It hasn’t been easy to find any sort of Middle Eastern or Mediterranian food in Ithaca, except for some store-bought hummus or the occasional falafel found in a supermarket.
I’ve been missing the cuisine immensely, especially after having it home-cooked during the six months I spent at home over the course of 2020. My quest in Ithaca was the following: Find a legitimate source of Middle Eastern food that is not overly expensive, tastes good and is easily accessible.
Last semester I was relatively unsuccessful in my search. I could find some individual options, but never the real deal I so badly wanted. I thought my only options were to make it myself, or accept defeat.
Then suddenly, the announcement of Trader Joe’s opening made the rounds amongst my friends. I was struck with hope! Trader Joe’s has always been a go-to for tasty, simple foods from different kinds of cuisines, even when I was back at home. I heard from my family that they had just introduced a couple new frozen Middle Eastern items, and so it was time I put them to the test.
The new quest was to search Trader Joe’s for their exclusively Middle Eastern items. I headed out bright and early, and bought the following: two types of hummus, falafel, frozen kibbeh, dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), Turkish apricots, halva and za’atar seasoning.
First up: the hummus. Trader Joe’s has more types of hummus in one section than your average supermarket. Most notably, was the chocolate hummus, but I felt as if buying that would be traitorous to the Middle Eastern spirit of the dish. Maybe another time.
I opted for their roasted garlic hummus as well as their “Tabbouleh-style” Hummus. Tabbouleh, for those who may not know, is a type of salad made from very finely chopped parsley, bulgur wheat, lemon juice, tomatoes, onion and mint. There are variations of course, such as substituting quinoa or semolina for the bulgur, but such was the tabbouleh I grew up eating.
Their roasted garlic hummus was delicious; I enjoyed it with some pita bread and carrots. If you enjoy a strongly garlic-infused hummus, this is perfect for you. But you might need a mint afterwards.
The Tabbouleh-style hummus, however, was not my favorite. The attempt seemed to be to take all the ingredients of tabbouleh, and stick them into the hummus. It was a solid effort, but the onion flavor definitely overtook any lemon or parsley flavors I found myself searching for.
Next up, the frozen, fully cooked falafel. This was probably my favorite out of everything I tried. As far as premade falafels go, and ones you can find here in Ithaca, it was easy and tasty. My one complaint would be the texture; it was just a bit too doughy, but that could have been the result of how I cooked it; It could have used longer than the 8 minutes I baked it in an air fryer.
Fourth: the Kibbeh. Their packaging describes it as a “Middle Eastern inspired stuffed meatball,” which feels like an oversimplification of flavor, but works nonetheless. Meatballs seem too uniform to be an accurate comparison for Kibbeh. With a crispy outside of bulgur wheat and spiced meat, filled with pine nuts, onions and even more spiced meat, the flavor of kibbeh is slightly sweet and served best with hummus or any type of tahini-based sauce. At home, we often nicknamed them “footballs,” due to their shape.
Kibbeh can be made in many ways besides the classic football-looking shape. Their rendition wasn’t bad, but my only grievance was that it felt as if they replaced the beautiful mix of spices with garlic. It lacked the cinnamon sweetness I was used to, but taking the price and accessibility into consideration, it was good.
Next up, the dolmas, which here are stuffed grape leaves, often filled with rice and spiced meat, and are pleasantly and delicately sour. Trader Joe’s has both a meatless rice version, as well as a quinoa-filled variation. My preference is for a meat and rice filling, but the Trader Joe’s version was shockingly good. I would have preferred it with a stronger sourness, but some added lemon juice did the trick.
The Turkish apricots were delicious; I’d had these from Trader Joe’s before. They’re juicier than the average dried apricot, and so if you like those, you’ll love these.
Trader Joe’s halva (or halvah) was quite good. Though I’ve seen it done differently, halva to me is a flakey –– or slightly fudgy, depending on where you get it –– dessert made of tahini, sugar and pieces of nuts. The Trader Joe’s version was just that, but was cocoa and vanilla flavored! In terms of a cheap, short notice halva, I’d say it was rather tasty.
Finally, their Za’atar spice. Za’atar (or zahtar) is a blend of dried spices, often including (but not limited to): thyme, oregano, sumac and sesame seeds. It can be put on just about everything, but I’ve always enjoyed it on bread or on some labneh (yogurt) with a bit of olive oil. I associate za’atar with a very sour flavor, but TJ’s version lacked that. It was also much more finely ground than I was used to, but that was of little importance. All in all, I’d say you’re better off grabbing this from a local halal grocery store, but it is convenient.
Though it isn’t a home cooked meal, these Trader Joe’s options are as close as I’ve gotten to some convenient Middle Eastern cuisine that I can buy in advance and eat whenever. I came in with high expectations, and all things considered, I feel satisfied with these options. If you’ve been on the search like me, I’d recommend you try these for yourself if you haven’t already. Perhaps it’s time I ask my dad how to make some fresh kibbeh in my small collegetown kitchen, and treat myself and my roommates to some freshly cooked Middle Eastern food.
Natasha Aysseh is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].