbeh — made of pine nuts, ground beef, spices and bulgur wheat.
Not many cities have this culinary depth, and it’s one of the reasons why I am a proud Angeleno. We benefit from these traditions because we live in a city that welcomes people from around the world and folds them into our own, creating the culture of Los Angeles.
Top photo: Katrina Frederick
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