Levant

Should You Be Embarrassed to Confuse ‘Middle Eastern Food’ with ‘Mediterranean Food’?

Surprisingly, some immigrant restaurant owners would prefer you to keep getting it wrong

If you’ve ever eaten Mediterranean food, you’re probably working under the assumption that you’ve also, to some degree, tasted Persian food, Lebanese food or even Israeli food. By that measure, when you told your friend how good the kebabs were, you likely said something like, “Man, Middle Eastern food is the best!” Maybe you were confused; maybe you didn’t know any better; or maybe you legitimately believed that all the places where the yogurt with those delicious spices and chopped cucumbers flows like wine are all, in fact, the same. 

Frankly, I get it. Both of my parents are Persian and I, too, occasionally struggle to differentiate between Middle Eastern cuisine, Mediterranean food and where or even if Persian food falls on that spectrum. What I’m trying to get at is that you’d be far from alone in this ignorance, as many of the terms are deliberately used interchangeably by those selling it. “These are all very recent consumer and marketing terms,” says Leila Hudson, an anthropologist and associate professor in the school of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. “These aren’t really old-fashioned or authentic categories.” 

Instead, Hudson says that they stem from American restaurant culture in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Americans began to familiarize themselves with the food traditions of different immigrant groups. “That’s when you saw these very broad categories, like Italian food, Chinese food or fancy French food,” she says. “That’s the beginning of when the restaurant business attempts to market, brand and sell things — it’s at that point that you work within a template created by those earlier notes of immigrant food to create something that’s sort of recognizable and familiar, and therefore, sustainable for the American palate.”

So what, then, is the difference between “Middle Eastern” food and “Mediterranean” food? According to Hudson, Middle Eastern food would refer to any food from the Eastern Mediterranean through Iran. “It’s just typically associated with the region geographically identified as the Middle East,” she says. “Whereas, Mediterranean sort of focuses on the culture group that’s united, rather than culturally divided, by the Mediterranean Sea as a trading area. So when you say Mediterranean, you’re including Southern Europe and North Africa as well.”

To put her point in perspective, Neath Pal, a chef who teaches international cuisine and several other courses at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, told QSR Magazine that mixing up Mediterranean food with Middle Eastern food is “like saying the difference between lo mein and pad thai is indistinguishable.” 

Hudson, too, believes that lumping all these cuisines into one category is “quite a stretch.” But while the use of convenient catch-all regional terms to better serve the palatability of American restaurant goers may at first appear fairly innocuous, for the Middle Eastern restaurant owners forced to market their restaurants as “Mediterranean cuisine,” it’s essential to their livelihood.

“Just in the use of the term Persian rather than Iranian, for example: the branding move and the marketing move is to disassociate from the pervasive image of political conflict and turmoil and to associate your brand with something that’s non-political, thereby making it safer, more accessible and reaching a wider audience,” explains Hudson. “You see the same thing in just saying Persian rather than Iranian, so Americans don’t associate the very anti-Islamic republic Iranians of Tehrangeles [a portmanteau combining Tehran, the capital of Iran, and Los Angeles] with the Ayatollah. That’s a perfect example of that very thing.”

To that end, Hudson tells me that the same move is being made when you say “Mediterranean,” to try and be inclusive and non-threatening toward people who might be freaked out by the politics and conflicts of certain areas of the world, primarily the Middle East. “Persian sounds more cultural, it sounds more ancient, it sounds more regional, it sounds less political and less conflictual,” she says. “Mediterranean makes a similar move, say, for Arab food, for example.” In other words, to appeal to a wider audience in a non-threatening way, immigrant restaurant owners — specifically those stemming from conflicted regions of the world — want to leave those national conflicts at the door.

This marketing approach of consciously removing the association between certain Middle Eastern cuisines with the “conflicted regions of the world” is also serving immigrants fleeing from those areas. “It’s part of the marketing and branding experience, but it also happens because the people — it’s particularly the case with the Iranian community in Southern California — want, by and large (and obviously there are exceptions), nothing to do with the Iranian regime,” says Hudson. “They want nobody to confuse them with the regime from which they’ve fled.”

She’s right, of course. Most of the managers and restaurant owners of the many “Persian” restaurants in Tehrangeles that I spoke with told me of their preference to disassociate from the current Iranian regime. “The food we serve is Persian food,” one restaurant manager at Shamshiri, a popular Persian restaurant in Tehrangeles, tells me. “I’d rather people think of the food as Persian than Iranian. It sounds better.” He adds, emphatically, that the current Iranian regime is “not my country anymore.”

Further complicating things, however, is the fact that Shamshiri’s website notes they’re in fact serving “fine Persian cuisine,” while also claiming that they take “an all-around Mediterranean approach.” “If you check our menu, we have Mediterranean options too,” the same manager tells me. “We’re not trying to fool anyone — we have Persian food, but we have Mediterranean dishes as well.”

Which brings me back to the question of just how ashamed one should be to confuse these restaurants and the food they serve with one another. Well, obviously, if some Middle Eastern restaurants are also serving Mediterranean food, then confusing the two is kinda deliberately baked into the experience — you are, in essence, doing exactly what the owner intends. 

But there’s also the issue of immigrants, specifically immigrant restaurant owners, feeling pressured to avoid certain aspects of their heritage to better appeal to American tastes. Just because Western news media portrays countries like Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan as hate-filled foreign powers, that shouldn’t determine the palatability of their cuisine — but it often does, and that’s when it becomes a problem. That’s also when savvy immigrant restaurant owners placate your fears by telling you that that stewed lamb shank over a bed of rice with dill — a classic Iranian dish — is safely a part of your Mediterranean diet.