The Brooklyn Grocery Store That Feeds Nostalgia
THE FIGS ARE as big as a baby’s fist at Sahadi’s; the dates, plump, juicy and sweet. The venerable Middle Eastern grocery store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights also sells luscious blocks of halvah and honey-soaked baklava. Coffee beans are still stored in and sold from open barrels in the front of the store, along with bins and jars of nuts and dried fruits — cherries, mangoes, improbably green kiwis.
Farther back, shelves display jars of tahini, pomegranate syrup and tiny sweet peppers the color of marigolds. In a fridge are Lebanese sodas in mint and lemon or tamarind. The air is scented with coriander, cloves, cumin and za’atar, the spiky green herb usually mixed with sesame seeds, salt and sumac.
“I go to Sahadi’s for manaqish (bread baked with za’atar), and to get a whiff of my childhood,” says Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. “Chatting with the staff in Arabic is like being back in Beirut.”
When César Chelala, a New York-based writer from Argentina, visits Sahadi’s, he usually stocks up on feta cheese (“which ranges from creamy to salty”) and pickled turnips and artichokes — his comfort food: “I grew up in a home where we ate Arabic food. I go to Sahadi’s at least once a month to recharge my emotional batteries.”
The day that Ron Sahadi showed me around the store, on a chilly Tuesday morning in February, he was clearly pleased to see customers drift into the shop. “Covid-19 taught us to adapt to much more online business or lose sales,” he says. “But something is lost without the face to face, you’re not just a customer, you’re a friend.”
Long before it opened on Atlantic Avenue in 1948, Sahadi’s had established an emporium on Washington Street in downtown Manhattan, in the area then known as Little Syria. From around 1880 though the first two decades of the 20th century, immigrants poured into the city from the Middle East, many of them from Lebanon. (The country was still part of Syria at the time, and both were under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.) Among them was Abraham Sahadi, who set up a shop in 1895, calling it A. Sahadi and Co. Abraham’s nephew Wade Sahadi joined him in the business in 1919, then later opened his own store, Sahadi Importing Co., a few doors down. In the 1940s, as Little Syria was torn down to make way for the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, Wade bought a building across the East River — at 187 Atlantic Avenue — in a neighborhood newly flourishing with a Middle Eastern community. Sometime later, he bought the two adjacent storefronts and combined the spaces. Sahadi’s was always a family affair, and now the fourth and fifth generations, Ron; Christine and her husband, Pat Whelan; and their children, Caitlin and Michael, run it.
IN 2019, SAHADI’S expanded into a brand-new, roughly 7,500-square-foot space at Industry City in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. The space is light, the ceilings high, the aisles stocked not only with the Middle Eastern favorites but everyday groceries — locals use it as a regular market. Large stone crocks on a dedicated bar contain an astonishing array of olives from Sicily, Provence, Lebanon and Morocco, among other places. The frozen foods section houses bespoke ice cream made by Crème and Cocoa: orange with apricot; vanilla with tahini and dates. In a kitchen at the back of the store, I watch four cooks busy at their stations. Along the walls are cooling racks of satiny eggplants ready to be turned into baba ghanouj, and fried cauliflower dusted with turmeric.
The fresh-bread section, in a corner of the store, is overseen by the lead baker Sofia Flores and aromatic with the scent of warm pita baking on a horizontal spinning grill. On the saj oven, dough that’s been rolled into a thin, round disc is draped over a dome-shaped griddle and cooked. The resulting saj bread makes a delicious sandwich wrap. I like mine folded with lamb shawarma and Persian cucumbers inside.
In “Flavors of the Sun,” Christine Sahadi’s 2021 cookbook, she notes that her great-great-uncle Abraham would have been “dazzled by the array of imported goods” that Sahadi’s now carries. “But he’d also be gratified to know our customers can still buy the same Turkish figs … that we have been importing for more than a century,” she writes.
Keen on diversifying, Sahadi’s sells challah and smoked fish. Its lavish cheese department runs to fine European and American varieties, blues and cheddars, goat and cow, creamy and hard, sweet and stinky.
The new Sahadi’s feels thrillingly like a grand bazaar in the middle of Brooklyn. Lebanese wine is on tap at the bar, and there are mezze at the cafe. Just outside in a courtyard, at tables warmed by a fire pit, you can dine on harissa salmon and brownies flavored with tahini. On Friday nights, there is sometimes a salsa band. Salsa? “After all,” says Pat Whelan, “you might also ask, ‘What’s an Irish Italian guy like me doing here?’ This is New York.”
This is an article from The New York Times published on March 1, 2023; See the original article here.
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