When I think back on the most memorable meals of my life, many of them took place in the Middle East.
Highlights include a sticky knafeh (a cheese pastry soaked in fragrant syrup) I devoured on a dilapidated balcony in Beirut, a fresh fish sandwich overlooking the Bosphorus in Istanbul and a brunch of piping hot pita and pomegranate spiked salads in pre-war Damascus.
Back in the U.S. most “Arabic food” typically falls somewhere on the kebab, gyro, and falafel spectrum. These are all delicious items in their own right, but offer an incomplete culinary picture of a vast and diverse region of the world.
“The food is so limited and most of the time incorrect,” says local chef, Taylor Cheney, who runs “Yalla” a roaming Middle Eastern pop-up restaurant, “There’s all these places that are gyros. If you go to the Middle East, there are no gyros, that’s Greek.”
Cheney set out to change some of those misperceptions when she founded “Yalla,” (which translates roughly to “let’s go” in Arabic) almost five years ago.
It all started when her Capitol Hill neighbors, originally from Saudi Arabia, challenged her to recreate the dishes they missed most.
“So I asked ‘What’s something I can make you?’ And they said ‘make us kabsa,’” remembers Cheney describing a spice-laden rice and meat dish adorned with nuts, fruit and hard boiled eggs, “And I was like ‘this is the best thing I’ve ever had!’”
Cheney held her first Middle Eastern pop-up soon after at downtown’s Mistral Kitchen, where she was working at the time. She says never looked back.
She even spent five months in Egypt immersing herself in the food tradition she’s come to love and working with local chefs developing their own pop-ups.
“Since it’s not in my background, I needed to spend some time there, because I wanted to pick up a little bit of Arabic and understand the culture behind the food,” says Cheney, who grew up in Tacoma, “I got to eat in people’s homes because I had friends there. I got to go to a farm and eat dishes made by grandmas. I had amazing food.”
Recently Cheney has teamed up with chef Pinar Ozhal, who is originally from Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey. Ozhal agrees that Turkish food is often heavily edited before it ends up on American plates.
“It’s all kebabs,” laments Ozhal, “But we have a huge variety of dishes. Lots of people can’t believe how many vegetarian options we have in Turkey. “
Some of those lesser-known vegetarian options were on display when I visited “Yalla” at the Central District’s “The Atlantic” restaurant—where Cheney and Ozhal now set up shop every Monday evening.
Alongside whipped-light hummus and homemade labneh (a strained yogurt cheese) was a paprika laced celeriac salad and white beans topped with sumac, hard-boiled eggs and Aleppo peppers.
Ozhal is particularly excited to share her native Kurdish cuisine with diners and included zeytinyagli kereviz — an artichoke, olive and fava bean dish brightened with lemon and dill — on the evening’s menu.
“I’m one of the last generations to experience the old way of doing things,” says Ozhal citing Diyarbakir’s food traditions like cheese made and stored in communal refrigerators, or hand-cracked wheat used for bread.
Cheney and Ozhal represent an increasing interest in Middle Eastern food (a trend they acknowledge with shout-outs to Mamnoon on Capitol Hill, Café Munir in Ballard and Goodies Mediterranean Market on Lake City Way).
And they hope their food can also be a portal to understanding a region too often defined by violence. They’ve even embarked on a series of menus celebrating the food of regions experiencing conflict.
So far they’ve done Palestine, Syria and now Kurdish Turkey.
And I have to say, war was pretty far from my mind as plunged pieces of steaming saj bread into a rich garlicky spinach dip called Ispanak Borani.
I was too busy adding Yalla to my list of unforgettable Middle Eastern meals.
Yalla currently runs out of The Atlantic restaurant on south Jackson street every Monday night. You can keep up on the pop-up’s menu and location at the “Yalla Seattle” Facebook page.