When the folks at the Arab American National Museum (AANM) said, "Yalla eat!" (Arabic for "Let's go eat!"), I immediately signed us up to join them on a culinary walking tour of East Dearborn, a Detroit community that is a hub of Arab-American culture in Michigan and home to one of the largest concentrations of Arab-Americans in the country.
Food can be one of the best ways to explore an area's culture, and it was a special treat for us to find a program like this offered so close to home.
Isra El-beshir, Curator of Education & Public Programming for the AANM, told us that food is often the first exposure to a different culture for many folks before leading us on the tour.
This metro Detroit neighborhood saw its beginnings as an Arab-American enclave during the 1920s when workers immigrated here for jobs at the Ford Motor Company's nearby Rouge Factory Complex.
Changes in East Dearborn over the years reflect a century of Arab-American and Middle Eastern immigration to the neighborhood and, especially, the revitalization and commercial development of the area starting in the early 1980s.
El-beshir told us that about half of the 200 businesses currently in the neighborhood are food-related, giving us an incredible opportunity to sample many tasty experiences in a single afternoon.
Plentiful Arabic restaurants, food stores and other specialty service and commercial businesses draw Arabs from around the region, as well as fans of intriguing culinary experiences and the Middle Eastern cuisine with its emphasis on vegetarian dishes, grilled meats and spices like cumin, cardamom, nutmeg and turmeric.
Tim and I met El-beshir at the Super Greenland Market on Warren Avenue at Miller Rd. along with about a half-dozen other foodies anxious to begin our culinary adventure.
Founded in 1993, Greenland claims to be the largest Arab grocery store in the country and boasts five locations in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights.
We toured the bulk grain, dairy, produce, and deli sections to see many of the store's specialty imported foods, as well as an amazing display of locally sourced produce and prepared foods.
One of the store's butchers met with us to briefly describe the preparation procedures for the store's Halal-certified meats and told that this location prepares as many as 14-17 cows each week according to Halal requirements.
We tasted a few of Greenland's in-house prepared foods like Kubba Fries, a vegetarian kibbeh made with tomato and bulgar, halva (a wheat-based treat that tasted like chocolate) and hoummos with pita bread.
Our next stop Hashem's Nuts and Coffee Gallery, a business started by Abu Ali Sheik Theeb in 1959 at the village of Bint J Bail in southern Lebanon.
The founder's grandsons now offer specialties like freshly roasted nuts, finely-ground Turkish coffee, sweets and Middle Eastern spice mixes at their Dearborn store.
We also got a short tutorial on the preparation of Turkish-style coffee, which struck me as a perfect recipe for staying awake 24/7/365!
We stopped at LaBon Sweets where brothers Samir and Mohammad Majed perfected a recipe for the kanafa sandwich, a popular Arab sweet consisting of sweet fried cheese on a sesame seed bun, which they recommend for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks or dessert.
The store opened in 2005 and has a second store in Dearborn Heights. Check out LeBon Sweets' Web site for mail order info.
We made a quick stop at the Gift Warehouse to check out kitchen and serving ware that included tiny cups for Turkish coffee and, my favorite, a good supply of evil eye amulets that many people use to ward off evil looks or curses.
Next stop was the New Yasmeen Bakery for samples of their large thin pita breads and a cheese-topped pita snack from their huge in-store prepared foods case.
Check out the New Yasmeen Web site for information about online ordering.
Shatila's 11 ice cream flavors include the highly recommended pistachio, as well as more unusual flavors like kashta (with rosewater as one of its ingredients). We returned to the store after the tour to buy some pineapple and lemon ice cream to take home with us! The fruit-flavored ice creams were not sorbet-type concoctions as you might expect, but had a nice creamy texture and taste.
Our last stop was the Al-Ameer Restaurant, a place which scored a visit from celebrity foodie Tony Bordain a few years ago.
Established in 1989 by Khalil Ammar and Saki Hashem, the restaurant strives to provide an authentic ethnic experience featuring a menu of Mediterranean food made with locally sourced produce and Halal-certified meats in a family-friendly atmosphere.
We digested our tour experience as we shared plates of beef and chicken shawarma and the restaurant's fresh-baked pita bread with our tour mates.
Check out the Al-Ameer Web site to see the menu at the restaurant's Dearborn and Dearborn Heights locations
Want more information about culinary adventures featuring Arabic and Middle Eastern cuisine? Check out the Visit Detroit Web site for links to other restaurants, recipes and suggestions for day trips around the Detroit area.
Also keep an eye on events listings at the Arab American National Museum over the next year as it plans to add more food-related programs and events during the run-up to its 10th anniversary in 2015.
Want to try creating your own Middle Eastern culinary experience? Check out The Complete Middle Eastern Cookbook by Tess Mallos.
I found that a lot of spellings for food items and ingredients varied from source to source, so I opted for using the spelling used by the specific business I was referring to at the time. Kibbeh? Kubba? Kibbee? Hoummos? Hummus? If anyone has a more definitive answer about the English versions of these terms, feel free to let me know!
Thanks to the Arab American National Museum for hosting us on this tour.
© Dominique King 2014 All rights reserved