A day of thanks. Gratitude is the attitude wherever you’re from

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. November 2018 print issue. 

Before I moved to Atlanta in 1997, I had a picture-postcard image of Thanksgiving — a Caucasian family wearing plaid shirts gathered around a big table covered with a dozen delectable dishes. There was always a whole pumpkin and orange tones to signify autumn. I knew there was a cooked turkey at the center of the festive spread (though I had never seen or tasted turkey growing up in India), but that was all I knew about Thanksgiving.

It wasn’t until I was a college freshman, when an elderly couple invited me to their home on Howell Mill Road for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, that I got the full picture. They roasted a whole stuffed turkey and served creamy mashed potatoes, green beans with mushrooms, whipped sweet potatoes, tart cranberry dressing, and pumpkin pie. Then they told me the story of Thanksgiving — in the 1600s, the Wampanoag Indians taught the Pilgrims, who had sailed to the eastern coast of United States on the Mayflower, how to cultivate the land, and in appreciation, the Pilgrims cooked a “thank you” dinner. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared “Thanksgiving” a national holiday, and ever since, Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November each year, when families and friends gather for dinner. What we ate at my first Thanksgiving dinner in Atlanta are some of the dishes typically prepared (most of which I had never tasted before). My hosts asked me to say aloud what I was thankful for, and the three of us dived into my first Thanksgiving meal.

Over the next few years, I discovered a group of international orphans (that’s what we called ourselves, those who were transplants from other countries) who had a potluck dinner party on Thanksgiving Day. Most of us were single students and young professionals. Each one would bring a dish representing their country. We had a globally-inspired feast!

Once I started working a corporate job, I discovered Thanksgiving was also a long weekend and a great time to travel (except you must deal with the crowds). My friends who had moved to Atlanta from elsewhere in the U.S. were always planning a trip home over the Thanksgiving holidays. Since my husband and I had no other home in the states, we started using this opportunity to take vacations. This is when I also realized you could get a Thanksgiving turkey dinner practically anywhere in the U.S., even if you were unable to cook it yourself. I remember having “turkey and fixings” at the Universal Studios cafeteria, at a diner in Gatlinburg, even 30,000 feet in the air onboard a Delta flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta.

I also discovered people would get up very early in the morning on the day after Thanksgiving to stand in line at Walmart, Best Buy, and shopping malls for “Black Friday” deals on electronics and clothing. I didn’t see the point in waking up at 5 a.m. to go shopping, but my friends informed me they got very good deals! I didn’t quite get the concept at first. You have just finished being grateful for everything you have but feel the urgent need to go buy more stuff. The only time I indulged in this custom was when Nordstrom gave out free pumpkin pies with every purchase (and you didn’t need to come early for that, or spend a lot).

Now that I have spent more of my life in the U.S., Thanksgiving has become an important part of my American life. I have hosted dinners at my home, cooking turkeys and dozens of sides myself, and invited international students and friends who find themselves alone. The holiday is more of a reminder to be grateful, than to overindulge in food or retail therapy.

Commemorating a bountiful harvest is not a concept unique to the Pilgrims, as some version of it can be found in other parts of the world. People across Germany, Grenada, Korea, Japan, Liberia, and Norfolk Island have been known to celebrate some version of a day of remembrance — of giving gratitude for a good harvest, of counting one’s blessings or thanking the labor force — by enjoying a feast with family and friends. Many cultures have parades, carnivals, music, and dancing to celebrate abundant food with appreciation.

Other transplanted Atlantans have brought their own perspective to this holiday of giving thanks.

An English Canadian who grew up in Toronto, Fairyal Halim was accustomed to celebrating Thanksgiving as a day to give gratitude, rather than in the context of a historical event. Our northern neighbor has been celebrating the holiday long before us and has similar cooking traditions, though they celebrate it in on the second Monday in October. A U.S. resident for almost three decades, Halim now celebrates two Thanksgivings with her family — a Canadian one in October, and an American version in November.

Says Halim, “To this day, Thanksgiving remains grounded in the recognition of our immense blessings of family, friends, and gratitude for it all. It is really a time to focus on all that we are blessed with and to not take it for granted. I make a point of reaching out to family and/or friends who may find themselves alone on Thanksgiving.” She remembers hosting turkey dinners for her son’s college friends who were unable to make it home for Thanksgiving. The turkey came from a halal (slaughtered according to the principals of Islam) butcher, as Halim’s family is Muslim.

For Halim, Thanksgiving emphasizes the coming together of different people and being aware of the abundance in one’s life. “As a Muslim, I find great resonance of values that are important to me in the celebration of Thanksgiving. It is the perfect synthesis of our North American culture and religion. The concept of gratitude and thankfulness to God is foremost for Muslims. They are to be ever mindful of their blessings, to not take anything for granted, and to give thanks by saying ‘Alhamdulillah,’ meaning ‘all praise is for God.’ Thanksgiving is not limited to just one day for Muslims,” she says. “It’s is an attitude of gratitude.”

Cali, Colombia, native Cesar Restrepo came to Cleveland, Georgia, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music. “I knew that my brothers and family living in Miami celebrated Thanksgiving, but I thought it was just a break they had before Christmas. I also knew about the special prices on pretty much everything. For me it was just a mere shopping holiday,” he recalls of his first brush with the holiday.

PREPPING: Cooking the paella. courtesy of Cesar Restreppo

PREPPING: Cooking the paella. courtesy of Cesar Restreppo

For his first turkey dinner, Restrepo was invited by a Colombian family who served him a typical American Thanksgiving dinner along with tamales, a customary dish at every Colombian holiday. He remembers taking a moment before the meal to express what each of them was thankful for, especially for the blessings this country had given them. Twenty years later, Restrepo continues the tradition with his wife and kids, cooking all day, inviting friends over, and reflecting on the good fortune they have in their lives.

“For me, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to gather with other immigrants and make them feel welcome in a country that is not ours but is kind enough to host us. It’s also an act of kindness and peace,” says Restrepo. Having grown up in a relatively poor country, he doesn’t like the extravagant feasts where a lot of food is wasted.

Content writer and blogger Lakshmi Devi Jagad moved from Mumbai to Atlanta in 2003. She, too, had no knowledge of the historic significance of Thanksgiving before arriving in the U.S., but she had heard about the incredible sales the holiday brought with it. “I believe Thanksgiving has been monetized for many years now!” she observes.

Over the years, it has become a day when she and her husband catch up with friends over a good meal and conversation, a quiet and peaceful time, Jagad says, for “a social gathering, a fun get-together, an opportunity to relax.”

Being vegetarian, Jagad must forgo the indispensable turkey and opt for an elaborate vegetable biryani, a layered Indian rice dish with saffron and nuts that is served with a side of cucumber and yogurt raita. “We prepare a huge pot of it as our version of the turkey,” she says.

Father George Mahklouf, an Orthodox priest from the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank, has also integrated Thanksgiving into his annual rituals. “Whether Palestinians, Arabs, or other immigrants from overseas coming to America, many try to follow the traditions of the country they choose to live in. I lived in Yonkers, NY, then Long Island, and finally Atlanta. Wherever I went, Arabs celebrated Thanksgiving. Why? I don’t know, though most probably see it as a gathering of family and friends.”

Mahklouf says the story of the Native Americans and the Pilgrims is familiar to him. “It reminds me of our similar Palestinian story as native indigenous people of the land of Canaan who were displaced by Ashkenazi Jews coming from Poland, Russia, and other places in the world to live in our own homes and take over our businesses and orchards.” Mahklouf, who breaks his own Nativity Fast “in order to please people (at Thanksgiving)” for a feast he never celebrated in Palestine, says his thankfulness, like Halim’s, is not limited to the holiday. “We thank God and all who do us favors, without having a special day to thank God and others.”

Thanksgiving in the U.S. has traditionally been a historic celebration, with religious overtones for many, but today it is celebrated by immigrants from around the world, regardless of their religious or cultural beliefs or ethnic backgrounds, who have chosen to make the United States their home. The holiday may have evolved from a day of giving thanks around the dinner table to include watching afternoon football games and starting the holiday shopping season, but its essence — celebrating an abundance of food after a fall harvest, breaking bread together with others, and appreciating one’s blessings — has endured over time.

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta

Where to Discover Persian Food and Culture in Atlanta

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. September 2018. 

“Get yourself a Persian friend. Just show interest in their culture, and the next thing you know, they will invite you over to their house,” says Samira Shakib Bregeth, an Iranian-American English teacher at Roswell High School and advisor for news and opinion website VOX. She and others I spoke with assured me that Persian people in Atlanta love to interact with people from other countries and welcome them to learn about Persian culture.

Bregeth has seen the Persian Festival in Atlanta grow from a few hundred to over 13,000 attendees, transitioning from Red Top mountain to Piedmont Park as its new venue. There are tents made to look like a bazaar with food, vendors, music, and dance, and it is always held on the first day of spring, which also marks Nowruz or Persian New Year. Festivities are held for 13 days at the Persian Cultural Center – Kanoon. These include a shopping festival that offers things Bregeth says are hard to make at home. “This is where you can buy things to put on your haftseen (ceremonial table) ),” she explains, “such as fruit, puddings, coins, candles, painted eggs — each symbolizing spring or renewal.”

Because their new year symbolizes the rebirth of nature, Persian families and friends spend a lot of time outdoors during this time. “You will see us at the Chattahoochee River enjoying picnics eating kotlets made with meat and potatoes; Persian sandwiches made with French bread, mint, and feta cheese; and lots of watermelon,” Bregeth says. They also make a bonfire and jump over it to get rid of sickness and to “burn away” the past year’s bad energy and welcome the new.

Leila Safay was homesick when she first moved to Atlanta in 2010. She, too, saw Kanoon as an opportunity to meet people from her community, and she enrolled her kids at the center for Farsi language and piano lessons. “We celebrate winter solstice, called Shab-e Yalda, by getting together with family and friends, eating watermelon, seeds and nuts, and predicting our fortunes from the poetry of Divan-e Hafez (a book of divination),” she explains. “Here people postpone the celebration to the weekend and host Yalda parties at their homes.”

Both Safay and Bregeth are happy to go out of their way for the Persian products found at the Super Global International market, a Persian grocery store that started in a strip mall and has expanded to three locations over the years. It carries imported products that are found in most Persian kitchens — saffron, cardamom, turmeric, loose-leaf teas, Persian rice, lavash bread, traditional cheese, pickled cucumbers, sweets, and more. Safay,  who left the country to be an independent woman and is now a successful realtor, says the spices and foods “just taste different, and make you nostalgic for growing up in Iran.”

When not cooking at home, both women like to go to Rumi’s Kitchen for a meal. “Everyone loves it, Persian or not!” says Bregeth. “It’s consistently delicious.” The establishment has grown into a hip restaurant that the Persian community is proud of, known for its quiet, intimate meals featuring favorites such as Zafron’s koobideh kabobs and ghormeh sabzi (an Iranian herb stew)

Leila’s 12-year-old daughter Jasmine, who was born in the U.S., gives me some tips on Persian etiquette: “We allow elders to talk first, eat first, and we show them utmost respect. We don’t address men and women by their first names, but call them ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle.’ Also, when you meet someone for the first time, you may shake hands and bow, but close friends air-kiss on both cheeks (mostly not to spoil one’s makeup),” she adds with humor. It is also customary to take sweets and flowers when invited to a home, and to call to thank your guests on the following day.

Making friends in the Persian community is easy. It starts with a passing conversation, a slight compliment, and ends in a dinner invite and long-lasting friendships.

Where to Experience Persian Culture in Atlanta

Grocery Stores:

Super Global International Food Market
11235 Alpharetta Hwy., Ste. 109, Roswell. 770-619-2966.
The go-to grocery store for Persian ingredients such as loose-leaf tea, flatbreads, and baklava, at reasonable prices.

Shahrzad 
6435-A Roswell Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-257-9045.
http://shahrzad.com
One of the oldest Persian grocery stores in Atlanta, founded in 1985. They moved from Doraville to Sandy Springs and sell herbs, spices, pastries, cold cuts, etc.

Restaurants:

Rumi’s Kitchen
Sandy Springs: 6112 Roswell Road, Atlanta. 404-477-2100.
Avalon: 7105 Avalon Blvd., Alpharetta. 678-534-8855.
www.rumiskitchen.com
Modern Persian restaurant popular with locals and out-of-towners. It has an open kitchen and an impressive wine list.

Zafron
236 Johnson Ferry Road N.E., Sandy Springs. 404-255-7402.
www.persianrestaurantsandysprings.com
Most popular restaurant among the Persian community, serving traditional cuisine in an elegant setting.

Sufi’s
1814 Peachtree St. N.W. Atlanta. 404-888-9699.
http://sufisatlanta.com
Good option for in-towners craving kabobs, Cornish hen, and aromatic rice.

Divan Restaurant and Hookah Lounge
3125 Piedmont Road, Atlanta. 404-467-4297.
https://www.divanatlanta.com
In 2017, Iranian chef Peyman Rostami returned the restaurant to its traditional roots, adding a modern twist. He formerly cooked for the King of Oman and has a culinary show on Persian TV Channel 7.

Culture and Festivals:

Persian Cultural Center of Atlanta – Kanoon
3146 Reps Miller Road N.W., Norcross. 404-303-3030.
https://www.atlantapcc.org
To learn Persian language, celebrate Persian holidays such as Mehregan, Yalda and Nowruz, as well as special Province, Poetry, and Music nights.

Atlanta Persian Festival
Piedmont Park, 1320 Monroe Dr. N.E., Atlanta.
http://atlantapersianfestival.com
Annual cultural event held in spring at Piedmont Park showcasing music, ethnic food, crafts, and kids’ activities. Free to public.

Nowruz Party
Various locations.
https://www.eventbrite.com/o/bavard-entertainment-inc-15703065356
Ballroom-style ticketed event that brings together Persians, Afgans, Kurds, Turks, and whoever celebrates Nowruz. Parties organized by the Persian Cultural Center of Atlanta feature folklore dances, live performances, food, drinks, and more.

Services:

Joseph & Friends (hair salon and spa)
Five locations. www.josephandfriends.com
Started by Iranian immigrant Joseph Golshani, this multicultural, full-service salon has been around since 1989.

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta

From Tunisia, with Love

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. April 2018.

Chef Lotfi Chabaane spends each day at a retirement community called Parc at Duluth. At 60, he’s the place’s de facto spring chicken, telling stories, dancing, and cooking for the seniors who live there. What he’s cooking are Tunisian, Indian, French, Malaysian, and German dishes, but his patrons often don’t know that. Chabaane disguises so-called “ethnic” foods with familiar descriptions, and serves them to people who may never have eaten international food before. That’s his mission: to expose retired folks to brand new cuisines in the most accessible way possible. And thus, to share a bit of his own life.

Born in the small coastal town of Menzel Temime, Tunisia, located on Africa’s northernmost tip, Chabaane began working from a young age in order to help support his family. He lost his father at just five years old, and, as the eldest son, had to step up and hustle his way through busy markets selling his mother’s lemonade and brik, a traditional stuffed pastry wrapped in phyllo dough and deep-fried.

“I would work from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and bring home 50 cents every day,” Chabaane recalls. His other chores included fetching water from a hand pump and buying food at the markets for his mom to cook. “She would send me back if I did not get the right cut of meat, which is why I came to know so much about food.”

Growing up in a house full of women, Chabaane learned to cook by watching them. He would dry pasta, tomatoes, and olives; cure meats; preserve lemons. He also made some money shelling peanuts, seeding peppers, and plucking chickens for the neighboring farmers. Life was not easy, but it laid the foundation for his future career.

After attending a presidential sponsored high school in Tunisia, Chabaane went on to earn a degree in engineering but could not find a job in his field due to the country’s unstable economy. Instead, he worked at a resort doing anything he was asked — busing tables, serving drinks, folding chairs. Then one day, he met an English couple who invited him to work at their hotel in the seaside town of Devon. Starting as a bartender, Chabaane trained at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay as a waiter, and then a maître d’. He enjoyed entertaining people with food, and became particularly fond of tableside cooking — flambéing steak Diane and crêpes Suzette, carving lamb, tossing Caesar salads. “That’s when I realized I could cook!” he says, with a laugh. He also realized that his new skill set could act as his ticket around the world.

Leaving Tunisia and moving to the UK had already been a culture shock of sorts. Chabaane didn’t speak English fluently and eating fish and chips didn’t satisfy his Northern African palate. But the cooking skills he’d developed, coupled with a strong ambition to learn about the world’s cuisines, got him a job on the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship. As an onboard sommelier and maître d’, he sailed around the world three times. “I tasted caviar, foie gras, and smoked salmon for the first time,” he recalls. “I was the happiest person in the world!”

While Chabaane worked hard on the ship and was often seasick, he looked forward to tasting the cuisine at each port city along the ship’s route. “I would go to small local restaurants and eat the best paella in Spain, grilled octopus in Lisbon, tamales in Acapulco, and tandoori chicken in Mumbai,” he says. “I was building my knowledge of food and realized I wanted to open my own restaurant someday.”

Chabaane finally got a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, in 1992. From there, he snagged gigs at the Department of Defense in Germany, then a French restaurant in Florida. He catered alongside Oprah’s former chef Art Smith in Tallahassee, and headed the dining room at Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta. Eventually, he’d made a big enough name for himself to open two Atlanta restaurants: Couscous, a Tunisian bistro in Morningside, and Perla Taqueria, a Mexican taco joint on Piedmont Road. But after five years of running the two restaurants, Chabaane decided to close down both. There was a revolution going on in Tunisia, one that would eventually mark the start of the Arab Spring, and he needed to go back there to be with his family.

TUNISIAN CHEF: Chef Lotfi Chabaane of Parc Duluth. Photo by Erik Meadows.

TUNISIAN CHEF: Chef Lotfi Chabaane of Parc Duluth. Photo by Erik Meadows.

But eventually, Chabaane returned to Atlanta, a city that’s become his second home. As dining director and executive chef for Parc at Duluth, he spends his days conversing in multiple languages with the retirees, creating eclectic menus using fresh and often unfamiliar ingredients, and telling stories of his world travels over platters of chicken satay, French ratatouille, chicken curry, and black truffle risotto. “I am no longer a chef,” he tells me as he prepares to give the residents a spirited lecture on legumes. “I am an educator and an entertainer.”

In February 2018, Chabaane hosted a fundraiser for my Atlanta-based nonprofit, Go Eat Give, where he cooked homestyle Tunisian dishes such as spicy carrot salad, chicken tagine stew in a traditional clay pot, and vegetable couscous. In this way, the chef was able to recreate his childhood memories of eating big weekend lunches, sharing stories, and surrounding himself with people. Though some of the attendees were generally familiar with the region, none had ever tasted  traditional Tunisian food before, which stands apart for its European influences. Chabaane was proud to serve it to them.

“I have been cooking for over half a century,” he says. “Now I want to share what I have learned.”

First Look: Rose + Rye

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. December 2017. 

Seewai Sayavong welcomes me into a 12,000-square-foot Victorian mansion overlooking 15th street. “Tennessee Williams has lived here!” she says. Upon further research, I find that no one is quite sure whether this factoid is true or not, but the building, often referred to as “the castle,” was indeed a residence for many Atlanta artists back in the day. Sayavong, who hails from Laos and was once general manager for Thai fine dining concepts Nan and Tuk Tuk, gives me a cheerful tour of the newly renovated space. It’s clear she enjoys her new gig as assistant manager for Rose + Rye quite a lot.

For owner Thaddeus Keefe, who also owns the atmospheric 1KEPT Kitchen + Bar, the national historic site was an obvious choice for his new restaurant. “There’s always an artistic overtone to the concepts we create,” says Keefe, a writer and painter himself. “This is more about the painter and the muse which plays intricately to the history of the building.”

The space spans four stories, each with original hardwood floors, dramatic stone walls, and contemporary white and dark merlot contrasting furniture. The ground level, known as “the Grotto,” serves as a bar and lounge area where Keefe plans to showcase Atlanta artists and project classic black and white movies, keeping true to the building’s origins. One can totally picture a bunch of aficionados standing on the large patio overlooking Woodruff Arts Center, drinking wine and talking about the latest exhibits. On our tour, Sayavong also shows me the bedrooms upstairs; each is marked by a state emblem and all are now open for private parties of various sizes.

DSC3414REMADE CLASSIC: Chicken mole with braised chicken thigh, crispy rice cake, and wilted kale.JOEFF DAVIS

Rose + Rye boasts a vibrant cocktail menu with select wines and cocktails named after the works of Ernest Hemingway: Garden of Eden, Men Without Women, A Farewell to Arms. “We wanted to open with drink names that referenced Hemingway out of respect for the great one,” Keefe says. “As our drink list changes and evolves, you’ll see additional authors’ names and pieces of work involved.”

My server, Kat, recommends True at First Light ($14), a vodka mojito with champagne bubbles. She tells me that the staff gets a free drink at the end of each shift and this one, both solid and refreshing, is a popular choice. If you are not a whiskey drinker, the signature Rose + RYE ($13) may convert you. Delicate rose water, spicy star anise, and bitter orange peel balance off the edginess of the rye.

Despite its male ownership, Rose + Rye is run by an all-women culinary team, from its executive chef to its general manager. “It happened naturally,” says Keefe, noting that he saw a unique opportunity to showcase feminine talent and diversity in an industry often ruled by men.

DSC3592DRAMATIC ENTRY: Midtown’s “castle” was built by Ferdinand McMillan the early 1900s.JOEFF DAVIS

The seasonal menu pulls from the culinary team’s various backgrounds. Executive chef Lindsay Owens has been in the restaurant industry since the age of 15 and recently moved to Atlanta from Minneapolis, where she cooked at the Lynhall, Tilia, Unideli, and Creamery Café. Her French toast entrée ($14) is a play on a breakfast classic made with pickled chanterelle mushrooms, Parmesan cream, and tarragon on slices of country bread pan-fried with cream, garlic, black pepper, and vinegar. “I love to try new techniques and flavor combinations,” Owens says. “I play with food until it tastes great.”

Sous chef Anu Adebara draws on a Nigerian upbringing to bring her own spin to classic dishes. For her chicken mole ($22), she uses corn tortillas, a nice balance of fresh and dried spices, and tomatoes to make a rich chocolaty sauce, which she serves on a bed of crispy rice cakes. “I grew up eating West African cuisine, but I didn’t want to scare people off with the strong spices,” she says. “So, I created dishes that are approachable yet still stay true to the integrity of the dish.”

DSC3434FROM THE SEA: Seared yellowfin tuna, haricot vert, cured olive puree, and smoked yogurt.JOEFF DAVIS

The braised duck ($14) appetizer is an upscale take on typical barbecue, marinated in sherry vinegar and three kinds of peppers (pasilla, guajillo, and ancho chili) and served atop crisp polenta cakes and pickled red onions. The combination of spicy, sour, and sweet illustrates Keefe’s “yin and yang — rose and rye, get it?” theme well. Glazed pork belly ($14) is tenderized with soy sauce for four hours and complements the accompanying Parisian gnocchi. Together, the pork fat and velvety dumplings melt in my mouth like savory profiteroles.

Seared snapper ($26) is a bit overcooked and has little flavor, but the rehydrated cherries add a pleasantly sweet touch. Seared tuna ($28) offers the unusual flavor combinations of olive paste and yogurt.

DSC3364WOOD AND STONE: The Rose + Rye team recently renovated the historic Midtown building, creating a series of bars and dining areas.JOEFF DAVIS

Desserts, made in house by pastry chef Charity Everett (formerly of 1KEPT and Revel Pastry Company), also buck tradition. Buttermilk panna cotta ($9) is a bit runny but has surprise fig jam on the bottom that you can sop up with house-made rosemary cookies. A dark chocolate tart ($13) with bacon fat popcorn is bold and bitter with a nice crunch.

While Rose + Rye’s menu is still coming into its own, the restaurant’s concept inspires.

“It’s extremely empowering to have people that understand food in a way a woman understands it,” says Adebara. “It’s like a sisterhood where we take each other’s’ opinion seriously and thrive in a creative environment.” Adds chef Owens, “We’re a take-no-crap team and get things done. I love everything about it!”

Rose + Rye, 87 15th St. N.E. 404-500-5980. www.roserye.com

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. December 2017. 

From Syria, with love

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. October 2017.

“Refugee cookies!” a 10-year old Syrian boy screamed from the front porch of an Oakhurst home. The shortbread style cookies, known in the Middle East as mamool and flavored with orange blossom, dates and pistachios, were an instant hit. In less than three hours, the entire batch sold: 45 dozen cookies in all. That was last fall.

Khaled and Ruwaida (last names withheld for safety reasons) are refugees from Syria. Along with their two young kids, Mohamad and Zainab, they lived in Jordan for four years, before coming to Georgia in July of 2016, sponsored by New American Pathways and co-sponsored by Holy Trinity Church. Back in Damascus, they owned two apartments and two electronics shops. Now, they live in a small rented apartment in Decatur. Khaled works a minimum wage job and the family scrapes by.

I meet Ruwaida, now 29, at the home of Amanda Avutu, a friend and advisor to the family. When a mutual acquaintance posted on Decatur’s Neighborhood Facebook page that he was looking for help to clean up an apartment for an incoming refugee family, Avutu and her kids volunteered. She offered to help stock their kitchen and drop off hot meals. Having no connection to Syria before, she began her job with a Google search: ‘What do Syrians eat?’ Then she purchased random items she wasn’t sure they would use. “I bought pomegranate molasses, orange blossom water, sesame, cooking oil, dried legumes and rice,” she recalls. “Later I discovered, there’s no way I can shop rice for [Ruwaida]!” She laughs at how particular Syrians are about their rice.

DSC0060FAR FROM HOME: Ruwaida points out the Syrian city of Damascus, where she is from, on a map.JOEFF DAVIS

We sit in Avutu’s living room sipping cardamom-spiced black coffee and munching on a plate of homemade mamool cookies. Wearing a head scarf and long dress, Ruwaida mostly smiles, shy to respond in her limited English, but Amanda translates key words to Arabic and encourages Ruwaida to express herself. “Cookies!” she exclaims, making hand gestures when I ask her about her new business, Sweet, Sweet Syria. She tells me she has been making these traditional Middle Eastern cookies at home since childhood and has sweet memories attached to them, hence the name. But until recently, she never thought anyone would actually pay for them.

Sweet, Sweet Syria’s humble beginnings took place in a similar setting. When Ruwaida’s family moved to Decatur, neighbors and community members came to welcome her, bringing food, toys, books and helping to set up her new apartment. Ruwaida would often offer homemade cookies and coffee to her new friends as a gesture of thanks. Her mother’s wooden cookie molds were one of just a small handful of things that she could bring from Syria when she fled, and serve as a bittersweet reminder of home.

“Wow! You need to sell these at the Oakhurst Porchfest,” one of the visitors remarked, encouraging Ruwaida to set up a table at the upcoming neighborhood music festival, where neighbors play music on their porches. As a traditional Syrian woman, Ruwaida has never worked outside her home or earned her own salary before. It was hard at first, she says, to grasp the concept of selling her food for money. But friends and family convinced her to take a chance. And when her cookies sold out before the music even started, she realized she just might have something: an opportunity to make money and help support her family as they acclimate to their new home.

DSC0193EAT ME: Sweet, Sweet Syria offers samples of mamool cookies at their Emory Farmers Market booth every Tuesday.JOEFF DAVIS

Over the next few months, Avutu played an instrumental role in helping Ruwaida get her business off the ground, along with a team of volunteer advisors. They applied for a 14-week small business training program called Start:Me, run by Emory’s Goizueta Business School. Avutu accompanied Ruwaida to every class. They made a business plan, applied for various licenses and studied for the ServSafe exam. In the beginning, they would communicate through Google translator. Now, Avutu takes Arabic classes on Fridays and Ruwaida takes English classes on Tuesdays.

A recent GoFundMe campaign has allowed Ruwaida to rent a commercial kitchen, where she bakes her family recipes and supplies to local coffee shops and farmers markets. Ultimately, she’d like to have her own small restaurant where she and her family can cook together. Until then, she’s learning how to take orders, handle money and interact socially. Delicate shortbreads with coconut, chewy sesame rolled dates and strawberry pressed cookies are some of her most popular offerings. Sweet, Sweet Syria trio ($2.50) and half dozen ($5) samplers are available for purchase at Oakhurst’s Kavarna, Ebrik Coffee Room and Emory Farmers Market on Tuesdays. Orders by the dozen ($10) are also available at the Emory Farmer’s Market and can be placed online.

DSC0222TASTE AND SEE: An Emory student samples a cookie at the Sweet, Sweet Syria booth.JOEFF DAVIS

The family also hosts invitation-only gatherings at private homes to share a traditional Syrian meal. Here, they are forced to practice English, meet new people, and further understand the American lifestyle, including seeing how things work in other kitchens. “It is important to make a human connection and understand who they are,” Avutu says. Over the last few months, her kids have become friends with Ruwaida’s children as they get together for homework, sports and celebrations.

Near the end of our conversation, I ask Ruwaida what she likes most about being here in Georgia. She giggles and rattles off the names of several people who have come forward to welcome her and her family, and helped her get her business off the ground. Most of them were just strangers a few months ago. Now, they are friends.

For more information or to place a cookie order, visit sweetsweetsyria.com.

Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. October 2017.

First Look: Jai Ho

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. April 2017.

Into Atlanta’s ever-widening ring of regional and modern Indian restaurants steps Jai Ho Indian Kitchen and Bar. Located in the former Madre + Mason spot in Morningside, the restaurant’s name means “let there be victory” in Hindi, perhaps in hopes that it will fare better than its locational predecessors.

Jai Ho sits alongside Piedmont Park, near the dog run and not far from the Beltline. The outdoor patio offers a welcome bit of nature in the middle of the city. Inside is spacious, with seating for 100. Grab a stool at the huge modern bar or at a table beside the large glass windows. Plush red drapes are drawn to let in lots of natural light and views of the park. Moorish chandeliers against pale yellow walls give the interior a warm, casual feel. With a backdrop of American pop music and Fox News on overhead television screens, it hardly feels like a typical Indian restaurant.

“We are an Indian-focused restaurant with French cooking techniques,” says Jai Ho’s co-owner Paul Nair, a native of Mumbai and owner of the local upscale market chain Savi Provisions, which has four locations dotted around Atlanta. Paul refers to the cuisine of Pondicherry, a chic seaside province in southern India that became a French East India Company trading post in the 17th century and remained so for many years. The city passed frequently between a number of European colonial powers, but the French left behind the most distinct aspects of their culture, from the architecture to the cuisine — incorporating French methods with Indian ingredients.

Paul, along with former Hilton Head-based chef Anish Nair and chef Vijeesh Parayil, who has cooked at restaurants in India, New York and Ohio, is trying to introduce this Indo-French cuisine to Atlanta’s dining scene. “We wanted to expand our current offerings in a more sit-down format,” says Paul of the team’s decision to expand beyond Savi. “At Jai Ho, you can hang out with friends after work, sip on draft beers and munch on small plates.”

SUNNY SEATS: Jai Ho's interior looks out onto Piedmont Park.SUNNY SEATS: Jai Ho’s interior looks out onto Piedmont Park.JOEFF DAVIS

The two-page menu covers a lot of ground, from soups and salads to “street eats” to familiar Indian comfort foods and regional specialties. Calamari Cochin ($10) plays homage to chef Parayil’s home state of Kerala (Cochin, also known as Kochi, is a major port city in the state), where spicy coastal cuisine is the norm. Bite-size pieces of squid are battered with chickpea flour and coconut milk, flash fried to tenderness and topped with tempered nutty mustard seeds, sweet tomato puree, bell peppers and a squeeze of lemon juice. The spinach chaat ($8) is more of a crisp spinach leaf pakora or fritter, drizzled with a homemade blend of ground garam masala. How each leaf stays so perfectly flat is a mystery to me.

The mussels pepper fry ($11) is perhaps one of the most interesting dishes in town and an ideal marriage of French and Indian flavors. Meat is shelled and stir-fried with ginger, curry leaves, crushed peppers and coconut flakes and served on a bed of boiled yucca, offering a sweet and spicy tango on the taste buds.

In Pondicherry, curries are traded out for herb-rich sauces made with traditionally French ingredients such as wine and cream. Vindaloo ($15-17), originally a Portuguese creation derived from a pork and red wine stew called carne de vinha d’alhos, maintains some of its integrity at Jai Ho. The meat (choose from chicken, lamb, shrimp and goat) is simmered overnight with red wine and lots of tomatoes, creating a tangy, acidic flavor with a kick of fiery chili at the end. Chef’s specials come with garlic naan, biryani spiced rice and a garnish of grilled carrots and asparagus.

COLORFUL PLATE: Tilapia wrapped in banana leaves at Jai HoCOLORFUL PLATE: Tilapia wrapped in banana leaves at Jai HoJOEFF DAVIS

The Cochin snapper ($24) finds a rich creamy shrimp sauce with lots of onions and turmeric crowned atop a whole spice-rubbed red snapper cooked in a tandoor clay oven. The fish and shrimp have two distinct flavors, but somehow it works. Mughal lamb shank ($22) is marinated with fresh mint, cilantro, rosemary and green chilies, then cooked sous-vide, a popular French method where the meat is vacuum-sealed and placed in a hot water bath. As a result, the meat is tender and the juices remain intact.

Healthy items are plenty, and well spelled out — there’s an entire section of the menu devoted to vegans. Paneer rollari ($19) is one of the chef’s own creations, consisting of cooked spinach leaves with grated cottage cheese melted in, served on a bed of masala mashed potatoes. While vegetarian and gluten-free, the dish disappoints in the visual and flavor departments.

SWEET SIPS: Taj Explosion cocktailSWEET SIPS: Taj Explosion cocktailJOEFF DAVIS

The Nairs take pride in their beverage selection, sourcing many items directly through Savi Provisions. Choose from a variety of craft beers, wines, spirits, cocktails and non-alcoholic options like lassis, chai and madras coffee ($3). The Bombay Cooler cocktail tastes like iced mint chutney in a glass, and the tamarind margarita is sweet and tangy.

Desserts are made in-house with innovative blends of Indian and western styles. The gulab jamun pie ($7) is a traditional plain homemade pie crust with whole gulab jamuns (fried doughnut balls — a popular Indian dessert) in the filling. Pistachio kulfi ($7) is Indian-style ice cream served with spiced pound cake.

Jai Ho is currently open for dinner but will soon be serving lighter fare for lunch, as well as drink-paired dinners and weekend brunches. Atlanta’s dining scene has lately welcomed such regionally-focused concepts with modern presentations, and one hopes Jai Ho will live up to its name and find a place among them.

560 Dutch Valley Road N.E. 404-458-6888. www.jaihoatlanta.com

Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. April 2017.

Global Eats: Royal Myanmar Cuisine

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. March 2017. 

From the outside, Royal Myanmar Cuisine looks like nothing more than a drive-through converted into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, standing by itself in a quiet commercial plaza with a strip club, a liquor store and a few questionable-looking eateries. The interior of the former Crazy Wings is also very plain, with tiled floors, red counters, several televisions and casual seating for 20. But the reason to come here is not the ambiance; it’s the food, and the people who make it.

Zo Mawi, who goes by “Aa,” is a soft-spoken and petite woman with dark hair and a shy smile. Born and raised in the Chin region of Myanmar (also known as Burma), Mawi is the youngest of eight children. Her father died when she was only three months old. As the country underwent decades of war and recession, most men, like Mawi’s brothers, ended up migrating to other countries in search of employment, generally hired into blue-collar, often undocumented laborer positions in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. Left behind to take care of all her nieces and nephews, whose parents had either moved or passed away, Mawi managed to finish high school in the capital of Yangon before immigrating as a refugee to Guam, and then to the United States.

Upon arrival, Mawi made her way to Clarkston through a refugee resettlement program, took ESL classes, enrolled in Georgia Perimeter College (though she had to drop out due to family responsibilities) and worked with her brother at a sushi bar. She eventually worked her way up to managing a sushi franchise inside a Fresh Market store. Since 2001, Mawi has not only struggled to make her new home halfway across the world, but has done so while raising her late brother’s children. Now that they are off to college, she can finally do something she’s dreamt of since she was a young girl back in Myanmar: start her own business.

OODLES OF NOODLES: Myanmar noodle salad at Royal Myanmar.OODLES OF NOODLES: Myanmar noodle salad at Royal Myanmar.JOEFF DAVIS

Through mutual friends, Mawi was introduced to Nyan Aung, another Burmese refugee who came to Indianapolis in 2015 via Malaysia. Together, the two friends decided to open one of metro Atlanta’s only Burmese restaurants. Since most of Georgia’s Burmese community lives in Clarkston, the location made sense. Aung’s mother, who once had a restaurant in Yangon, trained the duo for a few months and provided her own recipes for their new venture.

Burmese cuisine carries influences from India, China and Thailand. “People are familiar with Asian noodles, but ours is very different and delicious!” says Mawi. “We are also the only ones that serve tea leaf salad.” She’s referring to a classic Burmese dish, known locally as lah pet thoke: a mixture of fermented green tea leaves, peanuts, fried garlic, dried shrimp and sesame seeds ($7.50 at Royal Myanmar). The result is a distinctive balance of four primary flavors — sour, salty, spicy and bitter — that forms the backbone of most traditional Burmese meals.

TRADITIONAL DISH: Myanmar pork soup at Royal MyanmarTRADITIONAL DISH: Myanmar pork soup at Royal MyanmarJOEFF DAVIS

There are 15 staples on the bilingual picture menus, most of which will be familiar to both Burmese people and those who have traveled to Myanmar. All are generously portioned and highly affordable. The Myanmar noodle salad ($7) made with wheat noodles, chicken and chickpea powder and served in a spicy broth, is what Mawi recommends to first timers. Burmese chicken coconut soup ($6.99) is another popular option: rich and creamy with wheat noodles, coconut milk, yellow dal and plenty of onion, garlic and spices for flavor. My personal favorite is palata ($6.50), a crispy, flaky, buttery puffed flatbread paired with a fragrant dipping sauce of yellow lentils and fried shallots. That dish alone makes the drive to Clarkston worth it.

Though Burmese food tends to be very spicy, Mawi will ask your preference before cooking. There is fish sauce and jars of chili flakes on the table in case you need an extra kick. She’s also quite generous in giving out samples.

ALL PUFFED UP: Royal Myanmar's palata, surrounded by tea leaf salad (left) and noodle saladALL PUFFED UP: Royal Myanmar’s palata, surrounded by tea leaf salad (left) and noodle saladJOEFF DAVIS

“It is very difficult for the Burmese people to open businesses,” Mawi confides. “We don’t speak English, know the licensing laws, or have money to invest.” Mawi and Aung borrowed cash from their families to open Royal Myanmar in October of last year. It’s only the two of them now, working six days a week — cooking, serving and managing all aspects of the business. But they’re pleased with the progress they’ve made, and the little piece of home they’ve brought to the neighborhood.

“I am happy when I see new customers enjoying my food,” Mawi says with a smile. Then she returns to the kitchen, ready to prepare the next order.

Royal Myanmar Cuisine, 1353 Brockett Road, Clarkston. 470-359-7157. facebook.com/royalmyanmarga.

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. March 2017. 

Day Pass: Dominican Republic

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. March 2017. 

Sadia Sosa Walker moved to Atlanta from Santiago, the second largest city in the Dominican Republic, in the year 2000. It was her first time in the United States and she felt instantly nostalgic for the aroma of slow roasting pork, the chit-chat of aunts and uncles gathered for Sunday meals, the lush green valleys and the tropical Caribbean breezes.

In February, the month of traditional Carnival celebrations, that feeling of nostalgia grows even stronger for Caribbean immigrants like Walker. It is the season for colorful costumes, vibrant parades, bands playing fast paced soca music and dancing all night long. Luckily, there are several places around the city where that Dominican spirit remains strong, and last month Walker agreed to show me around to a few of her favorites.

We meet for lunch with Walker’s sister, Ade, at Sabor Dominicano (4186 Buford Highway N.E., 404-963-1799), a small restaurant with orange walls and inexpensive Dominican eats. Bachata music plays in the background while three television sets in one room show different Latin channels. A Spanish-speaking server brings us plates of quipes (deep fried bulgur rolls), maduros (sweet fried plantains) and mofongo (fried and mashed green plantains with chicken broth soup). Walker is excited to see tostones longaniza — pork sausage with fried green plantain chips — on the menu. “I haven’t had it in a long time,” she tells the server with a smile. “Bring me that too!” There are only a couple of authentic Dominican restaurants in metro Atlanta, so when Walker goes out to eat, she must order all her favorites. The three of us are having a feast.

“The first thing I did when I moved to Atlanta was look for Dominican ingredients,” Walker tells me, recalling her search for yucca, cassava and plantains. She soon found Buford Highway Farmer’s Market (5600 Buford Highway N.E., 770-455-0770, www.aofwc.com), which has extensive Caribbean offerings, and the simply named Dominican Grocery Store (950 Indian Trail Lilburn Road N.W., Lilburn, 770-279-7755) which carries an array of imported staples. Once you are used to the flavor of Presidente beer, Dominican coffee, whole Dominican oregano and Induveca brand salami from home, says Walker, you can’t substitute for anything else. “Even the avocados here are watery and flavorless,” her sister chimes in.

Food is one of the primary ways Walker maintains ties to her native culture. She cooks for her family every day and tells her four elementary school-aged daughters about her childhood in the Dominican Republic. Growing up, she worked at her grandparents’ cafeteria-style restaurant, where she helped slaughter pigs, season the meat and complete other kitchen tasks with her grandmother before running off to school smelling of garlic and oregano. She says it feels like a full circle when her kids come home from school and ask for a snack of salami and tostones.

After cooking, the second most important thing in a Dominican woman’s life is her hair, says Walker. Back in Santiago, she and her friends would visit a local lady’s living room turned into a salon for day-long hair services including cutting, drying, straightening and braiding. Since Walker doesn’t know of any home salons here, she has found a hairdresser — Elsy’s Dominican Hair Salon (726 Windy Hill Road S.E., Smyrna, 770-875-3983) — who doesn’t use grease and knows how to tame Afro-Caribbean hair. All the women in the Walker household make a trip to the salon every month and for special occasions.

Atlanta’s Dominican community is small and, according to Walker, not very well organized. “There used to be an association — they even put up events for the Carnival — but it dissipated due to lack of leadership,” she tells me. Now, most Dominicans get together informally at each other’s homes to drink beer, cook together and play dominoes. Of course, there is always music and dancing; all age groups can be found expertly moving their bodies to blaring salsa and Reggaeton. At one of Walker’s birthday parties, I couldn’t keep up with a 90-year-old grandma who held down the floor all night.

On special occasions, Walker and her family go to Mamajuana Restaurant and Lounge (950 Indian Trail Lilburn Road N.W., Suite 2A, Lilburn, 678-924-9369). When darkness falls, the casual dining room, with its tinted windows and white tablecloth settings, transforms into a nightclub with a DJ station and dangling disco ball. Many Latin and Caribbean families have dinner and stay for live music and dancing. Sometimes, the restaurant invites celebrity performers and hosts concerts.

Walker takes her kids home to the Dominican Republic every summer so they can visit relatives and stay connected to their heritage. In the meantime, they’ll be reflecting on the past month’s carnival celebrations and preparing for Easter, known to Dominicans as Semana Santa, by making moro de guandules (rice with Moorish pigeon beans) and habichuelas con dulce (sweet cream of beans). “It would be great to have more opportunities to educate my kids about our culture,” says Walker, “but in the meantime, I am doing the best I can.”

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. March 2017. 

Neighborhood Eats: Smynings

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. February 2017. 

Sandwiching the northwestern corner of I-285 are the city of Smyrna and the unincorporated town of Vinings, fondly known together by some locals as Smynings. Until the 1990s, one of the only iconic structures here was the historic Vinings Jubilee, a town center with brick buildings, a clock tower, street lanterns and a train track running through. The Jubilee still exists, but the neighborhood has since expanded to include a number of mixed use developments, luxury homes, craftsman style condominiums, corporate offices and chef-driven restaurants.

In preparation for the 2017 opening of SunTrust Park, new home of the Atlanta Braves, the area is seeing another rapid hike in development. What used to be mostly farmland and car dealerships now offers all manner of bars and restaurants within a couple of miles’ radius.

“You can see the diversity in the dining scene as a representation of the residents in the area,” says Andre Gomez, chef and owner of Porch Light Latin Kitchen (300 Village Green Circle S.E., Smyrna, 678-309-9858, www.porchlightlatinkitchen.com). “I was born in Puerto Rico, have traveled all over the world, and decided to live in Smyrna because it offers a strong community feeling where people know each other and welcome you to their establishments.”

Gomez, former chef de cuisine at Kevin Rathbun Steak, opened Porch Light in November 2015 and has been garnering five-star reviews ever since. “The restaurant is an extension of my home’s porch which is down the street from here,” he says. Indeed, Gomez has become known for personally greeting each guest that enters his restaurant, circling the room to socialize before running back into the open kitchen to add finishing touches to his famous slow-cooked meats. But when he’s not at Porch Light, you can find the jovial foodie exploring the neighborhood’s many eateries with his family and friends. Here are a few of his favorite spots.

Canoe

Farm-to-table restaurant overlooking the Chattahoochee River.

AG says: “Everything at Canoe is top notch, from the brunch to the service, and you can’t beat the ambiance.”

4199 Paces Ferry Road S.E. 770-432-2663www.canoeatl.com.

DOWN BY THE RIVER: Canoe serves up farm to table cusine on the banks of the ChattahoocheeDOWN BY THE RIVER: Canoe serves up farm to table cusine on the banks of the Chattahoochee. Photo by JAMES CAMP/CL FILE

Orient Express

A renovated railroad car converted into a Chinese/Japanese restaurant. 

AG says: “It is fun to sit in the train’s car, eat hibachi and watch the koi fish pond.”

2921 Paces Ferry Road. 770-438-9090www.orientexpressatl.com.

 

Locanda Firenze

Traditional family-owned Italian café serving breakfast, lunch and snacks.

AG says: “I always feel welcomed and their gelato is awesome!”

1260 W. Spring St., Smyrna. 678-424-8000. www.locandafirenze.com.

McEntyre’s Bakery

Fourth generation family-run bakery and deli, open since 1947.

AG says: “Every time we drive past, my kids have to stop to get a cookie or a cupcake.”

1184 Concord Road S.E., Suite1, Smyrna. 770-434-3115. www.mcentyresbakery.com.

 

Muss and Turner’s

Trendy bistro with a secret speakeasy bar and gourmet sandwiches.

AG says: “On Monday nights, we go as a family and sit at the counter.”

#309, 1675 Cumberland Parkway S.E., Smyrna. 770-434-1114. www.mussandturners.com.

THICK AND JUICY: Muss & Turner's famous burgerTHICK AND JUICY: Muss & Turner’s famous burger. Photo by JOEFF DAVIS/CL FILE

SOHO

New American tapas restaurant in historic Vinings Jubilee.

AG says: “This is where my wife and I like to go for date nights.”

4300 Paces Ferry Road, Suite 107. 770-801-0069. www.sohoatlanta.com.

Atkins Park

One of Atlanta’s oldest taverns, established in 1922, now has a location in Smyrna.

AG says: “After a day of cooking, the crew and I head over for beer and chicken wings. It is the best way to unwind.”

2840 Atlanta Road S.E., Smyrna. 770-435-1887www.atkinspark.com.

 

Mezza Luna Pasta and Seafood

Italian family-owned restaurant specializing in Lazio regional cuisine.

AG says: “Seeing how Tony and Luigi at Mezza Luna treat customers and get the support of the community motivated me to open Porch Light in Smyrna.”

1669 Spring Road S.E., Smyrna. 770-319-0333. www.mezzaluna.net.


Rev Coffee

Funky and causal coffeehouse in a converted garage space.

AG says: “This is a place where one can sit for hours, work, chit-chat or hang out and not be bothered.”

1680 Spring Road S.E., Suite B, Smyrna. 770-573-4434. www.revcoffee.com.

 

Steak 101

Contemporary steakhouse, seafood restaurant and raw bar from 101 Concepts.

AG says: “I was so glad when we got a good steakhouse in the area.”

3621 Vinings Slope S.W., Atlanta. 770-805-8855www.101steakatl.com.

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. February 2017.