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In third grade, I was convinced that I was adopted. Maybe I belonged to the gypsies who came through town each summer with the carnival. Or maybe the large Italian family down the street, who hoped for a boy each year but got another girl, put me on the doorstep. I was certain that my real family was large and boisterous, hugged a lot, played musical instruments, said prayers in a foreign language, and ate exotic food. Imagine my delight then, when at twenty I met my future in-laws—a Lebanese family with six sons, who not only hugged coming and going but pinched both your cheeks and exclaimed, “Ya deyni!” (You darling), played rambunctious card games around the dining room table on Friday nights, listened to music on scratchy Syrian records, danced the dabke, played the doumbek, and said Sunday mass in Latin at Immaculate Conception Church.
And exotic food? They had that in spades. Ed, my father-in-law, did most of the cooking under the strict supervision of his wife Sophie, who lost her eyesight to macular degeneration. She couldn’t see but she didn’t miss a trick. She knew if we skimped on lemon juice in the cabbage rolls, overcooked the lentils in the imjudadah, didn’t brush enough butter on each layer of baklawa, or were sloppy when we rolled the dolmades. She crimped twenty dozen sambousik every Christmas, rolled and patted each loaf of Syrian bread, made fresh yogurt every week, preserved grape leaves from the backyard grape vines, and roasted eggplant for baba ganough to a smoky blackness.
Anyways, I learned about Lebanese food from Pop and Sithee—standing side-by-side, elbow-to-elbow with experts, no recipes or cookbooks. Both my daughter and daughter-in-law make killer cabbage rolls, kibbee, and loobia for family birthdays and my sister’s family food traditions include both dolmades and stuffed zucchini. Love for good ethnic food survives bad life decisions, seeps into future generations, and comes along with each move to a different city. I find Lebanese restaurants wherever we travel, but Houston is the proverbial pot of gold. Yelp lists fourteen restaurants serving Syrian/Lebanese/Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food inside The Loop, with heavy concentrations on Hillcroft Avenue in West Houston and on Almeda, near our apartment. Here are three I’ve tried.
M&M Grill—a casual, fast-food, Mediterranean/Mexican fusion place with a menu that includes mango-habanero burgers, kafta burgers, chicken kabobs, burritos, and falafel wrapped in grilled flat bread.
Fadi’s—a Mediterranean restaurant with a cafeteria-style buffet heavy on salads and vegetables, house-made pita and pastries, five types of hummus, chicken, lamb, and beef shwarma, and vegan and vegetarian options.
Shwarma King—in the Arabic portion of Hillcroft Avenue, a Southwestern Houston neighborhood that takes you to a different country on each block. Stand in line to choose from four shwarma cones, five halal meat options, stuffed kibbee, falafel, nine vegetable choices, house-baked flat bread, and a condiment table with sauces and pickled vegetables.
Every time I make cabbage rolls I hear Sithee saying to Pop and me, “Yallah! Finish up! Put in the lemon juice and garlic already”, so she could go in the dining room, have a cigarette, and watch As the World Turns. I so enjoyed those times, but I wish I had taken more time, poured myself another cup of coffee, and stayed a little bit longer.
When I made this for staff meal at City Restaurant in LA, the boys in the back used it to make great tacos.
Imjudadah (Lentils and Rice)
- 1 cup small, brown lentils
- 8 c. water, chicken stock or combination
- 1⁄2 c. Uncle Ben’s Rice
- 1 large fine-diced onion
- 1 T. salt
- 1 t. black pepper
- 1⁄2 c. olive oil
- 3 T. minced garlic
Cook lentils with water until half done—probably 30 minutes.
Add rice and continue to cook until both are done—probably 20 minutes more.
Sauté onions, salt, and garlic in oil until soft and golden brown. Pour onion/garlic mixture over cooked lentils and rice. Serve with yogurt.