When they visited Jerusalem on a church-sponsored trip, my parents did not say they had traveled to Israel or Palestine. They were in the Holy Land, Tierra Santa in their native Spanish. What mattered to them was that Jesus had lived and died — and, they believed, risen from the dead — on that soil. They were pilgrims, not tourists.I don’t share my parents’ religious fervor, but I sympathize with their pilgrims’ perspective, which allowed them to see their destination in a broader context. In my secular way, I see it like that, too. This contentious region where great faiths were born is, for that very reason, the wellspring of the culture into which I was born. And in that culture, as in the stories of the Gospel, I find food. And so I came to make the acquaintance of Ali Aziz, a Palestinian who was a pastry chef at the Intercontinental Hotel in Jerusalem before joining family members in the United States. He ran the Oriental Bakery in Miami, and then opened The Middle East Best Food in 1989. His small shop on Coral Way sells grains, beans, olives, spices, oils, canned goods, cheeses and Aziz’s own pastries and cuisine. His food can be eaten at one of the two tables or, as most patrons choose, taken out. A daily special may be braised lamb shanks, lentils and rice with a chicken leg quarter or okra, rice and lamb. If one calls a day ahead, he will make couscous, and for parties he will cater a whole roast lamb stuffed with almonds, pistachios and rice ($275). Of course, there are stuffed grape leaves, tabbouleh, hummus, baba ganoush, falafel, kibbeh and spinach pie. I’ve had these familiar tidbits at places run by Greeks, Turks, Moroccans, Lebanese and Israelis, but never better than at Aziz’s. The food tastes homemade because it is. And the pastry! I discovered baklava in my youth, but in time found the sweetness cloying. In truth, it was the quality of a pastry that had become too popular for its own good that I was rejecting. Aziz’s baklava — with walnuts, almonds, cashews or pistachios — is the work of a serious pastry chef. Suddenly, I was a fan again. Some of his compatriots, Aziz tells me, downplay their identity because they fear it may be a hot button. He, on the other hand, puts on a proud face: “I’m a Palestinian Arab.” Yet, when “Latins who love Arab food” come into the shop, he speaks in the Cuban-tinged Spanish he has picked up in Miami, and the talk switches from the Middle East to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez as if this were the cafecito counter at Versailles. The food strikes familiar notes on a palate shaped by Spain, with its geographic and historic links to the Arab world — a world in turn influenced by the spread of Spanish cooking with the Sephardim. Sometimes I wonder if world crises could be averted if folks could just sit together and eat each other’s foods. Then I remember that cuisine is as contentious as politics. Amid gushing praise, a post on a food website complains that the pita bread Aziz bakes is Palestinian, not Lebanese. It’s like language. Some people bristle at the sound they don’t understand. Others, like the late French semiotician Roland Barthes, revel in the music that is left when meaning is gone. I subscribe to Barthes’ attitude. New sounds, new flavors; or sounds and flavors that echo in one’s consciousness because of their deep history — these are a joy. The only distinction here is my pleasure in Aziz’s versions of items I can find in practically any supermarket. His just taste better. Best. It’s the flavor of what the French call terroir, the soil. The tradition of a cuisine is firmly inscribed in the matrix of history, but transcends it by giving us not just sustenance but that feeling we call ecstasy. No wonder that when people gather to enjoy one another’s company, they eat together, as — returning to my early thoughts — in the Gospel. Food comes from the soil. And all tierra is santa.
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