Prior to my move to the Bay Area for graduate school, I had never sampled the cuisine from the Middle East as the food in the 50th was mainly about local plate lunches, large fast-food establishments and Chinese dine-in or take-out. Regional Hawaiian Cuisine wasn’t even a buzzword, so forget about cuisine that originated across the globe. But in the Bay Area, I was exposed to food from around the globe, including dishes with a liberal use of sweet and savory spices like cinnamon, coriander, cumin and cloves, with rice as one of the staples. Many of these dishes also featured a plethora of legumes, from chickpeas to broad beans, fava beans, as well as quick cooking couscous and bulgur. Animal proteins were used in moderation, though the combination of chickpeas, sesame and wheat gave you a complete protein rivaling most animal proteins. And because of the legumes and whole grains, these dishes had quite a bit of dietary fiber. And most importantly, they were delicious!

The Standard
If I had to choose one restaurant for delicious Middle Eastern cuisine, it would have to be La Mediterranee on Fillmore Street. Partly due to its proximity to the Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco’s Japantown, where we normally stay while visiting the Bay Area, though mostly due to the menu selections offering individual selections, smaller mixed selection plates up to the Mediterranean Meza served at dinner with 10 selections plus rice pilaf. And though there have been three locations since 1982 (two in San Francisco, one in Berkeley), the original Fillmore location still has the homey feel of a small mom-n-pop establishment. We always start with one of the classic appetizer plates with hummus, smoky eggplant based-baba ghanoush and bulgur and parsley-based-tabouli, then usually order a mixed Middle Eastern plate with chicken and lamb or the vegetarian selections. The only item we haven’t sampled is dessert, as the hearty fare is substantial, though I’m sure Ms. S will save her appetite to include dessert in the future. We started dining at La Mediterranee in the late ‘80s and continue with every Bay Area vacation since then.

The Reincarnated
We originally sampled the Cal-Moroccan cuisine at Aziza several years after they first opened in 2001. I was immediately enamored with the restaurant not just for the cuisine, but also for their cocktail list, with libations that weren’t meant to simply whet your whistle before the meal, but also to pair with your meal. I still haven’t been able to capture the flavor of their Ginger Pear Martini, which paired well with every dish we sampled. Then in 2016, owner-chef Mourad Lahlou planned on a “temporary” closure for a renovation, then decided to rebrand Aziza as a Mexican-Moorish themed restaurant. That is, until his selected chef to run this new project eventually took the helm of another kitchen due to the multi-year delay of the “temporary” project. However, when it finally reopened in October 2019, Lahlou simply kept the original cuisine and name. However, due to the pandemic, we haven’t been back but plan to on any future trip to the Bay Area.

The Deceased
Several years after Chef Mohamed Aboghanem opened his Cal-Yemeni restaurant, Saha in the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco, we were so excited for another Middle Eastern restaurant that we actually ordered three entrees just for the two of us. Lamb braised so tender, it was redolent of sweet, savory spices, Israeli couscous that soaked all the flavors and pilaf as airy as rice can get. I enjoyed our meal so much that as soon as we returned to the 50th, I purchased a tagine (an earthenware, conical pot that keeps foods moist) so I could try to replicate those dishes we sampled. Then in 2016, Saha moved across the Bay to Berkeley, though in 2018, the restaurant reappeared in its original location at the Hotel Carlton. However, the stress of running two locations took its toll and the Berkeley location was closed in 2019, then sometime after the pandemic, Saha in the Hotel Carlton closed its doors for good. However, I still think about the meal we sampled and still try to recreate it on a regular basis.

Nutritious and Delicious
Since retiring from the day job, there is one ritual that I still follow. Roughly at about 3:45 p.m. (4:45 p.m. in fall), I start prepping my pupus (appetizers) for the evening so that I can enjoy two hours of reruns of “No Reservations” with a glass or two of wine. And recently, Tony Bourdain (I miss the guy) highlighted Egypt, including several classic dishes consumed by both the poor and the rich. One of these, ful medames, or a hearty stew of fava beans cooked with garlic and onions and spiced with cumin, lemon juice and parsley, then served with pita bread, is a breakfast mainstay for the working class. The complex carbohydrates and protein carry you throughout the day, as the next meal likely wasn’t until dinner. I enjoyed this fava stew so much that I attempted to grow fava beans, since the fresh variety isn’t really available in the 50th. My fava plants would flower, but they would always drop off before any seed pod formed. Turns out that while fava plants do grow in the 50th, the temperature needs to drop in the 60s before seeds form. I guess I’ll continue ordering dried fava beans from Amazon…

Another classic dish combined rice, lentils, pasta and garbanzo beans topped with both a spiced vinegar and tomato sauce and fried onions. Again, because of the low cost and heartiness of koshari, it is another morning meal sampled by many working-class Egyptians. Likely because of its association with the working class, it’s a dish that hasn’t made its way to American Middle Eastern restaurants. So because I never sampled the real McCoy, the nutritionist in me immediately thought of ways to make the dish healthier. Brown rice in place of white rice. Barilla Protein + pasta instead of refined pasta and also shortening the prep work by combining the tomato and vinegar sauces.

The Gochiso Gourmet’s Koshari
1 cup long grain brown rice
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp garlic powder

A bowl of the Middle Eastern dish Koshari.
MIDDLE EASTERN BITES ­— The Gochiso Gouret’s Koshari. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

1 cup brown lentils (takes a total of 20 to 22 minutes to cook)
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 bay leaf

3/4 cup Barilla Protein Thin Spaghetti or Angel Hair broken to ~1/2 pieces

1 can garbanzo beans

Koshari Red Sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 cans chopped tomatoes
– 29 oz total
3 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp smoked or sea salt to taste
1 tsp smoked or regular ground black pepper or to taste
1 teaspoon chili flakes or cayenne powder (optional)

1 can of fried onions

Cook the rice as you normally would, adding the spices to the cooking water. After the rice has cooked/steamed, add it to a large mixing bowl.

In a medium sauce pot, add the dried spices and bay leaf and about six cups of water to boil, add the lentils then turn down the heat to a gentle rolling boil. After cooking for 16 minutes, add the broken pieces of pasta, then cook for another five to six minutes (or until the pasta you select is cooked). Add the drained garbanzo beans for the last minute. Drain into a colander and rinse, then add to the cooked rice.

In a medium saucepan, cook the garlic with the olive oil over medium heat then add the dried spices for another one to two minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

To serve, add one cup of the rice mixture in a bowl, top with the Koshari red sauce, then top with the fried onions — for additional flavor, additional ground cumin and coriander can be dusted over the top.
Authentic Koshari is topped with freshly fried onions — the cooking oil is then used for the red sauce. I chose the lazy man’s version with canned fried onions.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a recently retired clinical pharmacist and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster. He writes from Kane’ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei News.

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