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Aladdin Mediterranean Market & Deli, San Mateo, Ca, tasted on April 3, 2004 I try not to make this blog about politics. And given that a healthy love of food crosses political boundaries that's usually a pretty simple task. But a visit to a small middle eastern deli in a small strip mall in San Mateo, CA touched me in a totally unexpected way. For some context I should state my position on one of the most difficult and intractable problems on the planet - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Without commenting on all the injustices suffered by both peoples (at each others and especially third parties' hands) I'll say that each deserve their own sovereign homeland. Israel deserves safe and secure borders, and the Palestinians deserve their own country. And every Palestinian and Israel deserve a happy and safe life. Somehow, this small market gave me a glimpse of how good a future filled with peace could be.

Some background. Jews as a people have an interesting culinary heritage. Because the Jews haven't lived in any single place for hundreds or thousands of years, they have adopted the food traditions of the countries they lived in for centuries. The various Jewish cuisines much more closely resemble that of their adopted countries than they do each other. So it's no surprise that Israeli food often resembles that of the surrounding Arab cultures and countries. And this means that for me, an American Jew of Eastern European descent with plenty of experience living in Israel that my cultural cuisine is a mix of traditional Eastern European Jewish dishes and Israeli dishes that come pretty close to typical (and delicious) Arab food.

But markets in the United States simply don't break across these lines. You either have:

  • a middle eastern market catering to Arab-American customers and carrying no (or almost no) Jewish food or Israeli brands
  • a Jewish market carrying mostly Jewish and Kosher food with only Israeli brand middle eastern products
  • a supermarket with a sad little section of "traditional" Jewish food that almost nobody would eat on a day-to-day basis, and an equally crappy selection of American knock-offs of middle eastern favorites like bad flavored hummus

The last category pisses me off the most as it represents this benign ignorance where the people who stock supermarket shelves think Jews eat gefilte fish 365 days a year. (Not that there's anything wrong with good gefilte fish.)

So imagine my surprise when I walked into the Aladdin Mediterranean Market & Deli and found one of the best selections of Israeli food products in the U.S. being offered right next to food from Syria and Jordan in a market run by a Greek Orthodox Palestinian family from Jericho and Jerusalem. The food selections also included Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and Persian items. Hilda and George Khoury run the Aladdin Market and it's clear that their small shop is a labor of love and practicality. All day customers of all backgrounds, Jews, Arabs, everybody stream through the door to pick up their specialty food items. And many greet the Khourys warmly. It feels to me like some people hang out at the market for longer than they need to just buy their produce or dairy products. As soon as I expressed interest, Hilda took me under her wing and started giving me the tour as well as having me sample some of the delicacies they were offering.

There was Greek Easter bread with Cardamom. Turkish Tabouleh homemade by Hilda which included tomato paste and was a little spicy. Homemade yummy spinach pies were in a stack waiting to be eaten. The pastry tasted of lemon juice, spinach , onions, and a healthy does of olive oil. The shawarma was made from boneless chicken thighs and breasts marinated for 24 hours then stacked. It was not pressed meat Hilda proudly pointed out. I think I ate two of them. Mujadala - lentils and rice. Bastirma- Armenian cured beef. The closest I can come to describing it was that it tasted paprika-ish even though I knew it wasn't paprika giving it the flavor. It was however, fantastic and savory. Two sizes of falafel... of course! Muhamara from Alepo - Turkish peppers with walnuts. Hilda makes excellent Kubeh - bulgur wheat dough wrapped around ground beef with pine nuts. And finally, more feta cheese than you can shake a stick at. Israeli, Turkish, Greek, Bulgarian, and French feta to be exact. The French was creamy, while the Bulgarian was very tangy and more crumbly. The Israeli feta was super salty and unique. The bins of warm nuts staying fresh and giving off their comforting aroma also reminded me of time in Israel where this is a common site. Cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and more filled the bins.

I hung out for awhile in the Aladdin market. Hilda made me feel at home, and it didn't hurt that I kept buying more food to take home as well as trying more creations that Hilda was proud of. They were all delicious. At one point I was asking about her background and she told me that from 1948 - 1967 they lived in Jerusalem, in Jordan. She let her words trail off. The implications for anyone who understands the history of the area is that in 1967 after the Six-Day-War, Hilda's family lost their home. In terms of sensitive subjects, losing one's home during a war pretty much ranks at or near the top, especially when it's clear that the person you're talking to is a supporter of the country that exists where that home used to be. And yet, when I asked Hilda how she and her husband George (who didn't seem too into my curiosity but was friendly nonetheless) decided to stock such a broad range of products that crossed political, religious, and cultural boundaries, she responded simply "we all live together over there. I wish everyone could get along like they do here."

And there it was. I think for the Khourys It's good food and good business.I know it sounds corny, but as I chatted with an Arab-American customer about the merits of the various pita breads for sale, and I noticed the Israeli and Syrian cans of olives sitting peacefully next to each other on the shelf, as well as the Arab cheese side-by-side with the Israeli butter, I thought to myself - wouldn't it be great if everyone really could get along? Imagine the meals we could all have. :)











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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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