We like to think that Seattle welcomes everyone. That attitude is why Vietnamese pho restaurants line our streets and a debate about the best place to find Ethiopian food could last for hours. Dumplings from around the world feed us daily, and dozens of food trucks ply the streets, dispensing everything from Ghanaian kabobs to Thai rolled ice cream.
The immigrants who come to Seattle bring the foods of their home country: their comfort foods, their proud feasts, their everyday dinners. Some of them open restaurants and are so kind as to share those feasts with the rest of us, to give fellow Seattleites a glimpse at a faraway place, a chance to travel through the food on their plate, perhaps even a chance to ask the chef or owner about where they come from.
Now is the time to welcome people through meals, to remind ourselves why the Roman poet Martial said, “Givers of great dinners know few enemies.” Here’s where to find food from those banned countries in the Seattle area - if you so desire.
Seattle’s Iranian community offers a few options for Persian food, including Persepolis Grill in the U-District, Farvahar Persian Café Downtown, and Caspian in Bellevue. But my personal favorite for their fresh baked bread is Aria Bakery in Kirkland, where you can find the pebbled sangak flatbread hanging on the wall, endless pastries in the cases, and order Persian specialties like kuku sabzi, a gorgeously green frittata-like egg dish.
Some of Seattle’s best falafel come from the Mawadda Café in Hillman City. The South End-staple has served up a slate of Middle Eastern specialties for more than a decade, but what keeps people talking are the crisp-crusted falafel balls, served atop a salad orinside a thick, fluffy pita at this strip mall café. While falafel is often considered fast-food, leave a little time for this one: everything here is made as it’s ordered, which makes the service slower—but pays off in the freshness and flavor. Sip a cup of the chai as you wait, it’s worth it.
While Capitol Hill’s Mamnoon bills itself as a “modern union of Middle Eastern cuisines,” both the owners and much of the food hail from Syria. Fatteh (chickpeas, yogurt, crispy pita, tahini, and pine nuts with a poached egg), muhmmara (a pepper and walnut dish), fattoush, and tabbouleh show off the cuisine’s bent toward freshness, herbs, and spices. It's near impossible to pass by the breads emerging from the oven at the front of the restaurant without yearning to rip into one, whether to dip into your dinner or use as a wrap for the more casual lunch.
Somalia and Sudan
The Somali cab driver who first directed me to Juba described it as Somalian food (it was years ago, in answer to my standard question of where to find the best food from their home country). When I ate there, most of the food - like my stir-fried beef, onion, and pepper dish with chapati - was indeed Somali. When I came home to consult the internet, I learned that the namesake city is actually Sudanese, now the capital of South Sudan. Many of the dishes are shared across borders here, and the large menu encompasses dishes like the Sudanese favorite fuul, Yemeni malawach bread, and Somali suqaar.
While no restaurant in Seattle serves an entire menu of Yemeni food, there are places here and there where some of the country’s finest culinary exports pop up. I first learned of the brilliant green hot sauce zhug when I worked for local caterer On Safari Foods, you can also find it with your shakshuka at Nue and occasionally (if you ask for it) at the Lebanese restaurant Café Munir. As mentioned above, you can find malawach, a flaky flatbread, at Juba in Tukwila. You can also find it at Eggs and Plants, an Israeli café Downtown.
Sadly, I can’t find any specifically Libyan dishes in Seattle (though I welcome anyone telling me I’m wrong). But Ravenna’s Zouave, which mostly serves a mix of various European specialties, also serves couscous Dahia, which they describe as “a millennia old Amazigh dish,” attributing their vegetable and chicken couscous dish to the chef’s own Berber heritage, a people whose territory spills into Libya.
But wait, there’s more
If you’d like to eat delicious food and support programs that assist refugees from all of the above countries (and more), think about scheduling a catering event with Project Feast. The Tukwila-based organization offers regional menus that include Somali cilantro chicken and rice, Iraqi maqlouba (upside-down layered rice and vegetable dish), Syrian yalanji (stuffed grape leaves), and Sudanese kunafa (shredded filo dough stuffed with creamy ground peanuts).