A Food Tour in The Middle East, and Beyond
A Food Tour in the Middle East, and Beyond
By Cheng Wang, Feb. 2016
For millions of us who blaze a trail halfway around the world looking for a new life in America, many often reminisce about the food we grew up eating in our native soil. We are far from our roots, and there certainly is no substitute for our hometown cuisine; nevertheless, a valiant few are making the effort to fill the void.
Mounir’s family has done just that, hailing from a small village called Mazraat al Tufah in Lebanon, they immigrated to NC, and launched a Mediterranean café in Cary. We were invited to his newly opened restaurant for a review, and to get to know their food as part of their lifestyle and culture.
Sassool, the second restaurant Mounir’s family has opened in RTP, is tucked in the Shoppes of Kildaire, alongside many other eateries. Its unassuming facade makes it especially inviting for walk-ins, during mealtime or not. Once stepping in, my eyes gazed the culinary delights on display, my mouth got excessively watery. They looked irresistible, albeit exotic and even mysterious to me. And the name tags were definitely not helping. It was my time to dig in and find out for myself.
My picks were Kabob chicken and beef, Mjadarah, Fatoush, Kale Salad, Hummus and Tatziki, it felt like I was composing a symphony on my plate with these vibrant colors and lively tunes–just don’t dare me to pronounce them. In front of me were chicken, beef, rice, lentils, lettuce, tomatoes, green and red pepper, kale, pitas, olive oil, and then some. They were surprisingly pleasant in the way that they were not fried, not greasy, not salty, not spicy, not chewy, and certainly, not pricey. They are flavorful Mediterranean food. What else did I need for pleasing my sophisticated palate, while being nutritious for my body at the same time? Well, a drink. There were plenty of wines and beers to choose from, but I settled on an iced tea. Looking at my bursting plate, all colors and shapes collided together joyfully, like a happy marriage.
Today was more of a historical and cultural immersion for me about Lebanese food. Flatbread or pita is a staple food in Lebanon, accompanying almost every meal. They just don’t eat frozen ones from leftovers. Historically, foreign powers left their footprints on its land, such as the Ottomans and then France, yielding their influences in Lebanese cuisine still noticeable today, alongside their traditional food. It was all in front of my eyes at this very moment.
While getting a drink refill, I met Mounir, the owner. He pointed to his ear to help me pronounce his name correctly. When I praised his food and how they were all so unusual and awesome to me, his face lit up with excitement. “That’s my mom, from whom I learned everything about cooking back in my hometown,” said Mounir, pointing with his forehead towards an unmistakable black and white photo on the wall, “The fresh ingredients are the biggest appeal in our restaurant. Nothing is frozen.” Mounir and I took a picture together. I suddenly felt like a tourist meandering the streets of a small Mediterranean town, bumping into an indigenous and cordial chef.
After my sunny feast, it was time to indulge myself with desserts. I picked Pistachio Baklava. In a fusion of East meets West, this layered filo pastry originated from the time of Ottoman Empire; however, its rich and buttery ooze transported me to a bakery in Paris (France took control of Lebanon until 1946). My evening in Sassool was more like a sampling tour and my taste buds dabbled through food cultures from the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and finally, culminating in the City of Love.