I grew up just outside Boston with a father who is very proud of his Middle Eastern heritage. That pride rubbed off on me, and most often shows itself in my love for Middle Eastern cuisine. So you can understand my excitement upon moving to Los Angeles and discovering a strong Middle Eastern influence, similar to Boston, only bigger.
Middle Eastern restaurants have been part of Los Angeles for decades. Their menus, that are built with traditional recipes and spices, were brought by immigrants of the Middle East, the same way other cuisines like Italian, Korean, and Mexican were brought to the States. During World War I, Christians in the Middle East fled to escape religious persecution and economic hardships from the decline of the silk trade. Then, in the 80s and 90s, large populations of Lebanese immigrated, fleeing the civil war in their homeland.
Today, immigrants from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are now seeking refuge in the United States due to unrest in the Middle East, including the civil war in Syria and the threat of the Islamic State in the region. According to the Arab American Institute Foundation, the population in the U.S. who identified as having Arabic-speaking ancestry grew by more than 72% between 2000 and 2010. During this period and up until today, these immigrants have been bringing their flavors to the States as they opened their own restaurants, and more importantly, opened the eyes of more Americans to their culture and cuisine.
This influx of Middle Eastern immigrants, along with their cultural influence, has lead us to what Los Angeles Magazine calls the “Golden Age of L.A.’s Middle Eastern Food.” Angelenos are loving it as they flock to local Mediterranean style restaurants, and Americans, as a whole, gain exposure to dishes with more complex flavors and spices. The Middle Eastern dishes being served today are very different compared to the light, simple, but delicious early staple options, like hummus and tabbouleh. Now, dishes like Shakshuka, a staple breakfast dish in the Middle East, are currently becoming more mainstream. It’s popping up on brunch menus across the country and quickly becoming a favorite with its spicy sauce, packed with chili peppers and traditional Middle Eastern spices like cumin and paprika. This culinary evolution is why The National Restaurant Association listed Middle Eastern cuisine among the global trends in their 2017 Culinary Forecast.
The current state of our world is always changing. With the unrest in the Middle East progressing and a travel ban in place, limiting immigration and travel from some Middle Eastern countries, it will be interesting to see how the popularity and exposure to Middle Eastern cuisine will change. Will America stay the same huge melting pot that it’s always been? Only time will tell, but I’m hoping that this melting pot only gets bigger and full of more Middle Eastern cuisine.