I’m not sure if the 1955 movie Kismet was my first introduction to representations of the Middle East–perhaps the Douglas Fairbanks picThe Thief of Baghdad? I don’t think my mother read me anything from 1001 Arabian nights–but it certainly summarizes a type of Orientalist imagery with a long pedigree. The musical follows the adventures of a poet in a far-off caliphate in the indistinct past and features overwrought singing, hypersaturated technicolor and costumes that would make Aladdin seem historically accurate. In short, I loved it.
But going to Kamal’s Middle Eastern Specialties in Reading Terminal Market is a wholly different type of experience. It was a Saturday afternoon and we were strolling through, looking for gustatory inspiration. Coming around the corner, we saw what looked like a diner counter (and for a girl who grew up in New Jersey, that is a very good thing) complete with red topped stools and a neon sign hanging over it. Rather than burgers and disco fries, though, this place serves an excellent smokey and lemony bhaba ghanoush, a chopped salad tangily topped with fresh herbs cut with a creamy, nutty thinned tahini dressing and a triangular pastry filled with spinach, the shape of which may make you slightly blush. Plus, more slivers of pita piled into a plastic bag than you think you can eat. You’ll be wrong.
It was all good–if someone can explain to me how to make such excellent bhaba ghanoush I will gladly reward them–and I’d like to go back to sample some of their meat offerings (the presence of chicken shawarma on the menu concerns me, since shawarma needs the fatty, filling richness of lamb that no chicken has ever been able to approximate) in the near future. What struck me most about Kamal’s though, was its distinct lack of exoticization. Not in the font on the neon sign, not in the names of the dishes and certainly not in the decor. Instead, Kamal’s was matter-of-fact about its “ethnic” cuisine: this may be culinary tourism for some, but it may just be good home cooking for others. And why worry about the difference?
Recommended: that bhaba ghanoush!