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Dearborn Michigan: An Arab American Food Mecca

posted on: Jan 19, 2022

Dearborn Michigan: An Arab American Food Mecca

By: Blanche Shaheen / Arab America Contributing Writer

Stepping inside Lebon Bakery, a flood of flashbacks overcame me. The smell and sight of kunafa, or the iconic orange pastry with melted cheese and pistachios, brought back fond memories of bakeries I had visited in Palestine and Jordan. All of the women working there spoke fluent Arabic, busy assembling meticulous desserts as the smell of butter, orange blossom and handmade sesame bread filled the air. This bakery could have fit in easily on the busy streets of Ramallah Palestine or Beirut Lebanon, but instead, it is situated in the heart of Dearborn, Michigan. 

Dearborn Michigan: An Arab American Food Mecca

If you drive by block after block in Dearborn, you will see countless Arab restaurants, cafes, and supermarkets dominate the landscape, each more tantalizing than the other. One day you can sip on cardamom-scented Yemeni coffee, the next you can feast on Iraqi lamb shanks, and the next you can nibble on fresh baklava brimming with Turkish pistachios from Shatila Bakery. Even the highway billboards feature prominent Arab lawyers and politicians, and the city now boasts the country’s first Arab American National Museum.

Dearborn has become an Arab food mecca in the United States, where you can sample culinary delights from every Arab country imaginable. This city now boasts the largest and most diverse Arab community in the United States. Out of the city’s 98,000 residents, more than 30% identify as Arab-American or claim some form of Arab descent. 

The first wave of Arab migrants arrived in Detroit as early as the 1880s. Mainly Christian Arabs left their homes in the Mount Lebanon region following a collapse in the traditional silk-weaving industry. Palestinians arrived in the second decade of the 20th century, attracted by the prospect of work in the automotive industry. Catholic Chaldeans from Iraq, as well as Yemenis, arrived as early as the 1920s. More recently, however, refugees of war from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen have flocked to Dearborn’s established Arab communities as a safe haven.

Dearborn Michigan: An Arab American Food Mecca

As Arab food is closely tied in with Arab identity, the cafes and restaurants have provided a home away from home, where friends and families gather to enjoy the flavors of their childhoods. Ibrahim Alhasbani, a Yemeni American, wanted to recreate the coffee he grew up in Yemen, so he created Qahwa House, with the word “Qahwah” meaning coffee. He not only serves coffee, he tells the story of his home country through the dramatic Yemeni artwork decorating the walls. The coffee is served in elegant glass kettles, and unique desserts like the famous honeycomb-shaped pastry called “Sabaya” round out the immersive Yemeni experience. 

Dearborn Fresh and Greenland Markets offer a massive middle eastern shopping experience. As you peruse the thousands of square feet in these stores, you can find both fresh and frozen middle eastern favorites, from Mujadara and Kibbeh to Katayef turnovers and homemade labneh cheese. Fragrant pantry staples like sumac and za’atar are sold by the pound, and novelty items like semolina cake mixes and fattoush salad dressings line the shelves. Bins are brimming with pastel-colored candied chickpeas, Turkish delights with dried fruits and nuts, and sticky sesame candies from overseas. 

While some may be intrigued by Arab culture and food but find a plane ticket to the other side of the world daunting, Dearborn Michigan is an excellent primer for an authentic middle eastern experience. The hospitality and warmth of these businesses beckon and welcome any visitor open to new and exciting cultural escapades.

To see a tour of Qahwah House, along with an authentic Yemeni restaurant experience, and Shatila Bakery tour, click on the video below:

Blanche toured the Dearborn food scene while attending the Connect Arab America: Empowerment Summit this past November.

To see a video tour of Lebon Bakery and Greenland Market, click on the video below:

Blanche Shaheen is the author of the cookbook called “Feast In the Middle East, a Journey of Family and Cuisine”  which you can order here: https://secure.mybookorders.com/mbo_index.php?isbn=9781545675113   She is also a journalist, and host of the popular cooking show called Feast in the Middle East. She specializes in the Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond.  You can check out her cooking video tutorials at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv    Her recipes can also be found at https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/ 

Check out Arab America’s blog here!