Nesrin had been pounding garlic all morning, but the blunt thump of the pestle grew louder when she started talking about Syria. From 2010 to 2014 she marched in the revolution there. “Everyone conspired to kill the civil rights movement,” she said.
Nesrin (who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family still living in Syria) now makes a living as a chef and evangelist of Mediterranean cuisine. In an industrial kitchen in West Los Angeles, three vegetable dishes drenched in olive oil were steamed on the stove; She poured the garlic paste into the green fava beans. Her cooking style is intense but never rushed. In gold mules and a splattered green apron, her hair held back with a cloth headband, she tackled each clay pot in turn, sprinkling the okra with coriander, shaking kosher salt from the box onto an eggplant tagine, and hitting all three with a pinch of Aleppo -Pepper.
Since 2019, Nesrin has operated a stand called the Mediterranean Pastries Den at three Westside farmers markets: Mar Vista, Playa Vista and Hermosa Beach. I have been a regular at the Mar Vista Farmers Market for eight years. While there are many vendors there who remember my face, Nesrin is the only one who knows my name and asks about my family. When my baby is with me, it makes her laugh and giggle while speaking Arabic in a high, silly register. She’s not a saleswoman – she’s a hostess.
In Southern California, Syrian food is found primarily in Anaheim and the San Fernando Valley. Nesrin saw an opening in the Westside of Los Angeles, where there is a lot of enthusiasm for vegetarian food but often without a strong cultural context. “In the Middle East, people sell things we don’t eat or know about. Hummus with avocado – we never eat hummus with avocado, under any circumstances. “There is really no representation of the Syrian table and the diversity of what we eat,” she said.
The name of their stand is a bit misleading. Her pastries are delicious—the baklava is luxurious with pistachios and rosewater, and the date filling in her maamoul cookies is heavily flavored with fennel and mahlab—but she is particularly deft with vegetables, beans, and whole grains.
For her eggplant tagine, the eggplant is first fried and then steamed with onions, garlic and tomatoes; It’s rich, sweet and creamy and studded with whole garlic cloves. She cooks chunks of okra carefully, folding them rather than stirring them, to keep what she calls “the goo” at bay. A Yemeni-style dish she calls Yemeni beans consists of pureed favas stewed with garlic, tomatoes, cumin and turmeric.
The recipe for the whole thing comes from a family of diplomats from this country who were Nesrin’s neighbors and grew up in Damascus. Her father was a real estate developer and the family traveled frequently to Europe and the Middle East. Combined with life in the diplomatic district, this cosmopolitan childhood gave Nesrin a taste for a wide variety of cuisines, in every sense of the word.
She came to the United States in the late 2000s to attend graduate school. Nesrin had to learn to pump gas because until then her family had always had a driver. When the Arab Spring began, she felt it was her duty to return home to help restore democracy. “It was time to help your country if you are educated and endowed with democratic values,” she says.
She returned to the United States as an asylum seeker, where she has family, and now has a green card. Everyone dreams of opening a restaurant. But rents in West LA, not to mention the tens of thousands of dollars needed to build out, have put that dream out of reach, at least for now.
As Nesrin cooks for the week, she listens to the news and checks notifications on an iPad nestled in a soft, padded stand next to the stove. When I visited her in October. 5, she scrolled through stories about Kevin McCarthy’s ouster as House Speaker and despaired at the chaos in American democracy.
Egyptian beans at Mediterranean Pastries Den at the Mar Vista Farmers Market are one of owner Nesrin’s specialties. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)
Nesrin’s dream is to open his own restaurant. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)
We spoke again in November and I asked her how the news of the war between Israel and Hamas had affected her. After seeing so much suffering during the Syrian civil war, she said that in the conflict between Hamas and Israel’s right-wing government, “it is hard to imagine civilians paying the price.”
Another dish she sells is a version of musakhan, sumac chicken baked with onions and spices Palestinian chef Reem Asil called “Perhaps the most iconic of all Palestinian chicken dishes.”
It’s another recipe that Nesrin learned from a neighbor, this Palestinian, when he was growing up. She follows the news in Gaza closely. She said: “I know real people there who have real families. I follow their stories. As for me, I was in that situation.”
The war has brought with it renewed scrutiny the old cliché that food brings people together, and the intense, almost cruel pressure on, for example a bowl Hummus to humanize the people who created it.
Nesrin’s clients largely don’t share her cultural background, but she doesn’t try to prove anything about herself. Their mission is to address the shortcomings of American food culture, be it the over-reliance on meat or the perhaps misguided practice of serving simple roasted vegetables. Many of their regular customers are families, as children love their okra and green beans, gently prepared and full of flavor. I’m guilty of roasting my okra, a vegetable I didn’t grow up eating, and eating her has given me a whole new appreciation for it. It’s all about this. She says, “I want to teach the public how to eat.”