SEATTLE - A Seattle chef is paying homage to the city's bus Route 7, making dishes reflecting neighborhoods on its line. The highly trafficked route connects downtown Seattle with Columbia City and Rainier Beach.
Chef Tarik Abdullah's upcoming pop-up dinner June 23, called South on Seven, highlights how rich in culinary diversity South Seattle is. His dinners recur with different themes.
South on Seven will "give folks another way to see how the south end is made up,” Abdullah said. And of Route 7, "There really isn't any other bus that connects multiple cultures from end to end.”
"You're seeing multiple stories. This is a very important line for a lot of people," Abdullah said.
The dinner will feature six courses from stops on Route 7: the International District, Little Saigon, Rainier and 23rd, Mount Baker Transit Center, Columbia City, Rainier Beach and a dessert inspired by the route in entirety.
Abdullah is collecting groceries from stores and markets on the line's path.
Some special ingredients are moqua squash, horse clams, pennywort (a plant "that looks like a leafier miner's lettuce"), beef chorizo, pacaya (in the palm family) and African yams.
"I had no idea how many different choys there are," Abdullah said, eyes wide recalling an aisle of Hau Hau Market.
Abdullah grew up in a Muslim household. His parents often cooked Middle Eastern dishes.
"There was a lot of sumac. There were a lot of dates, lamb, pilaf," Abdullah said. "Those are some of the things that definitely stuck out and still stick out in my mind, growing up as a kid."
His cooking inspiration comes from childhood, traveling the world as an adult and daily life in Seattle.
"I walked into a restaurant called Palomino. I was 18 years old at the time," Abdullah said. "I walked into this restaurant and I was mind-blown, honestly, by how the whole setup was. It was an open kitchen, got the rotisserie thing going, you literally could shake the cook's hand that was making your food. I was so intrigued by that."
His mother, who also lives in Washington state, went to one of Abdullah's pop-up dinners and tried his pickled baby octopus dish.
It's part of what Abdullah loves about cooking. Creating very new experiences for people.
"I love the look on people's faces when they see something they've never tried," he said.
On a small plate, silver fish sit in sweetened black vinegar, galangal powder and plum sauce.
He takes a bite of browned fish.
"What the heck?" he says excitedly, mulling over the length it takes the tongue to register the taste as fish.
The newness of experimenting is its own energy.
Abdullah introduces lime, brightening the dish.
Before he adds it, he says, "I kind of wonder what would happen if you add lime." And then, without hesitating, squeezes it into pan heat.
What makes a good dining experience for him? "Surprise me," Abdullah says. "But don't be cheesy about it. Like, seriously."
So he works to make every Midnight Mecca, the name for his pop-up dinners, memorable and unique.
"It's funny (timing)," Abdullah says when that word rises. "(Because) we’re actually using a fruit called 'uniq.'"
Abdullah is peeling a swollen yam in his palm, between the kitchen and bar.
In a neighboring room, a massive chandelier lights glass.
Slatted wood of varied hues, dark to light, flank the entrance of the Black and Tan Hall in South Seattle, where he's cooking a dish as part of research and development for South on Seven.
A long dining table and chairs incorporate the same clean, colored pallets, contributed by community members.
Everything about the Black and Tan Hall, which Abdullah co-operates, down to the wood on the walls and chairs, is an act of community.
It's a collaborative space that, when open, will hold events and be a restaurant.
"Trust is the number one thing," Abdullah said of communities growing each other. "We have to depend on one another. Because if we don't, we will get pushed out."
Abdullah wears a maroon sweatshirt that reads, "Feed the people." It's a kind of tagline, he says, originating from a friend's reading of his work.
"T, man, you're always feeding the people," his friend said.
What his friend really meant, Abdullah said, was, "You're always cooking for our people."
And feeding isn't just about food. It's about information, too.
"You can feed folks any way you choose," Abdullah said.
Bettering access in Seattle is key. He teaches cooking to children 11 to 14 years old with Coyote Central, a Seattle nonprofit that offers workshops to middle school-aged youth, and at the Ethiopian Community Center in South Seattle.
"We need to look at food on a scale of the access to it. Based on what people need on a daily basis. I'm always trying to put myself in a conversation on how to better situations when it has to do with food in our own communities," Abdullah said.
African yams are frying in a small round pot on the stove.
Abdullah eats the slices quietly, then offers one.
The yams are crisp and hot on a small plate with maroon flowers in a wreath, the same color as his sweatshirt.
Later, he and his team will develop the final form of each dish and, in plating, consider, 'How do I want them to experience it when they go into the first bite?'
The South on Seven dinner may expand into a second part. There is much to work with.
"It's kind of like a little world (here) in Seattle," Abdullah says.
With community resource-pooling to establish facilities, his teaching, an endeavor into chocolate-making (black pepper, cumin, cardamom, clove dark chocolate for sale at Uwajimaya called 'Boharat') and evolving dinners with Midnight Mecca, Abdullah stays busy experimenting.
"I kind of wonder what would happen if," Abdullah asks.
And Seattle gets fed.
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