A Taste of Mesopotamia in East County

El Cajon is home to a large Iraqi population who have added their unique flavors to the tapestry of the city

Olivia Hayo
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photography by
Olivia Hayo
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April 30, 2020

Two women expertly stretch rounds of bread over a domed cushion before slapping them onto the scorching interior wall of a tanoor oven. The bread puffs and chars for a few moments before it’s hooked and tossed onto a platter. Across the kitchen, a butcher breaks down lamb and beef into cubes for skewering, throwing larger pieces into a mincer to make ground meat kebabs known in Iran as koobideh, in Turkey as kofte, and in Iraq simply as kebab. In Arabic, keba means “to turn,” which is exactly what the men working the grill do once the kebab has passed to them from the hands of another cook expertly working baseball-sized portions onto flat skewers.

Flames leap and smoke perfumes the air as fat drips from the meat onto the charcoal below. Rows of skewered tomatoes, onions, and chiles blister alongside. The final step in this well-practiced dance is the placement of the kebab and vegetables on a freshly baked round of tanoor bread.

Azad works the front counter, and his bright eyes oversee the action. The moment the kebabs hit the plate, he scoops it up and passes it to Najla, who delivers the feast to a waiting table. Her smile is well known to diners at Saray, where she has worked since the original Turkish owners opened shop at the far end of East Main Street and Jamacha.

“I’ve been in El Cajon more than 20 years now,” she says, sharing that she is originally from Nasiriyah in Southern Iraq, “on the border with Iran.” When asked if El Cajon now feels like home, she places a hand on her royal blue hijab-covered head. “Oh yes, of course! When I go back to Iraq, it has changed so much I don’t recognize it.”

The manager, John, originally from Baghdad, has lived in El Cajon since the 1970s and has witnessed the East County city completely transform. “This street,” he says gesturing towards Jamacha Road, “used to have maybe one car per hour. Now look at it! There must be 200 cars passing each hour.”

Over the last seven years, the shop has amicably changed hands several times, passing to Iranian owners (Azad’s brother), and most recently, to two Iraqi business partners, Mumtaz Malan and Ari Segman, who can often be found alongside their staff, cutting lamb and chicken, and mincing beef for their signature grilled meats.

Places like Saray exemplify the way a tapestry of regional flavors can harmonize rather than clash. The diverse staff are reflected in utterly perfect mixed grill combination platters. Dips include the usual suspects, like smoky baba ghanoush (also called moutabal), and hummus so tahini-rich it’s as nutty as peanut butter—and a dish you won’t find anywhere else.

Azad explains that their signature spicy eggplant dip is a bit of a hybrid created by an Egyptian chef that worked with the original Turkish owners. Loosely based on a garlicky Iranian roasted eggplant dish called mirza ghassemi, this version packs plenty of extra spice from black pepper, chile, and a tangy hit of pomegranate. It is the superb prelude to the shop’s meltingly tender Iraqi minced meat kebabs.

Saray’s recently scaled-down menu, which used to sprawl with Iranian, Turkish, and Pan-Middle Eastern delicacies, now focuses on Iraqi essentials: fresh tanoor bread, dips, grilled meats, and a pickled vegetable bar where, alongside fresh herbs and pickled radishes and beets,  toum, a distinctly Iraqi garlic sauce can be found.

“The Jewish traders brought amba back from India,” John explains, pointing to a bright orange, savory mango chutney. “They carried it back in 100-kilogram jugs. As a boy, we used to buy amba and tomato sandwiches on the street for around 10 cents,” he shakes his head. “We cried when the Jews were kicked out of Iraq.”

El Cajon is home to the second largest Iraqi community in the country, many of whom are Chaldean Catholics. When asked if he is Chaldean, John waves his hand. “This is a religion, not a place. We are all Iraqi, we are all human, we are all the same. Here we have Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Kurdish, Christian, Turkish, Muslim.” He smiles as he looks around the bustling kitchen.

The area has drawn immigrants from across the Middle East and Central Asia who enjoy the sense of community, access to traditional ingredients, and events from church and mosque services to employment workshops carried out in Arabic. The tapestry of influence is reflected on menus that go far beyond generic Mediteranean dishes.

A dazzling array of regional Middle Eastern foods are available in this East County hamlet with dishes like mandi from the Arabian Gulf, which can be found at Zarzour restaurant on the western end of Main Street. The red-skinned, roasted chicken is atop a mountain of spiced rice, the same way it’s found in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The newest immigrants from Syria have already begun to leave their mark on the culinary landscape, opening restaurants like Mal al Shams farther down Main Street where guests enjoy specialties like shawarma and kibbeh mashwiyeh, a grilled version of the more commonly fried bulgur patties stuffed with minced lamb and pine nuts.

Thousands of Iraqi refugees came to El Cajon to escape persecution under Saddam Hussein, and then again to escape the fallout from the Iraq war in 2003, and the flavors of Iraq remain the most prominent.

At Shakirah Pastry, the young woman’s eyes light up when asked about the national cookie of Iraq.

“You know kleiche?” she asks excitedly. She begins handing out small squares filled with date paste and nigella seeds and little sesame-seeded rings filled with mashed dates. They are just one of the myriad sweets that Majid Suleman and his crew at Shakirah make fresh each day.

Another customer bites into a cookie. “They’re the best in town, I’m tellin’ ya,” she says. “I’ve lived here all my life, and this is the best bakery anywhere.”

Under the watchful eyes of the Virgin Mary, the pastry case displays rows upon rows of pistachio baklava in various shapes and sizes, along with vermicelli and syrup-topped cheese kunafeh, rose-scented lubiya “lady fingers,” and other pan-Arabian sweets.

Originally from Mosul in northern Iraq, Majid and his wife opened the shop nearly 20 years ago when they moved to El Cajon from Baghdad.

“They have something like this in Syria and Iran, but it is originally Iraqi,” Majid says of the popular fried sweet zalabia, which can be found all over the region, from Yemen to Lebanon.

He adds rosewater to a yeasty, wet mixture. “You can only make it from experience. The dough, sometimes it does what it wants.” He laughs, ladling the mixture into a piping can and releasing curls into hot oil where it puffs into cursive rounds. He quickly scoops them up and submerges the pastries into a simple syrup.

He looks at them and shakes his head. “Not yet.” He adds a little flour to the mixture. “Everything here is made from scratch. We want it to be perfect.”

Across the street, a family from Baghdad opened Al Azayem Restaurant six years ago.

The restaurant offers classic Iraqi dishes like cream chicken chop (a breaded chicken cutlet), mixed grill, makhlama, a turmeric-laced minced meat and egg breakfast, and tomato-rich khuba soup crowned with softball-sized, meat-stuffed bulgur rounds. They also offer masgouf, a butterflied, grilled river fish that is considered the national dish of Iraq.

“It takes an hour to cook, so it's better to call ahead for masgouf or for our special rice-stuffed chicken,” Mazin, the owner’s son, suggests.

Down the block, Valley Foods is a sprawling, modern grocery store where the staff calls out cheerfully to the customers they know by name. At the deli counter, fresh kebabs sizzle and slivers of shawarma fall from a hot spit. An army of bakers churn out a steady supply of freshly baked tanoor and fluffy, diamond-shaped samoon breads. The aisles are lined with Iraqi specialities like housemade and bottled amba, bastica dried beef sausage, apricot leather, and an entire refrigerator case of different types of hummus.

In the produce section, mashed date paste is labeled kleche, just like the cookie. The produce manager extolls the virtues of both. “Dates, they are so good for your health,” he says. “Even diabetics can eat them. A man should have 14 pieces each day, not more than that,” he continues. “For a woman, seven pieces, maximum.”

In El Cajon, it’s little things that make it feel familiar to those who have spent time in the Middle East. Hospitality is the supreme cultural value, one that cuts across borders and religions. Here, people make time to talk to one another with the warmth and exuberance the region is known for.

Back in the Saray dining room, large urns of cardamom-scented tea and housemade lentil soup are complimentary for patrons as a small gesture of generosity. These sentiments draw in many guests for a glimpse of the homelands they left behind.

After setting down a plate, John takes a moment to reminisce. His blue eyes sparkle as he speaks about the foods of his childhood, when he enjoyed freshly caught masgouf on the banks of the Tigris river. “They make a ring of fire and put the fish on stakes around the circle. Then, they pull them off and...” he smacks the back of his hand into his palm, “they sear the back of the fish so the skin is crispy. That is masgouf.”

In El Cajon, the specialty is made using more readily available fish like carp and tilapia, rather than Iraqi river fish. They are cooked not in a ring of fire, but in a tanoor oven at nearby Nahrain Fish & Chicken Grill on East Main Street. Like everything in El Cajon, it is an adaptation of the life and flavors left behind.

I ask him how similar it was to the masgouf he remembered. He smiles and shrugs. “Close enough.”

Taste Mesopotamia on Main Street in El Cajon

In Greek, Mesopotamia means “the land between the rivers,” a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates, which flow through present day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq down to the Arabian Gulf. Also known as the Fertile Crescent, this region was the birthplace of civilization, where the wheel was invented, wine and beer were first brewed (by women!), animals were first domesticated, and agriculture was modernized through irrigation. So, it should come as no surprise that Mesopotamia was also the birthplace of cuisine, as documented in the world’s first cookbook, etched in cuneiform on a clay tablet in 2500 BCE.

While there are countless Middle Eastern restaurants to explore throughout El Cajon, you can taste an amazing array of regional Mesopotamian flavors right along Main Street. Find a few suggestions listed below from East to West.

Saray Restaurant
123 Jamacha Rd. (and E Main St.)
Type: Mesopotamian Mixed Grill (Turkish, Iraqi, Kurdish)
Specialties: Iraqi minced meat kebab, lamb, beef, chicken, offal kebabs, fresh tanoor Bread, hummus, moutabal, signature spicy eggplant dip

Valley Foods El Cajon
1275 E Main St.
Type: Iraqi Market
Specialty: Samoon bread, apricot leather, dates, fresh dips, amba, kebabs, fish

Nahrain Fish & Chicken Grill
1183 E Main St.
Type: Iraqi
Specialty: Masgouf

Shakira Pastry
1183 E Main St.
Type: Iraqi/ Pan-Arabian Bakery
Specialty: Iraqi kleicha cookies, baklava

Speedy Falafel
1142 E Main St.
Type: Modern Levantine
Specialty: Regional falafel (Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese), freshly baked saj and samoon bread, tepsi baytinijan (Iraqi eggplant casserole)

Al Azayem
550 E Main St.
Type: Iraqi
Specialty: Chicken cream chop, masgouf, mixed grill, kubba soup

Mal al Sham
388 E Main St.
Type: Syrian
Specialty: Mixed grill, shawarma, kibbeh mashwiyeh

Zarzour
facebook.com/Zarzour2017
293 El Cajon Blvd. (and W Main St.)
Type: Arabian Gulf & Pan-Arab
Specialty: Mandi

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