Why Middle Eastern food is a growing force in Chicago dining
Middle Eastern food, no stranger to Chicago’s dining scene, has gone from reliable to trendy. Middle Eastern flavors are springing up all over Chicago menus; finding hummus, pita or falafel in Chicago has become as easy as finding a cheeseburger.
It wasn’t capriciousness that led Food & Dining to make this month’s Craving feature all about Middle Eastern food. This cuisine is hot.
Galit, a nominally Israeli restaurant that incorporates dishes from throughout the Middle East, has been playing to packed houses since its early April debut. Aba, CJ Jacobson’s meld of Middle East, Mediterranean and California influences, routinely posted two-hour wait times last summer and hasn’t slowed down. Back in 2016 it was Ema, Jacobson’s first Chicago effort, which opened under a Mediterranean label but whose menu routinely featured halloumi, chicken kefta kebabs and harissa-spiced lamb over hummus.
Why here, why now?
“I think it’s a bunch of forces,” said RJ Melman, president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, which owns Aba and Ema. “It’s a lighter cuisine that appeals for a lot of health reasons. For us, certainly it’s the way a lot of us prefer to eat — a ton of dishes to share, rather than an entree on a plate, and maybe not a lot of bread, though a really good pita is nice. I’ve really been into that food for a long time, and when we have a chef who’s intelligent and passionate about it, well, that’s what got us started.”
For Jacobson, the aha moment for Middle Eastern food was when the California born-and-raised chef was a professional volleyball player.
“I played for Maccabi Tel Aviv,” he said. “I lived in Israel for 10 months when I was 23. The area is so similar to Southern California weather, but they ate much differently; everybody went to the market every single day. I still remember being shown around the bazaars, thinking it was very cool.”
Jacobson views Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food as belonging under one large culinary umbrella, in part because there’s a fair amount of ingredient overlap. And one could argue the popularity of the so-called Mediterranean diet over the last 25 years or so — focused on vegetables, grilled/roasted proteins and whole grains — paved the way for, or at least smoothed the transition to, the popularity of Middle Eastern food today.
“I think in general,” Jacobson said, “the popularity of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, whatever, has been in developing the vernacular. Pita and hummus have been popular for a long time, but now people are understanding cardamom, where that might not have been that way five years ago.”
And, Melman points out, style matters.
“It seems like we’re in the next evolution (of the food),” he said. “Middle Eastern restaurants 10, 12 years ago were very mom and pop places, run by families. Now, another generation is doing hip and stylish versions of that food, and bringing in a date-night crowd.”