A taste of the East while staying home in the West


Photo courtesy of Margot Durfee

Margot Durfee

The first time I drove along 16th street, I gazed out the window in awe. Countless places of worship crowded together on a few blocks regardless of a difference in beliefs. One thing these churches do to foster a supportive community is host food festivals a few times a year. To take advantage of living in such an international city, I went to three food festivals over the course of a week.

First off, I went to the Middle Eastern Food Festival, located in an Antiochian Greek Orthodox church on 16th street. The chatter of voices and smell of grilled meat drifted over to me before I had even entered the church. Inside, banquet tables were set up boasting a plethora of steaming food on top including gyros, falafel, and tabouli (a salad consisting of finely chopped parsley, tomatoes, mint, onion, and seasoned with olive oil and lemon). I eagerly ordered a beef gyro, a small container of tabouli, stuffed grape leaves, and a spinach pie all for under 15 dollars.  The gyro — grilled beef, tomatoes, onion, and tzatziki sauce (strained yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, and olive oil) wrapped in pita bread — was delicious. The freshly grilled beef was tender and sweet, working well with the fluffy pita and crunchiness of the onion.

A man behind the register explained to me that the church community is extremely diverse, including people from Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Ethiopia. As a result, the festival served as a meeting point for different cultures. A small stage was set up in the middle of the room, speakers blasted Arabic pop music, and little kids hopped along on the stage. It was very cute.

My favorite part of the festival was the dessert section. Two bakery display-cases showed-off an assortment of baklava, pastries, and puddings. I decided to go for the rice pudding. On the twenty-second walk to the cash register, I got multiple comments expressing how good the pudding was. The rice pudding was the right choice; sprinkled with pistachio and cinnamon, the pudding was creamy, sweet, and cool, perfect for a hot day.

Immediately after we finished eating at the church, we faced mid-day traffic to drive downtown to the Turkish festival. A large section of Pennsylvania Avenue was closed off because of the sheer number of stalls. In contrast to the small, community-run Middle Eastern Festival, the Turkish festival was enormous. I would not be surprised if the event was partly funded by the Turkish government. On a large stage, performers danced to drum beats and traditional Turkish music while the crowd clapped along. Turkish flags depicting current leader Erdogan and founder Mustafa Atatürk hung from stands selling jewelry, “I love Turkey” shirts, and — of course — food. As I had already eaten lunch, and the lines for each of the stalls were extremely long, I opted to just get dessert, again. One popular dessert that is eaten in the Middle East and Central Asia is baklava, thin pastry layered over pistachios and soaked in honey. As they are extraordinarily sweet, they are generally served in small squares and drunk with black tea or coffee. When you bite into the crispy pastry, honey oozes out in a deliciously gooey mess.

I obviously couldn’t get enough of food festivals because the following weekend I went to yet another food festival, this time one closer to home. On the corner of Fessenden and 42nd street, a block off of Wisconsin Ave near Wilson is the St Mary Armenian Apostolic Church that annually hosts an Armenian food festival. Similar to the Middle Eastern food festival, this is run by the church community. Everyone is very enthusiastic and will happily talk about the food they cooked and what dishes they like best. I got there on the late side, so a lot of the main dishes sold out. Nevertheless, there was plenty of side dishes left. I ordered stuffed grape leaves, roasted green beans, lentils, eetch, two types of rice, and hummus with pita.  Each dish amazingly complemented each other, and I practically inhaled the whole plate. I have to say, I felt very healthy eating this meal. My plate had almost every color of the rainbow on it. For dessert, I tried a small piece of kataifi, chopped walnuts with ground clove and nutmeg wrapped in a crispy dough with a hint of lemon.

Thinking back on these meals, I’m reminded of the countless contributions people from around the world have made to the US and the value of being exposed to diverse cultures. Cooperation and tolerance are essential for a future of prosperity. I am grateful I live in DC and have the opportunity to experience these different cultures first hand.