How the Owner of NYC’s Oldest Specialty Food Store Stocks Her Pantry
The 7 Middle Eastern ingredients Christine Sahadi Whelan swears by.
Welcome to Christine Sahadi Whelan’s Pantry! In each installment of this series, a recipe developer will share with us the pantry items essential to their cooking. This month, we're exploring 7 staples stocking Christine’s Middle Eastern kitchen.
I grew up in a Lebanese household eating mostly traditional foods prepared by my mother and aunts. My mother, Audrey, always cooks like she’s expecting 600 guests, and several times each year we turn out feasts that would do any Aleppo housewife proud. Likewise, the majority of the foods we prepare and sell at Sahadi’s—New York City’s oldest continually operating specialty food store, owned by my family—have their roots in the classic recipes of Syria and Lebanon, and I love hearing our American-born-and-raised customers casually throwing words like 'fattoush' or 'kibbeh' into conversation as they plan their upcoming parties.
When I cook for my family at home, though, tradition matters less to me than flavor. When I married my husband, Pat, whose background is Italian and Irish, I began incorporating the flavors I love into dishes that brought together the best of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and American cuisines. I made fewer of the long-simmered, heavy dishes I’d been raised on, reserving those for holiday meals and family gatherings, and instead leaned in to the lighter side of Middle Eastern cuisine: grilled foods, interesting salads and vegetable dishes, and grain bowls topped with highly seasoned legumes and condiments.
As our kids grew and weekends were devoted to outdoor activities and get-togethers with friends, I realized just how perfectly so many of these foods, made to be served warm or at room temperature, were suited to casual entertaining. Because the weather throughout the Middle East is temperate for the majority of the year, much of life is lived outdoors. Many restaurants don’t even have indoor seating; diners gather at the tables, conversing with neighbors as they stroll by and stop to chat. Platters of salad, breads, and grilled meats are passed around so everyone can create their own meal, tucking bits of spicy condiments, fresh mint, or pickled vegetables into a pita sandwich as they like. It’s a leisurely way of eating that can go on for hours. At our home in Brooklyn, we try to emulate this lifestyle, and my neighbors know they will find me in the backyard, tending my pepper plants, grilling up a mess of harissa shrimp or vegetable skewers, or enjoying a twilight cocktail, from May through October.
These recipes don’t necessarily reflect the cuisine of one particular region or country; like the menu at Sahadi’s, they illustrate the common threads that run throughout the cuisines of Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Greece, Turkey, and North Africa. I hope they will help you add some diversity to your weeknight cooking and simplify your entertaining menus.
The story of Sahadi’s begins as so many American food stories do: with the dream of a better life and the remembered flavors of a homeland far away.
In the late 19th century, Arab Christians left the Middle East by the thousands, fleeing wars and economic insecurity. Between 1880 and 1920, about 50,000 immigrants from areas now known as Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Palestine arrived in New York City, settling in a neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower West Side that would come to be called Little Syria. The first Sahadi’s store, located just a block off the Hudson River, was opened by my great-great-uncle Abrahim Sahadi, one of five siblings from Zahlé, Lebanon, a river town and historically a center of Lebanese trade and agriculture. Abrahim immigrated to America in the late 1800s, leaving behind his three brothers and a sister in hopes of finding work to help support them and his parents. In 1895 he decided to open a store where fellow Arabs could buy the dry goods, olive oil, and Turkish pistachios they were accustomed to enjoying back home. With the assistance of Khalil, a brother back home, Abrahim began importing bulk goods and selling them primarily to fellow Middle Eastern immigrants.
In 1919, Abrahim was joined by his 18-year-old nephew, Wade Sahadi—my grandfather. Wade was an affable and welcoming salesman who began nearly every transaction by inviting a customer into the back of the store to drink coffee, eat pastries, have a smoke, and trade news.
In 1941 Wade decided to strike out on his own, purchasing a narrow brick building not far from the Brooklyn waterfront. Grandpa Wade had to wait two years for the barbershop occupying the ground floor of 187 Atlantic Avenue to finish out its lease, but in 1948 the Sahadi Importing Company opened its doors. It quickly became an anchor for Brooklyn’s burgeoning Middle Eastern population and remains the face of our business today.
While the new store became a gathering place for Brooklyn’s Arab immigrant community, Wade was also building an extensive web of international suppliers. He not only stocked the store’s shelves with hard-to-find ingredients from the Middle East but also began distributing these goods to communities across the United States, becoming a lifeline to the old country for hundreds of thousands of Arab Americans from coast to coast.
Over time, both the product mix and the customer base at Sahadi’s have evolved, reflecting the changing nature of our neighborhood. Many of our second-generation immigrant customers, looking for a less urban lifestyle, have moved away from Brooklyn. In their place have come families in search of more spacious housing than they could afford in Manhattan, as well as artists priced out of Greenwich Village and financiers who appreciate the easy commute to Wall Street. As the other Middle Eastern stores that once lined our stretch of Atlantic Avenue have faded away, Sahadi’s remains, at once a neighborhood fixture and a magnet for food writers, professional chefs, and adventurous cooks who know they can always find something new on our shelves to expand and excite their culinary palates. Today, a crock of homemade kimchi sits beside the turmeric-pickled cauliflower in the olive case. Each year we prowl the aisles of international food festivals to bring in new products before they’re available anywhere else. And I look forward to seeing how the next generation of Sahadis keeps the store vital and growing in the coming decades.
What many consumers don’t realize is that nearly everything we stock, from powdered za’atar to figs to olives and olive oil, is a commodity with a limited season. It’s our job to purchase just enough to get us through to the next crop without running short—or sitting on an oversupply. That way we never have to sell a stale nut or tough, dry apricot—but when we’re out, we’re out, until the new crop comes in.
We’ve operated that way since the beginning, and we think our customers can tell the difference. Buying direct from the growers lets us know exactly what we are getting, and our relationships with many of these family-owned farms go back for generations. Great-Great-Uncle Abrahim would have been dazzled by the array of imported goods we now carry, but he’d also be gratified to know our customers can still buy the same Turkish figs, harvested the same way, that we have been importing for more than a century.
Lately we’ve been supporting a number of Middle Eastern women’s cooperatives, who supply us with traditional products rarely seen in the United States, like apple and green fig jam, apricot syrups, and date compote with almonds. We love making these unique treats available—and supporting these women in roles they never have had the opportunity to experience before. And when we opened our café, we began importing wine produced in Lebanon to showcase the winemaking strengths of the region.
With every bite, our customers know they are getting not just something good to eat, but something the Sahadi family would be proud to serve you in their own home. Good food, after all, is made with love—a timeless family value that knows no borders.
Nigella, a tiny black seed that looks like sesame and is sometimes labeled black caraway, lends a distinctive flavor and aroma to baking and cheese dishes. It is one of many seasonings in our dukkah blend. The taste has hints of onion and herbs; in fact, it’s a bit like “everything” seasoning wrapped up in one tiny little package. At the store we use it to flavor twisted cheese, a Syrian specialty similar to mozzarella, and sprinkle it on vegetable hand pies.
A specialty of North Africa, preserved lemons have found their way into the kitchens of many different regions. Preserved lemons were not traditionally used in Lebanese cuisine, but today our food cultures are so intertwined they have become one of my very favorite ingredients. They have a depth of flavor that is salty and savory and complex; think of the difference between a cucumber and a pickle. In addition to brightness, they add a funky earthiness that contributes a singular taste to a wide range of preparations.
Even a cursory glance through the recipes in my cookbook will make it obvious how often we reach for the dried pepper shaker at my house, even when making dishes that aren’t intended to come across as “spicy.” In particular, I use mild Aleppo pepper as a finishing touch on cooked vegetables, dips and spreads, and salad dressings to add a dash of color, a textural note, and a gentle flavor enhancement. As the name indicates, Aleppo peppers are native to Syria, and they are still widely grown and consumed throughout the region. These days we source ours from Turkey, where we are able to ensure a more consistent supply.
One of the most ubiquitous souring agents used throughout the Middle East, sumac is made from the red berries of the sumac bush, which are first dried and then ground. Most of the sumac sold in our store comes from Turkey, although at one time Syria was a large producer, as are parts of the Mediterranean. It’s a versatile ingredient that can be cooked into a dish or used as a finishing element. Sumac brings a lot of what a squeeze of lemon juice does to the party, with the advantage that it doesn’t add moisture or water down your sauces the way juice does. In fact, sumac will actually draw liquid from vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes, so wait to add it to your dishes just before serving, or it will dilute the flavors.
If you were to take a gallon of fresh squeezed pomegranate juice and boil it for several hours until it had reduced to a thick, slightly viscous syrup, you’d have homemade pomegranate syrup, more commonly called pomegranate molasses. Or you can cut to the chase and buy a bottle of this bright magenta elixir, a tangy flavor enhancer that can be used in any number of refreshing ways.
All-natural pomegranate molasses balances its fruit notes with a tart bite that pairs beautifully with savory ingredients and sweet ones. To be sure, many of the pomegranate products on the market can be quite sweet and thick. However, these tend to contain added sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup) to make a cheaper product. The pure, unsweetened, all-natural version has a sweet-and-sour taste much more reminiscent of the fresh fruit itself. If you want a sweeter, thicker glaze you can always cook it down with a bit of sugar as you would to make a balsamic vinegar glaze.
In the Middle East, dried fruits such as dates, figs, and stone fruits are both eaten out of hand as a snack and used as a colorful, lightly sweet accent in salads, sauces, and desserts. Apricots in particular are a very typical Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavoring; many of the treats I remember best from childhood were flavored with apricots, from candy to fruit rolls to my favorite ice cream.
Natural Flower Waters
These colorless scented liquids, infused with the essence of orange or rose blossoms, are used throughout the Middle East, from Syria to Morocco. They are made by distilling the petals of damask roses or the blossoms of the Seville orange tree in water until highly fragrant. When added sparingly to sweets or beverages, they impart an elusive background flavor and an alluring aroma, but don’t be tempted to go overboard. Too much of the rose, in particular, can cause food to taste soapy, like drinking perfume!
There is a huge difference in quality from brand to brand, and in this particular case it pays to spend for quality. If the label lists anything other than flower petals and distilled water, I guarantee you will be getting an inferior product. (Pure flower essences are suspended in oil and intended for medicinal, not culinary use; do not substitute them in recipes.) You want flower waters that are so fragrant you can almost smell them before you open the bottle; otherwise you will need to use three times as much to achieve the same effect. I prefer those that come from Lebanon, where they have been making and using them for generations, but good ones come from France, as well.
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