I’ve spent most of my Christmases in Northern California, celebrated with persimmon pudding and a drive to the beach. But when I moved to New York in 2006, I stopped going home for Christmas. I began throwing shindigs for other California expats who decided not to trek home. The only consistency in all of these Brooklyn celebrations was making trips to Sahadi’s — the almost-mythical Middle Eastern specialty shop — for ingredients.
How do Christmas traditions start? You make something for the holidays one year, and depending on the success of the dish (and good spirits), it sticks. So you bring it back the following year. After a while, I found the question is not how a Christmas dish becomes tradition but when to retire it. My new traditions started stacking up.
It started with the currants, from Sahadi’s fantastic bulk bins of dried fruit and nuts, to make the San Francisco Chronicle’s “To-Die-For” cookies. They’re almost-flourless chocolate cookies, made with currants soaked in alcohol (Kahlua in the original recipe but Armagnac for my holiday version). What makes them live up to the name is the currants’ subtle ability to communicate that boozey element, then a hint of spice: black pepper, cinnamon and pinch of cayenne. I got the spices at Sahadi’s, and also the floral, acidic chocolate that all of these flavors accentuate.
The first Brooklyn Christmas was in a little apartment on Bergen Street, with two old friends and a Bay Area native who I was having a fling with. Besides cookies and Armagnac the menu was chicken breasts poached in rose-scented almond milk, mâche salad and a version of the citrus risotto from Zuni Café. (I’d like to say the chicken dish was inspired by the rose water from Sahadi’s, but to be honest I think it was a brief mania for reading medieval menus.) In addition to the cookies, the citrus dish became another Christmas tradition. I can’t think of anything better for a holiday in December than that savory risotto — fluffy white mascarpone plus pith-less green lime, pink grapefruit and orange clementine, glistening like jewels.
After tipsily discovering Midnight Mass at a church in Brooklyn Heights that first year (while armed with pockets full of To-Die-For cookies), the next year I decided to formalize this wonderful adventure with a plate of the traditional Provençal 13 Desserts following Mass. Almost everything on that platter came from Sahadi’s: the figs, raisins, almonds, walnuts, quince paste, pastries and two kinds of nougat.
The next year I moved on from France to England. Our annual party had evolved to a sleepover, and for breakfast I made cheese toasties with Branston Pickle, roasted mushrooms and tomatoes, eggs and baked beans, with licorice Allsorts in the stockings. The Allsorts came from — you guessed it — Sahadi’s. Aside from the Allsorts, I counted six kinds of licorice at the shop including Finnish Black, Holland Herring and Salt-Dusted Fish. These unusual candies in jars are a perfect match for the holidays.
As owner Charlie Sahadi told me: “When we started we were a Middle Eastern foods store. There was a time if you weren’t from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, you probably would not shop here, but as we’ve evolved into a specialty food store, the specialty customers fell in love with the Arabic food we were selling, and the Middle Eastern customers fell in love with the specialty ingredients. So we had this perfect marriage, and it also made the store more interesting.”
And that mix of customers is part of what makes the crowded shopping at Sahadi’s so much fun. Arabic, Jewish, Christian, atheist, experimenter or traditionalist, everyone asks the friendly workers (and each other), “What’s that? What do you do with it?”
A few times my international Christmases have gone awry this way. Once I moved to a bigger place in Ditmas Park, some of my extended family flew out to stay with me in December. I made a lamb stew for Christmas Eve. Yum, they thought, traditional Irish lamb stew with potatoes and carrots. But I wanted to use the dried black lime I had found at Sahadi’s (which looks like a citrus shrunken head). So I made a Persian lamb and split pea soup—that my picky young cousin refused to eat. The pungent smell was too exotic for her palate, though she enjoyed helping me smash that hard little lime to bits with a hammer (a necessary step to extract the flavor).
So I’ve cut the traditions down to the essentials, the Zuni risotto and a few cookies — with ingredients I can only get from Sahadi’s. There’s the diced candied lemon in the Pfefferneusse (made gluten-free with buckwheat flour and buckwheat honey). And then there’s the butter for the sugar cookies. Sahadi’s has, at last count, 21 kinds of butter from almost as many countries. With family and friends we roll out the dough and cut it into snowflakes, trees, stars and also a few shaped like the state of California to remind us of home. Christmas, thanks to Sahadi’s, is now celebrated with found family and new traditions, based on the welcoming hodge-podge that Brooklyn is — and has always been.
An Interview with Charlie Sahadi
Sometimes referred to as the “Ambassa-dor of Atlantic Avenue,” Charlie Sahadi is a hands-on ruler, reigning over the specialty grocery store that was started by his father in 1941. You can usually find him near the registers, teasing cashiers and joking with customers. Then, up a cardamom-scented staircase, he works in an office with his wife, his son and his daughter.
Charlie is Lebanese and his wife is Syrian (they tell me about trips they wish they had taken before those Syrian cities were destroyed). Yet Charlie, born in Bay Ridge and still living there (along with most of his family), is as Brooklyn as you can be: funny, open, practical and with a deep interest in authentic food. He spoke with me about the store’s history.
Edible Brooklyn: Have certain cookbooks had a big impact on the store?
Charlie Sahadi: Ah, well, Paula Wolfert is a cookbook writer who used to live in Connecticut and she put out Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco and two or three other books, and she was using sumac and halabi red pepper [Aleppo]. She introduced the world to a lot of these items that no one knew before. And now a lot of other people have picked them up. It’s interesting how one person can get a whole range of people interested in an item, simply by putting out a cookbook. Sumac has become a real mainstream item now. Just like hummus. When we were kids no one knew hummus except Middle Easterners. Now everybody knows tahini, everybody knows hummus…
EB: And labneh, in the last few years…
CS: Oh, labneh! You know, I’m baffled. To me, this is a yogurt country. Labneh should be in every kitchen in America. Why it has never been promoted properly by a big company with money to get it out there, I have no idea. But it’s a wonderful product. We love it with cucumbers, you can use it instead of cream cheese, you can put it on bagels.
EB: How do you decide to get new ingredients?
CS: Customers. You know, if you want to be successful in business, they’re the most important commodity you have. You pay attention and when there are a few requests, you put it out there. And nine times out of 10, if you pay attention and spend time with the customers, which is what I do, you get more winners than losers.
EB: You spend a lot of time with customers.
CS: I do. As my daughter says, I schmooze the customers better than anybody. I’m also the guy who does most of the interviews because I have more stories than everybody else.
EB: When did Sahadi’s start?
CS: In 1895, my father’s uncle Abraham started A. Sahadi & Co. on Washington Street, in an area that they’re trying now to get designated “Little Syria.” We’re of Lebanese origin, but of course way back in 1895 there was no Lebanon. So Little Syria does describe where we all came from. He was wholesale and retail, and manufactured many items. And my dad came to America to work with his uncle in 1919.
EB: Why did your dad first come here in 1919?
CS: He came to work with his uncle and make some money and support the rest of the family that was in Lebanon. And he worked with him for 23 years until 1941; he was the salesman and went around the country. In 1941, my dad had become a small partner and was bought out with chickpeas and lentils and feta cheese. He took those items and moved three doors down the street and opened Sahadi Importing Co. I’m not sure what that did to the family relationship at the time … In 1941, I wasn’t born yet. In 1946 he bought this building (on Atlantic) that we’re sitting in, and in 1948 they moved to Brooklyn.