Smile Politely

From there to here: A Middle East(ern) Illinois dinner

The hardest part about moving to a new place is the lack of connections and support. It seems that the older we get, the harder it is to make friends. So many of us in this town are transplants looking to carve out a social support system, to create a family of friends in the absence of our own.

It’s difficult, too, moving to a place that is culturally different than the one with which you’re most familiar and comfortable. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be in a new and different place, but certainly there are adjustments and, sometimes, sacrifices or compromises to be made. Perhaps too often in this town, the sacrifice and compromise is food related. It may be difficult to locate quality ingredients specific to your preference, or a restaurant that tastes like home.

When people are feeling particularly homesick, missing their extended family, or simply just having a bad day, oftentimes they seek comfort food. Who doesn’t want to disappear into the foods of our youth, of our family, of the things and people that make it all better? Because I don’t have any extended family in the area, I seek comfort in the friendships I’ve established, and my friends and I share our stories and comfort foods.

One of my friends is an Israeli American and she, too, sometimes has a difficult time locating “authentic” Israeli (or more generally, Middle Eastern) food in the area. Her mom (who is also Israeli, currently living in Florida) was paying a visit and they were gracious enough to invite me and my husband to dinner. Upon further chit-chat, my friend and I decided to have a very traditional, gender-specific kitchen gathering and cook a delicious Israeli meal with her mom. We planned to feed six people total: my friend and her husband, her mother and stepfather, and my husband and me. There were a few special considerations to make, as each man had a particular food preference/allergy to accommodate. Our Israeli meal had to be gluten-free, kosher (and therefore, dairy-free), without refined sugar, hot (in terms of temperature, as in, no cold food), and sauces optional. That’s a pretty tall order, and it was surprisingly easy to pull it off.

There isn’t necessarily a singular, iconic “Israeli” dish. Israeli food reflects the people who settled in Israel after 1948, and is a cuisine that draws upon Mediterranean, North African, and Arab influences. There are additional influences introduced by Diasporic Jews, and ultimately, it comes down to where one’s people have been for most of their generations, and what sorts of influences survived them. My friend’s mother was born and raised in Israel, but her parents were both Sephardic Jews, and that’s the cooking on which she was raised. Sephardic cooking is heavily influenced by Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Greek, and North African cooking traditions. There were plenty of North African and Mediterranean flavors incorporated into the ground meat and lots of veggies we cooked. In choosing our menu, the focus wasn’t necessarily about cooking the most authentic Israeli dinner ever, but rather about tapping into a specific heritage, history, and nostalgia. 

My friend, her mom, and I met at Urbana’s Market at the Square on Saturday morning to see what local, fresh ingredients were available for our meal, and decided the menu there. Our first decision: protein. Despite all of the allergies and food preferences, all six of us were meat eaters. We decided on lamb and beef kebabs. We purchased the ground lamb from J&K Meats, and the ground beef at Common Ground Food Co-op. Our next task: vegetables and sides. Since this was an Israeli dinner, and tomatoes and cucumbers were in ample supply at the market, Israeli salad was a no-brainer. Peas were also abundant, so a puréed pea soup with lettuce — no cream — became the starter. Moroccan carrot salad was also included. Because my friend and her mom are incredibly healthy eaters, and there was plenty of zucchini and eggplant at the market, we decided to make some broiled zucchini and eggplant. I’m quite obsessed with desserts, and was determined to have something sweet at the end of the meal. Because my friend and her mom don’t eat refined sugar, dairy, or gluten, we decided upon some macerated stone fruits with a cashew cream topping and a vegan oatmeal cookie. We grabbed what we could from the market, and collected the remaining ingredients from Common Ground Food Co-op and Strawberry Fields

I headed over to my friend’s house a few hours earlier than the scheduled dinner time to help with food preparation. We wrote the menu out, listed the ingredients, and divvied up the tasks. I tackled the dessert fruit, the Israeli salad, and the prep for the veggies. My friend made harissa, the cashew cream, and the cookies. Her mom made the pea soup, the carrot salad, tahini sauce, and the kebabs.

Mom and daughter slipped in and out of Hebrew, and navigated around each other in the kitchen as if they had been working together for years. I was taught the Hebrew words for the food (which I forgot as soon as I uttered the sounds). Nevertheless, the entire experience was delightful, enlightening, and comforting.

We sat down for dinner and, with a bete’avon! (with appetite), dug into our feast.

We began the meal with the pea soup, which was light and creamy despite the lack of dairy. The mint brightened things up without being overpowering. Even though the ingredient list was short — peas, mild lettuce, onion, mint, salt, pepper, and water — the soup had a complex flavor that showcased the peas. It was a fresh and pleasant way to begin the meal.

The kebabs were a mixture of lamb and ground beef, onion, parsley, mint, garlic, cumin, and coriander. They were shaped into little footballs and we broiled them in the oven. The zucchini and eggplant were small enough to cut in half, and were drizzled with olive oil, oregano, salt, and pepper. They too went under the broiler until tender.

The Israeli salad was made with cherry tomatoes and cucumbers from the market. If you’ve ever had a garden tomato — that is, a tomato grown and ripened in a garden — you’ll know there is no comparison to the red mealy water sacks they pass off as tomatoes at the grocery store. The cucumbers, too, were so fresh and cucumber-y. Yes, that does indeed sound ridiculous, but the truth is, if you can grow it, or buy it directly from someone who grew it, do it. This produce was awesome. The traditional lemon dressing was served on the side, as per one of the husband’s requests.

My personal favorite menu item was the Moroccan carrot salad. This salad, served at room temperature, consisted of cooked, sliced carrots, mint, cumin, garlic, lemon, coriander, and some harissa. The flavors danced on my tongue! The sharpness of lemon and garlic, the sweetness of carrot, and the heat of the harissa were most delightful! The dish was incredibly complex and, yet, well balanced. I couldn’t stop eating it.

The tahini and harissa brought all of the flavors together and served as the perfect foil for each other. Where the harissa brought heat and spice, the tahini smoothed and cooled. If you haven’t had harissa, you must. The spice and heat are powerful, but still flavorful. Too hot to handle? A good tahini sauce will suit you just fine.

Dessert was great, too. I sliced and mixed the stone fruit with some raw honey, lemon juice, and mint. The fruit slices marinated and macerated while we ate dinner, allowing the flavors and sweetness to disseminate throughout the fruit. The cashew cream was incredibly smooth, creamy, and rich, with just enough sweet and tart to balance the sweetness of the fruit. The cookies not only added much-needed crunch to the dessert, but also a subtle nuttiness that the cashews lacked. 

As cheesy as it sounds, the best part of the entire day was working with these two other women in the kitchen. We shared stories, made jokes (often at the expense of the men, who were not there to defend themselves), and spent some old-fashioned lady time in the domestic sphere. I shucked the market fresh peas with my friend’s mom, and we shared a laugh when some of the peas took flight across the room, or into an eye. It was nice to hear stories about my friend’s childhood from her mother’s perspective. I was, of course, reminded of my own experiences in the kitchen with my grandmother, mother, and aunts, all of whom have helped form my relationship to food, the kitchen, and cooking.

No matter where you live, you inevitably carve out your own niche and fill it with the things you love: people, food, conversation. I’m fortunate enough to have people in my life who are willing to share their things with me. This meal wasn’t about measuring precise ingredients. It was about cooking as an artistic practice and responding to the ingredients and flavors accordingly. This little taste of the Middle East in East Central Illinois was not only socially, emotionally, and intellectually fulfilling, but it was also delicious.


How does food help you cope with homesickness and nostalgia? Share your food story with Jess, or invite her to dinner!

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