The 42nd Annual Middle Eastern Festival Was Delicious and Beautiful

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Some of the delicious cookies and baklava available at the Middle Eastern Festival this past weekend.

Yesterday I made my way to the far east side of Portland to attend the 42nd Annual Middle Eastern Festival at St George Antiochian Orthodox Church. There was some great music, dancing, a gorgeous church, a silent auction, and, of course, plenty of good food, including a spit roasted lamb, glistening in the sunlight.

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There were plenty of “oohs” ad “ahhs” from people as they spotted the spit-roasting action.

The lamb reminded me of the many spit roasts I’d seen and smelled when I lived in Astoria, which has a strong orthodox community (mostly Greek), as well as a vibrant Arab and North African community in the Little Egypt section of town. When I saw the Greek-style pitas (no pocket) and smelled the delicious meat, I was instantly transported back to years of hazy summer days in Queens.

The church is a beautiful domed structure, so familiar among Orthodox churches. More about St George’s:

The parish was founded in 1930 to serve the Arabic speaking community. Such a place might ordinarily remain an insulated ethnic enclave. Yet, due largely to big hearts and the compelling hospitality of the Arabic-speaking community, the church became a home for many English-speaking inquirers looking for the ancient faith.

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The exterior of St George Antiochian Orthodox Church on a glorious summer day.

The Church of Antioch is a presence in Syria, Lebanon, and may other parts of the Middle East. So it was obvious that the food reflected that of the region, including a number of pretty familiar dishes that essentially qualify as “American food,” at least in parts of this country: gyros, schwarma, and baklava.

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A beautifully-made gyro. I ate it next to the fountain.

I chose the gyro, likely made with a combination of beef and lamb. They put a kind of thick sauce right on top of the pita’s surface, which I thought was a sort of baba ghanouj, but it may have been toum, a very tasty garlic sauce. Next went the meat, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and another sauce—“white sauce,” a kind of tzatziki. The meat was savory and gentle, with balanced flavors, and the accompanying sauces and vegetables made it into a high quality sandwich.

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Aysh El-Sarayya; this stuff is magic.

The baked goods were mostly in the parish hall, so I made my way in to see what they had to offer. I was immediately pulled in by the trays of Aysh El-Sarayya, a thick creamy pudding dessert. The pudding was sprinkled with pistachios and it sat atop what tasted like soft cake, but was likely a soaked toasted bread of some kind. Syrup added right before serving made it sweeter than it was, but it wasn’t cloying. The texture was out of this world! I could eat it every day.

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A beautiful display of cookies.

There was a table of cookies with a couple of my favorites on it: ghraybeh and maamoul. I first tasted the two sweets years ago when my old housemate’s mom came to prepare a Lebanese feast in celebration of Laura’s graduation for her Master of Music degree. I loved the wooden tool she used to create the design on the top of the maamoul. And of course, they tasted amazing. Years later in Astoria I could just walk over to Laziza and later, Al-Sham, to pick up either of them. The ones from the festival were very lightly sweet; I’m partial to the date-filled one (the circular one; the more oblong one was filled with walnuts) and found the filling impressively smooth and consistent. No lumps.

My favorite is the ghraybeh, though. Sort of like shortbread, it’s more tender, and has a delightfully clean and pure sweetness to it.

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Overall, this food was the real deal, and I’m so happy I got to try it.

I also stepped into the interior of the church and sat in the sanctuary for a little bit. Such a beautiful space.

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The crowds were pretty consistent throughout the afternoon. Nice to see so many people come by and enjoy the warm, friendly, and generous community there.

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On my way out, I spied another table of sweets and when I saw this almond semolina cake, I couldn’t resist—plus I had just two tokens left and that’s exactly what it cost. The top layer of the cake was a bit harder than I’m used to, but the rest of it was soft and sweet and lovely.

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I look forward to stopping in again next year! Thanks to all at St. George’s for sharing such a wonderful afternoon with your neighbors.

42nd Annual Middle Eastern Festival
Sunday, August 25, 2019
St George Antiochian Orthodox Church
2101 NE 162nd Avenue, Portland
stgeorgeportland.org

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Bridgetown Bites is written by Meg Cotner, a food loving freelance writer, editor and published author in Portland, OR.

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