Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

My Middle Eastern Cooking Experience

I love Middle Eastern food. I love the way it tastes. I love the way it smells. I love shopping for all the exotic ingredients that go into it. And I love making it.

I was first introduced to the flavors of the Middle East by Abdel Albaroudi, from Syria, and Nazim Hakim from Lebanon. They were both waiters and dining room managers at the St. George Restaurant (now Tra Vigne), where I used to work in St. Helena, a small town in the heart of the Napa Valley. Business was always slow in the winter, so to amuse themselves and help pass the time on those long nights with no customers, they used to make some of their favorite Middle Eastern dishes. The chef, Paul Wiggins, was an agreeable fellow who always fed us well and never chased us out of his kitchen. So Abdel and Nazim used to make things like Fatoosh, and Falafel, and Tabouleh, and a Middle Eastern version of Steak Tartar. One bite and I was hooked.

Fast-forward ten years. I'm back in the Napa Valley after two years of teaching English in Tokyo, publishing a little free-press magazine called Pathways to Health. One of its features was a monthly restaurant review, and my very first candidate was the Small World Restaurant, a little falafel place a few blocks from my house. When I went in to try the food and interview the owner, Michael Alimusa, we became instant friends. And although I have long since ceased publishing the magazine, I still design all his flyers, menus, business cards and newspaper ads. And whenever I drop by with the finished goods, he always feeds me and sits down with me for a nice long chat. He is from Nazareth, Israel, where his father once owned a restaurant. Needless to say, Small World serves some of the best Middle Eastern food this side of the River Jordan. His menu includes three different kinds of Falafel, as well as Hummus, Baba Gunoosh, Tri-Tip Schwarma, Lamb Gyros, Mediterranean Salads, and honey-golden, melt-in-your-mouth-and-turn-your-knees-to-water Baklava for dessert. And everything he serves either comes in or with warm, doughy pita bread. So...I've asked Michael to be my culinary mentor for this month's Children of Heaven dinner.

In my own kitchen, I often make Fatoosh, although my recipe deviates somewhat in its presentation. Instead of serving it like a salad, I leave out the lettuce and serve it with pita wedges. Sort of like Middle Eastern chips and salsa. I also make Middle Eastern lamb and rice dishes from time to time, and I've even tried my hand at homemade pita bread. On rare occasions, it comes out perfect. But more often, it's a disappointment, if not a downright disaster. When it comes to my flatbreads, I'm reminded of a passage from Illusions, one of my favorite books by Richard Bach, in which Donald Shimoda describes the panbread Richard makes over his campfire. "It's sort of like...a fire...after a a flourmill, don't you think?" So I'm definitely hoping that Michael will help me get it right this time.