What better way to celebrate Arab American Heritage Month than with a local cultural exchange of food and history? A diverse group of 35 people did just that yesterday in getting together for a taste tour of Little Arabia. The invitation to came by way of Adventures of Al-Andalus, a joint effort of Anaheim activist Rida Hamida and Santa Ana Valley High School teacher Benjamin Vazquez to bring Arab-American and Latino communities closer in OC.
The first stop came when everyone got an introduction to Fresh Choice Marketplace in Garden Grove. Already a mecca of multicultural shopping, the grocery store marked the perfect place to start things off. "How do you say 'sugar' in Spanish?" Hamida asked her audience. "Azucar!" Latinos responded. "Well, we say 'suqar' in Arabic!" She mentioned other commonalities in the language of food including before Fresh Choice co-owner Ibbrahim Oudeh showed everyone around.
Folks got a taste of Jerusalem bread with zataar inside and sesame seeds on top. A trip to the meat market gave a quick lesson on what halal means to Muslims. The tour turned next to Fresh Choice's great multi-ethnic food court. Sample cups of beef and chicken shawarma got passed around while Vazquez noted that the Lebanese actually imported the culinary practice of shaving meat off a spit to Mexico, a familiar sight at any taqueria where al pastor is served.
The taste of Little Arabia tour traveled down the Brookhurst Street corridor into Anaheim, stopping at Kareem's Restaurant, the longest-standing Middle Eastern eatery in Little Arabia. Falafel Queen Nesrine Omari provided trays of her famous falafels, fattoush salad, baba ghanoush and hummus. Local leaders in the Latino community, like former Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, Santa Ana Unified School District board member Valerie Amezcua and OC Labor Federation Executive Director Julio Perez, took turns on the trays.
"When the community eats together, it stays together," Hamida explained. She outlined a vision for the future of Little Arabia including Moroccan lamps and olive trees adorning the Brookhurst Street sidewalks. Latino council member James Vanderbilt who represents the district where the ethnic enclave resides affirmed his support for its official designation.
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The last stop of the taste tour came at Olive Tree Restaurant. "We'll be serving tacos and enchiladas tonight," co-owner Alan Abdo quipped. The real prepared menu included the delectable sight of sayadiyet samak (fried fish) on a bed of rice and slow cooked lamb shanks so tender they fall off the bone. "There's a lot of stereotypes and misperceptions about us," Abdo, a Palestinian-American, explained. "The part of this restaurant that I love the most is having non-Arabs come in, ask questions and learn that we're not as angry as the media makes us seem."
Arab hospitality goes a long way in easing apprehensions. The delicious food sure doesn't hurt, either. By the end of the taste tour, everybody felt satiated and educated. "The turnout is a little more than we expected and there's so much diversity in this group," Vazquez tells the Weekly, with whites and Asians joining in on the fun. "We are a people who have history together."
It's a history that now includes an evening when Latinos and Arab-Americans shared meals together in Little Arabia to learn more about each other.