Home Cooking: Middle Eastern Italian Food

Josh / Flickr

Does it matter if the tomato sauce recipe was developed by an Italian?

Friday’s post “What Makes a Restaurant Authentic?“, in which I interviewed chefs hailing from countries other than the cuisine they prepare, held a particular resonance with me. I’m Iranian-American, and my family owns an Italian restaurant.

How in the world did that happen? Not much differently than it happened for the other restaurant proprietors I profiled: my father arrived in the U.S., put himself through school by working at Italian-owned restaurants and he paid attention to what worked and what didn’t. He developed his own sauce recipe and, taking a risk, opened his own restaurant.

Growing up, many people assumed we were Italian, particularly since there weren’t many Iranians in our fairly homogenous community. Sometimes we’d joke that my grandmother was part-Italian, or that my father had flown over Italy and that counts for something. Some customers, among them Italians, would tell us how the food reminded them of restaurants in Little Italy or Italy itself.

Stephen Howard / Flickr

Traditional Persian rice with tadeeq.

In our home, my mother’s Persian cooking reigned supreme. But sometimes we’d eat white pizza and eggplant parmigiana from our restaurant, which was also home cooking. At large family get-togethers, we served traditional Persian dishes alongside baked ziti.

Anyone who’s grown up in a family restaurant knows that everything revolves around “the restaurant.” You have to cut vacations short, reply “no” to wedding invitations and drive through blizzards to make sure the kitchen pipes haven’t burst. But you’re also eternally grateful to the restaurant. It’s provided you a livelihood: shelter, food, and in my case, a college education. The loyalty I have to Italian food runs deep.

When many of us are feeling a bit nostalgic, we eat comfort food. It’s the food that reminds us we’re loved and a part of something bigger. In those moments, I eat kubideh, ghormeh sabzi or simply noon-o-paneer. But a hearty bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, made with my dad’s tomato sauce, works just as well. My people may not have been cooking pasta for centuries, but Italian food still feels like home.

  • http://twitter.com/rmpmcdermott rmpmcdermott

    To further the debate from the last post and to address this one directly as well, I don’t think you need to be Italian to produce authentic Italian food and the same goes for any food that is defined by a region or culture. If you care enough about the food and the tradition and you study the culture and the reasons behind the food then you can make great food from any culture outside of your own. It’s all about respect to me. Respect for the culture. Respect for the ingredients. In fact I’ve had Italian food cooked by non-Italians who really cared about the food and it was way better than food I’ve had by Italians who clearly didn’t care.

  • KGC31

    I wonder how different things would be if more women were opening up these restaurants instead of men. My Egyptian father learned the restaurant business from Greeks and ended up owning a Greek food truck (back in the 80s before they were popular) and then a classic NJ diner. He still to this day cannot cook a single Egyptian meal but can whip up an amazing Moussaka. My mom, on the other hand, picked up the Greek/diner fare from the family business, but nothing compares to her classic Egyptian dishes.

  • lemongrass

    Keep in mind that “Italian” cooking is as diverse as the regions of that country. Same with Indian cuisine, so different in the north than it is in the south. I think the whole notion of the authenticity of any cuisine is tricky…things are always changing due to the availability of ingredients and the inventiveness of the chef.