Detroit Middle Eastern cuisines offer diners much more than falafel

Fertile crescent

Dec 2, 2017 at 4:00 am
Platter centered with cherry kabob from Al Chabab.
Platter centered with cherry kabob from Al Chabab. Tom Perkins

Metro Detroit abounds with restaurants serving Middle Eastern food, offering indisputable proof that the area's residents have embraced the cuisine. It goes to show you how, despite any American anxieties about immigration, we literally hunger for the fresh, exciting flavors our newcomers offer.

Yet it's worth pointing out that the "Middle Eastern" fare most chow down on in metro Detroit is Lebanese food.

In pointing that out, we don't mean to cast any disdain upon Levantine cuisine, as Beirut is widely regarded as the most cosmopolitan city in the region — the Paris of the Middle East, if you will. Fussy Lebanese chefs earned that reputation, as they're known for demanding the best and freshest ingredients, their relatively restrained use of spices, and their light and healthful touch, which is shared with many Mediterranean cuisines.

But the Middle East is a sprawling territory, comprising 18 countries, scores of languages, and almost 400 million people. Each different area has its own core cuisine, with dishes whose influences are both intensely local and surprisingly international.

While it's undoubtedly a good thing that Americans are more familiar than ever with hummus and tabbouleh, some off-the-beaten-path places offer regional cuisines diners may not be familiar with. Not only do they offer unusual flavors (and comforting proteins), but they offer insights into the complex and multi-faceted region's culture and history. Here are a few different dishes served at restaurants in our area that showcase that diversity.

Lamb Haneeth, Sheeba Restaurant

Sometimes rendered as "haneed," this preparation is something that should appeal to Americans right out of the gate because it's so much like barbecue, using slow roasting to produce meat that is tender and full of flavor. Many diners will gravitate to chicken haneeth, but that's a shame, because lamb haneeth is utterly unlike the poor plastic-wrapped lamb chops most Americans sniff at. In a clay oven, Yemeni chefs are able to produce cuts of perfectly cooked lamb that would seem to require a pressure cooker. The meat flakes away from bone at fork pressure, much like the fabled "lamb rigonato" they once served in Greektown. Despite the browned and sometimes blackened exterior, it retains a shade of pink on the inside, and pulls apart like string cheese. When scooped up with a bit of rice or a chunk of potato (Middle Eastern can double up on the carbs) it is sublime.

Vegetarians might prefer another Yemeni dish, seltah. It easily calls to mind Indian food, almost like a rich golden mulligatawny flavored with whipped fenugreek, served with a puffed and browned round of Yemeni flatbread called malooga, which at Sheeba's Hamtramck location comes bigger than a beach ball. You can't miss the Subcontinent's influence on this dish, or better understand Yemen's position on the coast of the Indian Ocean after tasting it. And yet, unlike much Indian food, it seems perfect for Americans seeking a bit of comfort during a Northern winter, as it's a hearty and thick stew full of creamy chunks of potato and other root vegetables.

Koshary, La Marsa

Though koshary is considered the national dish of Egypt, what will likely surprise many Americans is that it has stubborn elements of American comfort food stirred right into it. For instance, why are macaroni noodles and tomato sauce at the heart of Egypt's most popular comfort food? Isn't that much closer to Boyardee than baba ghanoush?

Well, yes, but the dish's origins are in 19th century Egypt, which was multicultural to the extent of the involvement of the fading Ottoman Empire and the rising European powers. Koshary emerged while Egypt contended with such colonial giants as France and Great Britain, influenced not just by Italian food across the Mediterranean Sea but by the Indian delicacies flowing up through the Suez Canal (opened 1869), such as lentils and rice. To underline the Indian influence, it is essentially vegan, though it is often enriched with meat, especially for U.S. diners.

Another thing that might help capture your attention is that koshary was, at least early in its life, a popular street food. Perhaps this helps American diners understand koshary a bit better, at least the way it mixes together several grains, starches, and beans, and then heaps them with a fragrant sauce. It's a sign of its working-class appeal that it mixes different carbs together: rice and pasta, usually macaroni elbows but sometimes spaghetti noodles as well.

A friend who's spent years in the Middle East tells us the dish is better when burghul is used instead of rice. Burghul, not to be confused with cracked wheat, is a more tender, nuttier grain, but rice may smooth the way for Americans. And if that double-carb whammy strikes you as unhealthy, take comfort that pastas and white rices are technically more resistant starches, less likely than bread to end up as belly fat.

But for all the beans and grains, the star of the show is the cumin-laden tomato sauce and the onions. The onions are cut into strips, tossed in salt and flour, then fried in oil, sometimes with garlic, until caramelized and slightly crispy, to become the garnish. The tomato sauce is pungent and almost curry-like. To add more flavor, you can take the special vinegar sauce to add nuttiness, or use the thin, see-through hot sauce to make this workingman's dish even manlier. (Watch out — that hot sauce can creep up on you.)

With every spoonful, you'll get slightly different tastes and textures. The noodles and rice provide comfort and tenderness, and the sometimes-crunchy, sometimes-gummy texture of the onions adds to the mouthfeel.

Many restaurants that serve koshary to Americans will offer you meat mixed right in, but you might try getting it on the side, if only to mix it in yourself and enjoy the protein-carb load you prefer. (Servings of koshary are usually over-the-top generous.) But you might explore a bit and have not just chicken or beef but lamb. The delicate bits of braised lamb can almost be like rib tips.

Fesenjan, Pars

Few dishes could present a starker contrast to the light Mediterranean creations of Lebanon than Persian fesenjan. One of the most popular stews in Iran, it packs an overwhelming punch with its sweet and nutty flavor, which comes from ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup. The Persian predilection for the use of pomegranate and walnut goes back to ancient times, but will be a novelty to most Americans. It reminded us a bit of a dish made with jam. Another friend said it called to mind a slice of fruitcake. Yes, it's that sweet, but the slight tartness of the fruit and the nuttiness in the mix help keep the sweetness from being too cloying.

The glossy, rich stew is best poured over a bed of rice, which shows off its concentrated flavors to best effect. It will often contain balls of ground meat or bits of poultry, but it's usually cuts of chicken at Pars, where the kitchen coaxes a tenderness out of them that makes them easy to cut with a dull fork.

Not all fesenjan preparations are exactly alike. One of our friends who travels widely in the Middle East tells us the best of them tone down the sweetness and amp up the proteins: "If they sprinkle little shoestring fries on top of stuff, then they're too legit to quit," our expert says. "That's a nice, old-school Persian home cooking touch that I've only encountered at the best places in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where you get the really good stuff."

Those looking for something more on the savory side might try instead the bademjan, an eggplant and tomato stew that can contain cubes of lean beef sauteed with onions.

Kabob Karaz, Al Chabab

At Dearborn's Al Chabab, chef and co-owner Chamo Barakat speaks proudly of the cuisine of his home city of Aleppo, which stands apart from that of the rest of Syria and the Middle East.

What's partly behind that is geography. First settled thousands of years ago, the city once held 4.6 million residents and was an outpost along the Silk Road. Aleppo's brush with passing cultures to the east and west enriched and shaped its cuisine. You'll find hints of Saharan and Indian cooking in its recipes, for example.

But that wouldn't be possible if the climate didn't offer four seasons and unique soil that sustains a wide variety of nuts, fruits, livestock, spices, and other crops that are rare in the Middle East. And just as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese from Parma, Italy, is superior and can't be duplicated, the land and climate around Aleppo impart their own inimitable flavors into the dishes.

Kabab keraz is an Aleppian specialty — lamb or beef balls come submerged in a tangy cherry sauce. And though there are few better places in the Western Hemisphere to access a cherry crop than Michigan, Barakat laments that, though his dish is delicious, he still can't get it to taste just as it does when prepared with Aleppine cherries.

Perhaps the best item on the menu to sample the fruits of the Syrian climate is the umami-rich mohamara, a deep-red Aleppine paste that could be mistaken for a form of hummus, but is actually a mix of Aleppo peppers, Aleppo pistachios, olive oil, spices, and two other ingredients shared with near neighbors in the Fertile Crescent: pomegranate and walnuts (see Iranian fesenjan above). Barakat serves mohamara alongside his kebabs or as an appetizer that's spread across bread.