A linear contemplation of Cajun culture and its distinctive cuisine leads to thoughts of the southwest Louisiana Cajun-French patois and a yearning for dishes based on seafood and smoked meat. When considered from the surface it’s simply intuitive to assume that the mystery and elegance of the Mediterranean cultures and the sweet, pungent spices that define their cooking would stand at odds with an association to Cajun culture.
Perhaps this is because for generations Acadiana’s many people of Mediterranean descent publicly strived to assimilate into their adopted culture, usually working as merchants, while maintaining the culinary traditions of their ancestral lands in their homes.
Hilary Hurst Landry recalls stories of her great grandparents, George and Adele Ackal, immigrating to New Iberia from their native Beirut three generations ago. “No one really knows how they ended up here, but we have speculated that French being the second language in their region, they regarded French-settled Acadiana as a sensible place to go. My grandfather acquired swaths of farmland and opened Ackal’s Grocery, which was like the Walmart of the day, right next to the railroad line. Everyone in the community would have done business with them but they probably would have found their in-home customs unusual.”
Della Viator says, “Growing up in New Iberia and later Lafayette, I had friends from Lebanese and Syrian families and they would invite me home for things like stuffed grape leaves, and both fried and raw kibbeh. I was always struck by the closeness of the family members, their dark features, and their urban flair that was quite unique in Cajun-country. Their celebrations sometimes included Middle Eastern music and group dances, and some families grew grape leaves on their fences. Groups of ladies would get together to socialize and make stuffed grape leaves, and I remember the musical sounds coming from the numerous stacks of gold bracelets they wore on their arms while they worked.”
The oil boom of the 1970s and the resulting urbanization and growth of Lake Charles and Lafayette brought Mediterranean foods out of home kitchens and into the general stream of commerce as second and third-born generations sought to capitalize on the foods familiar to them while diversifying the restaurant scene for a population that was growing both in numbers and in wealth. Today it’s easy to find eateries offering shawarma, gyros, falafel, grilled kabobs, baba ganoush, hummus and bulgur-rich fried kibbeh.
Like many Mediterranean-influenced restaurants in Acadiana, Cedar Deli blends traditional Mediterranean cuisine with regional flavors, hence the availability of the shrimp gyro, a Middle Eastern poor boy with olive salad and cucumber sauce; and a fried Halloumi cheese “sub.”
Though the location in Lafayette is a casual grill, Mazen’s Lake Charles’ locale is a white-tablecloth affair. It also blurs the cultural line. Gulf fish and regional fare dabbed with French sauces (red snapper with crab cakes and grilled shrimp in a lemon beurre blanc), wiener schnitzel, and creamy hummus with cinnamon-kissed grilled beef tenderlion co-exist happily on the menu.
With locations scattered all over Acadiana, a fresh meal at Zeus’ Cafe is as easy to come by as fast food – but much better. Start with the rosewater based-Lebanese tea. The Zeus Special Plate can be shared and includes grilled chicken schwarma, paper-thin gyro meat, rice, hummus and fried kibbeh.
Sexy date night? It’s a bit of a treasure hunt to find Cousins Lebanese Cuisine in Lake Charles, given that the entryway to the restaurant is hidden in the wall of a tin shack behind a liquor store. But once you step through the door, you’ll feel like you’ve arrived in another world. The interior features a beautiful carved bar and moody, dramatic lighting. With three to an order, the Halabi Kabob (hunks of ground lamb and beef rib-eye rubbed with warm spices, chopped parsley and onion) would be plenty for two to share. It comes with pita bread, fragrant rice, and a choice of hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouli, fattoush and/or Lebanese fried potatoes.
• Cedar Deli. 1115 Jefferson St., Lafayette. (337) 233-5460, cedardeli.com
• Cousins Lebanese Cuisine. 2612 Kirkman St., Lake Charles. (337) 437-1144
• Mazen’s Grill. 5818 Johnston St., Lafayette. (337) 769-4440, (337) 884- 8460, mazens.com
• Mazen Mediterranean Foods. 217 W College St., Lake Charles. (337) 477-8207, mazens.com
• Zeus. (several locations) zeuscafe.com
With the arrival of spring so comes fresh goat cheese from Belle Ecorse Farms, a lush 10 acre micro-dairy farm and goat cheese plant located in St. Martinville on land Wanda Barros’ French Acadian family has been working for decades. Wanda refrains from milking her small, happy herd of dairy goats from October until the first signs of spring appear, allowing for milk that’s flavorful and high in butterfat. Her handmade cheeses include fresh, soft chèvre, goat milk feta, and soft-ripened/bloomy rind cheeses. During peak season delicious chèvre curd is also available. Catch Wanda most Saturday mornings at the Red Stick Farmers’ Market in Baton Rouge or visit the farm by appointment. Belle Ecorse Farms, (337) 394.6683, belleecorsefarms.com.