Assyrian Kitchen revives an ancient cuisine in modern Chicago | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

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Assyrian Kitchen revives an ancient cuisine in modern Chicago

Atorina Zomaya wants to share her family recipes with everybody.

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Atorina Zomaya was raised in a close-knit Assyrian American family in Rogers Park that revolved around food. "Pretty much everything was homemade—breads, yogurt, cheeses—according to ancient family recipes," she says.

But despite growing up surrounded by amazing home cooks—grandma, uncles, aunts—she didn't know any of the recipes. "If you ever asked, their instructions always included 'a little bit of this' and 'a little bit of that'—nothing was exact. The only ingredients I would say were ever consistent were the love and the time they would put into preparing each and every meal."

Curious, Zomaya set out to discover the history behind her family's culinary traditions. She cooked alongside her elders and standardized the recipes. Then she began researching the origins of her favorite Assyrian dishes.

Her curiosity was sparked even further when she came across the world's oldest "cookbook," three Mesopotamian clay tablets known as the Yale Culinary Tablets, part of the Yale Babylonian Collection at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Dating back to 1700 BCE, the tablets feature cooking instructions written in cuneiform for more than two dozen dishes, including a recipe for a wild fowl pie and a turnip dish with mashed leeks and garlic, all served to royalty once upon a time.

"After learning more about the recipes that were recorded on these clay tablets, I realized not much has changed in modern Assyrian food culture," notes Zomaya.

Her passion quickly turned into a side project with a dream. Eager to share "the richness of the Assyrian culture through the power of food, history, and traditions that define the uniqueness of Assyrian cuisine," she launched the first Assyrian Kitchen cooking class out of a Whole Foods in Chicago seven years ago. One of the first chefs Zomaya invited to co-teach a class with her was Dan Sarkiss of Zaytune Mediterranean Grill in Bridgeport. They fell in love and got engaged last September.

In late April, Zomaya opened a permanent location at 5481 North Northwest Highway in Jefferson Park. "This will be the home for our hands-on cooking classes, artisan food shop, private events, and catering," she says.

Enclosed in lapis lazuli-colored walls and accented by vibrant Assyrian art, the space conveys ancient luxury in a minimalist, elegant way. "I love that it feels both chic and warm," says Zomaya. "Assyrian Kitchen is an experience from the moment you walk in."

With stalwart ingredients such as beef, lamb, barley, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and lentils, spiced with red pepper, paprika, coriander, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, and nutmeg, Assyrian cuisine shares many elements and cooking techniques with Middle Eastern cuisine. Vegetable and spice-rich stews are common, rice and/or flatbreads are usually served with every meal, and tea is sipped at all times of the day.

But Assyrian cuisine has one key ingredient that sets it apart from the rest of the Middle East: alcohol, found in the wine, wheat beer, and anise- flavored arak, brewed and distilled since ancient times.

When asked what her favorite Assyrian dish is, Zomaya has a quick answer: "Gubibate! They're dangerous." She elaborates on her website: "Made of bulgur wheat, onions, finely ground beef, lamb, or goat meat, gubibate can be fried, baked, cooked in broth, or served raw. King Ashurnasirpal II (900 BCE) was enjoying 'gubibate' way before they became popular and several regions in the Middle East have their variations of the dish. Gubibate are more commonly known as kibbeh, kubba, kbebat today." ​

Assyrian Kitchen has gubibate-making workshops on the schedule for the upcoming months.

In addition to cooking classes such as "Let's Pickle and Ferment," "Bread Baking 101: Assyrian Flatbread," and "Kipteh: Lamb & Cracked Wheat Meatballs," Assyrian Kitchen has a number of reservation-only brunches and dinner events in the works. Zomaya also shares a number of family recipes including girdoo (barley porridge), dolma (stuffed grape leaves), and coconut date rolls on her website.

"Assyrian Kitchen is an experience," Zomaya writes. "It's an opportunity to share the richness of an ancient culture that has a long history in Chicago with the people of Chicago. Anyone that appreciates great dishes that grace modern menus, will love Assyrian cuisine! It's the high-quality food, the genuine hospitality, the conversations shared over a meal. That's the soul of Assyrian Kitchen."   v

Correction: An earlier draft of this story identified Assyrians as "Aramaic-speaking Syriac Christians of northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, northwestern Iran, and southeastern Turkey." The Assyrian language is made up of Aramaic and Akkadian. The address was also incorrect: it should be 5481 N. Northwest Hwy.

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