New Sahara Restaurant & Grill, 24770 Coolidge Hwy., Oak Park, MI 48237; 248 399-7744.
Most people have dined on generic Arabic food, commonly mislabeled “Mediterranean” and often conflated with Israeli food. We all know the leading delicacies, such as falafel—deep fried balls of seasoned chickpea mash, shawarma—savory slices of beef, lamb, goat, or combinations thereof, kibbee—fried bulgur wheat stuffed with seasoned meat, kebab—skewers of grilled cubed meats, sarma—grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice, and other tangy dishes. Most have deep culinary roots in Turkish cooking.
The Ottoman Empire, of course, dominated the Mideast for centuries. The gluttonous sultans organized an elaborate social structure around exotic feasting, even militarizing the kitchen staff. Rivaling the most ostentatious excesses of the Czars and Europe’s monarchs, the Ottomans constructed a complex kitchen staff pecking order comprised of numerous imperial door potentates, food tasters, and even pickle holders. Most were dressed in elaborate, turbaned vestments. With rigid regimentation, the working staff reported to a hierarchy of servitor captains and other martial-style household superiors, clept with such inflated honorifics as Chief Turban Folder, Chief Attendant of the Napkin, and Senior of the Dishes.
But Chaldean foods of Babylonia predate Turkish cuisine by centuries. Remember, the Chaldeans trace their lineage to an era before Abraham. Any early reading of Genesis reminds that Abraham hailed from Ur of the Chaldees, that is, from Chaldea. The site of Ur is now along the Euphrates River in modern Iraq. The dynastic Chaldeans were surely among the first of those embracing monotheism and the Christian religion in the early centuries A.D. As such, Chaldean Christianity predates Islam and Turkish influences by centuries.
So while, Chaldean food is conveniently mis-advertised to Americans as “Mediterranean,” its ancient land is nowhere near the Mediterranean Sea. It is Babylonian and Mesopotamian if anything. Even though the dishes exemplified on a Chaldean conceptually menu harken to Egyptian, Turkish, Lebanese, and even Israeli dishes, Chaldean tastes and textures deliver a completely different, original experience.
Through some demographic funnels, Detroit has become an epicenter of Chaldean society in America. Hence, the best Chaldean restaurants are located in Detroit and its suburbs. Nearly all are operated as family enterprises, simply adorned, and always patronized by Chaldean families accustomed to eating bountifully in groups. Platters are piled high and abundantly arrayed. True, the menus resemble other Arab or Turkish cousin cuisines, but the resemblance stops after the typesetting.
My Chaldean culinary journey began at the New Sahara Restaurant and Grill. Of their several locations, I visited the one in Oak Park. The delicious meal never stopped impressing, and is highly recommended as a must-stop.
Start with something as basic as the cubed cucumber and tomato salad known geo-eponymously as Jerusalem Salad, Turkish Salad, and so on. Regardless of place name, it all generally tastes the same. But the Chaldean version is very different, accented with red onions and seasonings to make it special. A second fascinating salad is Sahara Salad, which adds beets and chick peas. You can also start with the Maza Tray, piled with Chaldean renditions of the spicy minced eggplant favorite known as baba ganoush, fattoush, and stuffed grape leaves.
The Sahara’s tashreeb is a tender lamb shank smothered in a savory tomato sauce. Quail dishes are common among Palestinians and Lebanese; but the Chaldean version is more than simple and succulent, it is charbroiled with a special coating of tangy seasonings that distinguish it from the other ethnic versions in the extended Middle East. The restaurant’s Fried House Kibbee moves the traditional elongated treat with a middle bulge into a completely new direction with a flatter shape, different consistency and earthy taste.
There isn’t enough room to list all the fragrant and tasty beef, lamb, and chicken dishes. But one visit is insufficient to adequately discover the robust menu of Chaldean specialties of the New Sahara Restaurant and Grill. Tasting even one dish will convince you that this cuisine is very different from any other Middle East offerings available. Chaldean cooking stands apart and the New Sahara Restaurant and Grill does justice to that difference.
Edwin Black is the author of Banking on Baghdad--Inside Iraq's 7,000-year History of War, Profit, and Conflict.