India has its vada. Buñelos across Latin America might be sweet or savory. In Louisiana, they’re hushpuppies. Almost every culture in the world has some variation on the fritter, and in the Middle East, it’s falafel, believed to have originated in Egypt as ta’amiya thousands of years ago, then migrated north to the Levantine countries at the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.
If you’ve had falafel, you know it’s a humble food—ground chickpeas, fava beans, or both, spiced and deep fried. I’ve ingested many times my weight in falafel, and because of its simplicity, I see it as a kind of litmus test for Middle Eastern restaurants. It’s easy to get falafel wrong, and many places do: Biting into it can be like crunching into a droughty sodium briquette.
But this day at Babylon (Babylon Market and take-out in Tucson, not the metropolis that was the world’s largest city in 1,700 B.C.), the word “falafel” means something altogether new. The entire category shifts in my brain as I realize I’ve never really had falafel. Because the unassuming little fritter I’ve just bit into is nothing like that other stuff: soft without being mushy, a moist, grainy tenderness hiding in a perfectly crisped shell, salty but not over-salted, and with a refreshing flavor my mind keeps wanting to call “green.” One bite and I know I’m in for something very special in this place where the meat is halal, the rices manifold, and the falafel enough to make a writer wax on for some 260 words.
It’s a clear spring day when I sit down with business partners Feras Rashid and Hussein Haki to talk about Babylon Market & Restaurant, which they opened together in 2009. We’re at one of the picnic benches in front of the store (they hope to open patio dining later this year), and though it’s not yet noon, it’s 93 degrees and what feels like negative 20 percent humidity.
Rashid comments that the weather is like that of his home country, Iraq, and explains how he left there in 1991 to come to the University of Arizona, completing a degree in mechanical engineering in 1995. Over the years, he worked a variety of jobs—notably, in real estate and car sales, neither of which was booming in the late 2000s, when he met Haki.
Haki is also from Iraq but had moved his family to escape political unrest, settling in Jordan and Syria, and finally coming to the United States in 2008 with help from the International Rescue Committee. He had been an architect in Iraq, and had a business selling auto parts with his father. He met Rashid when he bought two cars from him in Tucson and saw in him a potential business partner, and the two cast about for a venture to pursue.
I share these beside-the-point details precisely because they have nothing to do with Babylon. Neither Rashid nor Haki had any history with food beyond eating it. “I never thought, ‘One day I’m going to have a market and a restaurant,’” Rashid tells me, but “unexpected” is the throughline to this story. Babylon Market doesn’t look extraordinary. Its small sign is easy to miss (I missed it twice) on a stretch of Speedway where McDonald’s, Jiffy Lube, and Lucky Strike bowling jump out at you. You’d never expect an oasis of delights in that small, reddish-brown building.
Inside babylon—a word that’s become synonymous with bustling diversity—the name suddenly makes sense. I hear five languages in the space of about 10 minutes from customers who exchange easy hellos with Rashid and Haki, from regulars who talk with their wives, Raghad Ismail and Zainab Dhia, who also work at Babylon, as if they’re old friends arriving at a backyard barbeque.
Just as diverse are the myriad items packing Babylon’s shelves. I count 20 kinds of halvah on one. The aisles offer up dried lemons, green coffee beans, barley pearls, and endless varieties of rice, as well as teapots and hookah pipes. The fresh produce selection is small, holding, among other things, green almonds, fava beans still in their pods, and tart, crisp janarek, also known as green plums. The meat case holds beef, chicken, lamb, and goat, and all of it is halal, which means the animals are killed in accordance with Islamic law and which many believe makes the meat taste different.
“Different” is an understatement for the lamb shank Rashid serves me. Perhaps because it’s halal, or perhaps because the restaurant uses nothing that’s powdered or canned and makes every last molecule of food in house. Whatever the cause, the effect is incredible. As I chomped my way through the kabsa, Haki tells me it’s his favorite dish and it’s not hard to taste why. The meat is almost silky and its stronger flavor is balanced by sweet golden raisins cooked into long-grain basmati rice, yellow with the delicate flavor of saffron.
Saffron is, not surprisingly, one of many, many spices stocked at Babylon. There’s an entire wall of spices, in fact, including many in whole forms—whole cardamom, whole anise—that you don’t see at chain grocers. It’s said that good cooks can get eight distinct flavors from a spice—one flavor when ground raw, for example, or one when toasted in oil—which means a good cook could get more than 5.5 million flavor profiles from Babylon’s spice wall using not more than three selections at a time.
All that possibility abounding here—perhaps true to the ancient city itself—can feel a little overwhelming at times (what does one do with pomegranate molasses?), but unlike the Babylon of old, this one has friendly guides. “We treat our customers like family,” Rashid tells me. “If they need help with marinating or want to know how to cook with a certain item, they can ask me or my wife or anyone here.”
Haki says, “I’m so happy when I see smiles on our customers’ faces. When my customer is happy, that means we succeeded, and that makes us proud.” Babylon, they explain, is a market for everyday people.
“When we opened this market,” Haki tells me, “We had maybe 20 to 30 percent of what we have today. Our customers—Pakistani, Persian, Turkish, North African, Argentinian, Brazilian, Spanish, Bosnian, Greek—people from all these communities, they are the most important source of information for us. They would tell us, ‘I would like this spice,’ or ‘I would like this item,’ and we would write it down and order it.”
Through that process, meeting with distributors and importers, along with patience and trial and error, gradually they came to the thousands of items they carry today. In gratitude to those customers, “We try to keep our prices as low as we can,” Rashid says. “We always have sales, and on special occasions, like for the month of Ramadan, we’ll choose 30 or 40 different items and sell them at the wholesale price.”
When I politely reference the laws of supply and demand—that they could actually ask more for special items in times of need—Rashid laughs it off. “We do it the other way,”
he says. “That’s what makes our business successful. With this tough economy, people always check coupons, try to get the best deal. They know our prices are very reasonable and very fair. We think if you give good service and good prices to customers, you gain more than you would by charging a lot.”
He’s right, of course. It’s one of the beauties of Tucson’s diversity—that two families from Iraq have much to teach us about what was a guiding American value. I do feel a twinge of guilt as I realize how glad I am that Rashid’s work in cars and real estate didn’t hold him or pull Haki in. But did I mention the, thick, cool hummus that can only be called velvety? The shawarma for which Iron Man himself would fly from Manhattan if he only he knew of it? So unexpected. And so worth the trip. ✜
Babylon Market. 3954 E. Speedway Blvd. 520.232.3700. BabylonMarketTucson.com.
Eric Van Meter loves good food, good people and a good, hard rain. He’s called Tucson home all his 43 years.