Explore Arab food and culture in one afternoon

The Saturday afternoon walking tours in Dearborn are an informative and delicious way to learn about Middle Eastern and North African cuisine

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

It’s well-known that Dearborn has the largest community of Arab Americans in this country. From a food lovers perspective, this makes us very lucky because we can appreciate this incredible cuisine without a 14-hour flight to Beirut.

Within just a few blocks you’ll find freshly ground spices and coffee at Hashems Roastery, imported sour plums at Super Greenland market, halal meats at Dearborn Meat Market and Middle Eastern cuisine at Al Ameer, a restaurant recognized by the James Beard Foundation for its excellence.

Don’t leave Dearborn without a kanafah or “cheese dome” from Lebon Sweets: a melt-y and sweet square of cheese stuffed inside a freshly-baked sesame bun that is brushed with simple syrup.

Having lived in Hamtramck for several years, Arab-American cuisine and grocery items (and hearing the call-to-prayer several times a day) aren’t totally new to me. After taking part in the Yalla Eat culinary tour of Dearborn last weekend, however, I realized there is much about Arab-American food and culture that I did not know.

The Yalla Eat tours started a few years go as walking tours organized by the Arab American National Museum. This year, the tours have expanded to a full season, and are offered now through October. (They won’t be offered in June, though, because of Ramadan.) “Yalla” means “let’s go” in Arabic.

Guided by educator Nourhan Mattar, Yalla Eat is nearly every Saturday at 2 p.m. There are two tours offered. The Warren avenue tour is largely bakeries and markets, while the Michigan avenue route has more restaurants. Both are advertised as lasting 2.5 hours, but be prepared for it to last longer depending on the size of your group (the tours max out at 12 people).

I took the Warren tour last week, which started at the Super Greenland grocery store at Warren and Miller. It was a little strange getting a guided tour of a grocery store, but had I strolled through on my own, I wouldn’t have learned that 90 percent of the items in the store are imported from outside the state, from Lebanon to California.

I also wouldn’t have learned, as store manager Mona Alaouie told us, that the Greenland stores have their own farms in Canada growing the fruits and vegetables that are typically only found in the Middle East.

Alaouie said right now the hot item is sour plums — green plums the size of big cherries that are served raw with a little bit of salt — and she has customers calling from all over Michigan asking for them.

“We cater to all cultures, all needs, and all demands, so we do have made-in-America products, as well as made overseas, kind of a little bit of everything,” she said.

She also tipped us off to the “Wild Wednesday” sales that many of the Dearborn markets have, offering some produce as low as cost

Our affable tour guide, Mattar, who is second-generation Egyptian American, showed us through Super Greenland and talked about Arabic customs of hosting guests, serving tea or coffee and what it means to eat halal.

Mattar next took us to Hashems Roastery, where the smell of freshly ground Turkish coffee wafted through the shop.

Owner Adam Hashem’s grandfather opened the roastery decades ago, and today they grind 200 pounds of spices a day for customers and area restaurants. He has a machine that can grind coffee super fine for making Turkish coffee, so fine that it’s like a powder. He can make you a custom blend of coffee, too, adding as many light or dark beans as you want, or blending in spices such as cardamom.

Besides coffee and spices, Hashems — which has a few locations in Dearborn and one in Lebanon — sells candy, nuts, dried fruit, tea and oils.

The rest of the tour took us to two of the five bakeries on West Warren between Wyoming and Chase. We sampled the aforementioned cheese dome at Lebon Sweets, and marveled at the Arab and French desserts at Shatila, an acclaimed sweet shop that specializes in desserts from baklava to birthday cake.

The Yalla Eat tours are $45, or $35 for museum members. Purchase tickets in advance at arabamericanmuseum.org.


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Twitter: @melodybaetens