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Assyrian Kitchen’s classes, meals offer food for thought on ancient civilization

Growing up in Rogers Park, Atorina Zomaya was immersed in her Assyrian culture, learning the language and sharing bountiful traditional meals with family and friends.

But while all the elder relatives prepared elaborate meals, the recipes weren’t always shared with the younger generation.

So seven years ago, Zomaya started interviewing family and documenting recipes from the centuries-old civilization.

Zomaya launched Assyrian Kitchen’s first class on ancient cooking at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute that same year. The event sold out.

“My personal aspiration is to put Assyrian cooking on the map because there isn’t a place here in the city I could go or take a friend,” Zomaya said.

At that cooking class in 2012, Zomaya enlisted help from chef and fellow Assyrian Daniel Sarkiss. Little did the pair know, they would reconnect years later and become engaged.

Daniel Sarkiss and Atorina Zomaya are the co-owners of Assyrian Kitchen in Jefferson Park. Brian Rich/Sun-Times
Daniel Sarkiss and Atorina Zomaya are the co-owners of Assyrian Kitchen in Jefferson Park. Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The couple, hoping to share their cuisine and history of their often persecuted people, have since embarked on opening Assyrian Kitchen’s brick-and-mortar location, at 5481 N. Northwest Highway, in Jefferson Park.

“Not only do we share the food culture with our guests, and with our students in our cooking classes, we also give them the historical aspect to get a better understanding of who Assyrians are, what makes them unique, and where they are in the world today,” said Zomaya, whose Baghdad-born parents met at the Assyrian American Association at Devon and Clark.

Sarkiss, already a successful owner of Zaytune restaurant in Bridgeport, said collaborating with his fiancee has made his dreams come true since he had toyed with a “Mesopotamia” menu project in culinary school.

Taking inspiration from the world’s oldest cookbook (clay tablets) with recipes from Assyrian kings in 1700 BC, almost all of Assyrian Kitchen meals start with mashing garlic, onion and leek with spices including caraway, fennel, thyme, basil, parsley, sesame seeds and sumac.

A spread of various pickled vegetables (oregano carrots, basil-infused okra, thyme-soaked black turnips), spreads, olives, preserves, cheeses, yogurt and tapenade, served at Assyrian Kitchen in Jefferson Park. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times
A spread of various pickled vegetables (oregano carrots, basil-infused okra, thyme-soaked black turnips), spreads, olives, preserves, cheeses, yogurt and tapenade, served at Assyrian Kitchen in Jefferson Park. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Assyrian Kitchen will have a line of artisanal products in the future. But for now, you can can book an online reservation for Sunday brunch that features authentic Assyrian favorites served family style.

At the center of the meal is a spread of various pickled vegetables (oregano carrots, basil-infused okra, thyme-soaked black turnips), spreads, olives, preserves, cheeses, yogurt and tapenade. The delightful assortment — a mix of tangy, sweet and savory — can be eaten alone or as an accompaniment to a main dish.

Kubba is a meat and grain dumpling that comes in many varieties: fried as a croquette, boiled like a dumpling, stuffed, baked in tray form or served raw as tartare. On the brunch menu, there’s a beef and bulgur wheat kubba croquette stuffed with spiced lamb, currants and pine nuts. There’s also a stuffed kubba that cracks open to a center of wild mushrooms.

Kipteh soup has lamb and cracked wheat meatballs simmered in a tomato basil broth. Epitu D’Silgha is a savory pastry filled with sautéed Swiss chard, leeks and freshly mashed turmeric.

Hot tea being poured at Assyrian Kitchen in Jefferson Park. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times
Hot tea being poured at Assyrian Kitchen in Jefferson Park. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Zomaya and Sarkiss make everything from scratch, including cheese. Assyrians have over 200 cheeses, including a caraway and fennel seed flavored “buried cheese” — a cheese that is buried in clay pots, allowing the whey to drain through holes in the bottom of the pot.

If you’re in the mood to make your own Assyrian food, check out the variety of classes, including pickling and baking bread lessons, on Assyrian Kitchen’s website.

Zomaya and Sarkiss — who hope to sell their own line of Assyrian pantry products (like pickles and cheese) and write a cookbook — are planning on scheduling set restaurant hours soon. For more information call or visit https://www.assyriankitchen.com.

Assyrian Kitchen is located at 5481 N. Northwest Highway in Jefferson Park. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times
Assyrian Kitchen is located at 5481 N. Northwest Highway in Jefferson Park. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times