Culture Watch: East meets west in the grocery aisle
By Sharon Litwin
What happens when a graduate of Rummel High School, with a master's degree in marketing and accounting from the University of New Orleans, opens a grocery-cum-restaurant in this economy?
It’s a challenge.
And what if this son of immigrant Iraqi parents who left the northernmost New World outpost of France – Montreal - for the southernmost – New Orleans, wants to blend his traditional ethnic culture with a Metairie way of life?
Then it’s an adventure.
Mohanad Mohammed, 30, is hoping that the products he’s offering at Oasis Specialty Foods can cut across ethnic lines.
“What I really want to do is serve Cajun food, but with Middle Eastern flavors,” he explains. “You know, in so many ways, our foods are very similar. We each have a lot of sauces and lots of rice in all our dishes. My girl friend and I have been talking about this vision for more than five years: the idea of bringing both cultures together.”
Do you crave red currant jam or orange blossom honey from Europe, as well as blocks of Smith’s Creamery butter from Mt. Herman, Louisiana? Mohammed has them.
How about a dozen different kinds of donuts, fresh-baked daily from his kitchen? Or pizza with a choice of 18 different toppings? He has those, too. As well as shelves filled with spices from Syria and Turkey along with fenugreek leaves, baharat seasoning (a combination of cinnamon, cloves, cumin and ginger), labneh yogurt and tzatziki made in Chicago.
Oh, and I forgot to mention the grain-fed and grass-fed chicken, beef stew meat, ground lamb and a few goat chops at the butcher counter.
Goat chops? Yes, there’s a butcher on duty who goes to a small slaughterhouse in Donaldsonville twice a week to oversee the process and bring back the meats, chicken and, of course, the goat.
So how does one prepare goat chops?
“Oh, they absolutely have to be marinated,” Mohammed says. “For at least three to five days in a mixture of balsamic vinegar, yogurt and spices.”
And does goat taste like chicken?
“No,” he says with a grin. “It’s more between venison and buffalo.”
Mohammed admits that even his own family thinks he may be overly ambitious. But he’s a determined young man.
“I wanted a Mid Eastern type restaurant and store,” he says, “that’s a little more upscale. But, at the same time, I want to offer a shopping experience more like an old-fashioned place where you buy what you need for two or three days because it’s fresh, not frozen.”
So that’s the story of a young entrepreneur who's trying to bridge the gap between the Eastern and the Western worlds by mixing American contemporary cuisine with authentic Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors. It will be interesting to see if he can pull it off -- and how many of us will be eating goat chops.
Oasis Specialty Foods is located at 541 Oaklawn Drive, a half block off Veteran’s Boulevard.
Sharon Litwin writes Culture Watch weekly for NolaVie.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]