Whelan, co-owner of the James Beard Award–winning market Sahadi’s, showcases the Middle East’s vibrant staples in Flavors of the Sun (Chronicle, Sept.).
Could you give us a brief backstory of Sahadi’s?
My great-great-uncle Abrahim immigrated to the United States from Lebanon and started an importing company in Lower Manhattan in 1895. My grandfather Wade was also involved in the business. In 1948, he opened his own location on Atlantic Avenue, and we have been there ever since. We have always done some type of importing and distribution of Middle Eastern foods, and we absolutely love it!
Why write this cookbook now?
It seemed like the right time, especially since people are so interested in ingredients that are mainstream now but weren’t years ago. From all the years I have been working here, the question customers ask most is, “I saw this ingredient in a recipe, but what else can I do with it?” I spend a lot of the day giving them ideas, and I decided to share them with more people. The book’s purpose is to make people look more broadly at flavor profiles, rather than only the individual ingredients, to figure out what else they can be used for. I set up the book in flavor profile categories for this reason. For instance, recipes are organized by categories like nutty and sweet as opposed to the traditional appetizer, entrée, and dessert setup.
If you could only choose one ingredient, which do you think is the most important in Middle Eastern cooking?
That’s a really hard question! If I had to choose one, I’d say za’atar, which is a spice blend. It’s used in so many dishes in the Middle East. We use it with olive oil on flatbreads and also use it to flavor labneh, hummus, salads, chicken, and braises. It’s a bit nutty from the seeds, a bit tart from the sumac, and a bit herbal from the actual za’atar herb itself. I would say it’s equivalent to the “everything” seasoning we put on bagels in the United States.
How do you adapt recipes from other cuisines to give them a Middle Eastern flair?
I like playing around in the kitchen and adapting a dish that I had somewhere else. There are a lot of complicated Middle Eastern dishes that require a lot of lead time. I don’t have time to make an overly complicated dish. To make these traditional flavors shine, I will use my knowledge of other cuisines and techniques and then add traditional Lebanese ingredients to make the dish more “mine.” A lot of the book’s recipes were developed with this mindset.