Doogh, near beer and baklava: Exploring Tuscaloosa's Mediterranean Market and Restaurant

Ethnic markets are a lot of fun—you can find products you’ll never see at Wal-Mart, try unusual stuff from around the world and eat a good meal. Tuscaloosa’s Mediterranean Market and Restaurant is a café and grocery specializing in food from Southeastern Europe and the Middle East, and it’s a delicious and inexpensive place for a meal.

Going in, I was hoping for something authentic, the kind of thing I couldn’t get anywhere else in town. But aside than kabobs and shawarma, the menu consisted of a lot of American food. I ended up having the kabob chicken, and was pretty pleased.

The meat was tossed in a delicious medley of spices, and was so tender I don’t think I ever used my knife. It was served on a bed of delicious yellow rice, and came with a side salad, baba ghanouj, hummus and fresh, hot pita bread.

Both of the dips were exceptional, and came garnished with black olives and a pickle. Some other Mediterranean restaurants I’ve been to have baba ghanouj that’s not blended particularly well (featuring giant pieces of intact eggplant) but the texture here was creamy and appetizing. The hummus was also on-point, probably the best in town.

After the meal, I was still looking for something out of the ordinary, so I poked around the market a bit. German candies, giant bags of spices and rice, lots of stuff written in Arabic—here was what I was looking for.

Despite the building’s labelling, the majority of the products in the shop came from either the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent. First, I sampled something called “yogurt drink.” In Persian, this stuff is "doogh," and in Turkish, it's "ayran." It's the exact color and consistency of milk, and even comes in a similar bottle. It was chilled, creamy, and cut with a bit of salt. I’m not huge on yogurt, so this wasn’t really to my taste, but it seems to be a staple here.

Next, a “malt beverage” made by Laziza. Alcohol is prohibited in many Middle Eastern countries, leading to a huge market for non-alcoholic "near beer." Laziza comes from Lebanon, and is available in many flavors, including raspberry and lemon, but I stuck with regular. Without the taste of alcohol, you really get the pure flavor of malt and hops. Drinking Laziza is like drinking sweet, liquid bread. And while I admire the company's commitment to brewing, non-alcoholic beer still seems like a bit of a contradiction for me.

The market has a lot of awesome desserts, including Turkish delight and sweet, flaky baklava. There were also some foreign sodas that I’ll definitely be interested in trying next time. There's also every imaginable spice and ingredient for anyone who wants to attempt to make a Middle Eastern inspired dish at home.

The food at the Mediterranean Restaurant is delicious, though there’s nothing super unusual on the menu. If you’re looking for something unusual and authentic, the market is a lot of fun to explore.

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