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Flavors From Afar uniquely highlights refugee chefs and their best recipes

Ouze at Flavors From Afar
Lina Georges’ ouze, a Lebanese dish of lamb shanks and spiced rice, served on the September 2021 menu at Flavors From Afar in Little Ethiopia.
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

The ouze — a Lebanese dish of spiced, roasted lamb shanks over rice scattered with pine nuts and slivered almonds — served at Flavors From Afar tasted very familiar.

I had recently been ordering meals from a 10-month-old takeout and delivery operation called Mama Lina Cooks, which brings to Los Angeles some homestyle aspects of Lebanese cuisine (textured stews, comforting rice dishes, stuffed vegetables) that rarely appear on menus here. Ouze might show up on Lina Georges’ weekly rotating menus alongside koussa (zucchini stuffed with allspice-scented beef and rice), siyadiyeh (spice-rubbed fish with tahini sauce) and shish barak (meat-filled dumplings browned and then warmed in yogurt sauce).

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The Little Ethiopia restaurant opened in March 2020 — a devastating time to launch, though its unique approach was vital even as a global pandemic unfolded. Meymuna Hussein-Cattan founded Flavors From Afar with her mother, Owliya Dima, initially as a catering arm of her Tiyya Foundation: The mission of the nonprofit is to assist families of refugees, immigrants and displaced indigenous communities through services that include educational support, mentoring, translation services and workshops.

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Restaurant co-founder Christian Davis describes Flavors From Afar’s tandem aims: “We highlight cooks and chefs who are refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants making cuisines from around the world.”

Its structure is unique and rewardingly daunting: Every month features a menu from a different cook who works with in-house chefs, led by program instructor Kenna Copes, to translate the home-cooked dishes of their culture to a professional kitchen setting. Copes and the restaurant staff prepare the meals, and the translation process can be a delicate dance: The key is to present food that feels true to the showcased chefs but also appeals to restaurant customers. And finding proper seasonings from the cuisine’s source can make for a mad scramble. Davis tells a story, as one example, about scouring markets for dried mushrooms and the right flavor of bouillon cube for Haitian black rice.

Since last spring, menus have featured Guatemalan taquitos, Palestinian musakhan (dusky-spiced chicken and caramelized onions over flatbread), Kenyan-style tilapia cooked in coconut milk, Venezuelan chicken pot pie and an Eritrean recipe for goat marinated in herbs and chiles.

Copes and her team eloquently re-create a handful of Georges’ signatures. Siyadiyeh is richly caked with spice but not overdone; its tahini sauce has the right, offsetting hit of lemon. Garlicky roasted chicken with batata harra (spiced fried potatoes) is classic and calming. A vegan plate that includes rice with lentils and loubieh bi zeit (green beans in tomato sauce with olive) is a nod to Lina’s son and business partner, Fouad, who is vegan.

Sheikh El Mahshi (or “Lord of the Stuffed Vegetables” in poetic Arabic), eggplant roasted with ground beef and pine nuts and served with tomato sauce, is the most liberally transformed dish. The Flavors From Afar kitchen uses globe eggplants common in the United States, whereas in Lebanon the smaller, slender variety is typically used. And while the tomato sauce is often more of an herbal gloss with stuffed vegetables, Copes opts for a robust Italian-style gravy. Still, the final result is deeply satisfying.

Somali chicken and rice
Somali chicken and rice at Flavors From Afar.
(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

The ouze is arguably the triumph — a synthesis of lush meat, cinnamon and black pepper wafting through beautifully cooked rice and a yogurt sauce sparked with dried mint, as is traditional.

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As the restaurant settles in, the menu also is incorporating favorites from months past. I urge you to focus on the Lebanese dishes, but two Somali dishes also deserve their place on the table: crisp-gushy sambusas filled with cheese and potato and gently sauced chicken over turmeric-stained rice, matchstick potatoes and other vegetables.

If Flavors From Afar started quietly due to its early-in-the-pandemic opening, its existence now deserves to be trumpeted. It has outdoor seating and, for vaccinated parties, limited indoor seating as it continues to build out its interior.

Georges’ dishes are available until the end of September. Up next at the restaurant in October? Chechen cuisine.

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Outstanding in the Field Dinner Events in October

L.A. Times Food Bowl is partnering with Outstanding in the Field on five dinner events in evocative Los Angeles and Orange County settings throughout October, highlighting local chefs while addressing sustainability and environmental topics.

On Thursday, Oct. 7, at Sepulveda Dam (a location that showcases restoration efforts of the L.A. River watershed), the event includes the premiere of the film “Man in the Field,” profiling Outstanding in the Field founder Jim Denevan.

An afternoon event on Saturday, Oct. 9, at Wattles Farm, the 4-acre community garden in West Hollywood, spotlights women farmers as well as women-owned wineries and breweries.

Sustainable seafood is the theme of a dinner at Huntington Beach Pier on Tuesday, Oct. 12, featuring chefs Andrew Gruel of Slapfish Restaurant Group and Craig Brady of Haven Craft Kitchen + Bar in Orange.

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Chefs John Cleveland of Post & Beam and Eric Bost (formerly at Auburn in L.A. and now at Jeune et Jolie & Campfire Restaurant in Carlsbad) headline a farm-to-table dinner at the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano on Thursday, Oct. 14; the food will be sourced from the center’s 28 acres.

Paramount Studios in Hollywood will be the iconic locale on Saturday, Oct. 16, for a dinner spotlighting rising-star chefs in L.A., curated by Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish and Valerie Gordon of Valerie Confections.

Tickets, which cost $385 per person for each event, are available at lafoodbowl.com.

Stephanie Breijo details the origin story of Awan, Zen Ong’s West Hollywood walkup window selling his Indonesian-style coconut-based ice cream. The project is a collaboration with Dayglow Coffee founder Tohm Ifergan.

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—Stephanie also has the details on Fanny’s, the restaurant in the soon-to-open Academy Museum of Motion Pictures helmed by star restaurateur Bill Chait, and brings us the weekly news (including specifics on a second Chinatown location for Johnny Lee of Pearl River Deli).

Jean Trinh has an excellent piece on the story behind Calbee Shrimp Chips, the cult snack ubiquitous in the aisles of Asian markets across the U.S.

Ben Mims writes a love letter to figs, with recipes like green fig kimchi that veer into savory realms.

—And speaking of figs (fanned over a tart with mascarpone cream and cooked with tamarind into ketchup), Julie Giuffrida gathers nine recipes as an ode to the end of summer.

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A variety of fig recipes from Ben Mims.
A variety of fig recipes from Ben Mims.
(Silvia Razgova / For The Times)


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