Cooking as chemistry with nice aromas

by Amy Kingsley

The interior of Jerusalem Market looks at first glance like an old-fashioned candy store. Rows of glass jars and wooden barrels parallel to the transparent storefront fill the front half of the store. Those containers are filled to the brim with dried fruits, candies and the nuts they roast on the premises.

Shelves display other specialty foods difficult to obtain in the local chain grocery. The origins of these delicacies range from Middle Eastern to Scandinavian and Eastern European.

Owner Saliba Hanhan hails originally from Palestine, but has lived in the United States for decades after he arrived in pursuit of a chemistry master’s degree. He opened the store as a market for food from his homeland, but other immigrants seeking the comforts of home convinced him to expand his inventory.

‘“When the immigrants first come here they are at first not used to American foods,’” Hanhan says. ‘“So I started bringing in stuff for them.’”

Newcomers are not the only return customers. The peanuts, almonds and cashews they roast at the store with just a touch of oil have attracted clientele from across the state. One man from Maryland pays part of his rent with cashews, Hanhan says.

The exotic groceries are not the only attraction of this storefront. At the back of the market a glass case is crammed with meats and cheeses; behind it hangs two dry-erase boards with the deli department’s menu. That is where I find Hanhan.

After he finished his master’s at Miami University of Ohio, Hanhan took a job at Corning in upstate New York developing glassware and ceramics. The work did not fulfill Hanhan, who decided he was happier in the kitchen than the lab. As it turns out, tweaking the proper chemical combination for a ceramic glaze does not differ all that much from glazing a batch of cookies.

‘“Cooking is chemistry really,’” Hanhan says. ‘“The only difference is that in the kitchen you can inhale the aroma instead of having to wear a mask.’”

The odor inside the market is musky and piquant. Sandwiches comprise most of the short menu, and all of the Mediterranean staples are represented: hummus, tabouleh, baba ganouj and spanikopita. Visitors seeking more traditional American fare can partake in one of the gourmet ham or turkey sandwiches.

I stumbled into the Jerusalem Market first for a Friday lunch and ordered a baba ganouj with yogurt. The creamy filling is wrapped in papery bread called levasch or markouk made without oil or preservatives. It is bread that was originally cooked over an open fire and intended to keep for long stretches.

Inside the wrap, garlicky baba ganouj, which is made from roasted eggplants, balances the sharp yogurt. Crisp green lettuce and a meaty slice of tomato top the best version of this Middle Eastern favorite that I’ve eaten in the Triad.

In fact, the sandwich smelled so good that I couldn’t even wait the five minutes to drive back to the YES! Weekly offices to start eating it. But, to my credit, a stalled train held up my trip by a good 10 minutes.

Besides its deliciousness, this filling meal has the advantage of not excessively weighing me down. Wholesome ingredients like olive oil and whole grains have turned the regional cuisine of the Mediterranean into a model diet for artery-clogged Americans.

Later I stop by for another sandwich, the falafel that I’ve long heard is the best in town. Hanhan explains that he mixes the garbanzo beans, bulgur and parsley together himself instead of relying on a prepackaged mix.

The nuggets are deep brown and adorned with a healthy number of sesame seeds. The sandwich comes wrapped in the same levasch and is dressed with a pale tahini sauce. This time around the flavors are earthier and toothsome, and it is indeed the best falafel I’ve had in ages.

Next to the meat and cheese counter is a case stacked with the goods to satisfy a sweet tooth. There are boxes of pale Jordan almonds and a bag of gold ones that look too precious to eat. Baklava comes in two varieties here, pistachio or walnut. The walnut-based version is superb, a perfect balance of butter and honey that does not overpower the fragile phyllo dough.

Hanhan has had time to perfect his recipes; the store has been open in Greensboro for more than 16 years. In all likelihood it will be open much longer than that. Hanhan has two sons who work at the restaurant, go to school and plan to carry on the business, maybe even expand.

The older son Easa studies business at UNCG while the younger Omar is in his second year at GTCC’s Culinary Arts program. Between the two, the next generation has the two major components of the grocery/deli operation covered. Hanhan sees only one possible hitch.

‘“Now you just have to get them to work together,’” he says.

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