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DISCOVERY

Cultures Live in Harmony at Market

April 06, 1989|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

So you've invited the gang over for your bimonthly Greco-Israeli, Egyptian-Lebanese, Armenian-style, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean potluck dinner and poker party, and you discover that you've forgotten the tabooleh, the lavash, the bagels, the grape leaves, the couscous mix and the feta cheese.

Turn up the stereo, refill the veggie tray and stall the party for a few minutes--dinner can probably be salvaged, courtesy of Jack and Bonnie Saba, who run what may be the most ethnically diverse market and deli in Orange County.

The newlywed Sabas opened their Saba's Mediterranean Market and Deli in Tustin about 1 1/2 years ago, with the American-born Bonnie relying on Jack's multicultural culinary knowledge to keep the place stocked with the sort of food that would probably stump the buyers for Ralphs and Alpha Beta.

Jack Saba, born in Syria and raised in Kuwait, served as the buyer and half of the work force when the market and deli opened. He and his wife stocked the shelves with such esoterica as jars of grape leaves, tahini (ground sesame seeds), fava and garbanzo beans, a selection of olive oils, fig and eggplant jams--many of them oddities in American markets but staples in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Little incongruities exist throughout the small market: stacks of Arabic pocket bread on top of Lebanese lavash (crisp bread) and bagels, all of which sit next to shelves stacked with Greek and Lebanese wine. Greek beer in a cooler alongside six-packs of yogurt soda. Tubs of Greek feta cheese soaking in brine behind a sign reminding Muslim customers that Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, is approaching.

Similar signs go up at the approach of Passover and the Easter celebration of the Eastern Orthodox Church (in late April).

"We have customers who celebrate all those occasions," said Bonnie, "so we have to keep them straight."

Elsewhere are small sealed packages of exotic spices, such as very hot chili powder, curries, cardamom and other Eastern specialties, along with various grains of Bulgar wheat and various types of seeds, such as small unshelled melon seeds for snacking. ("The Egyptians love them," said Bonnie.)

The deli menu is perhaps the most obvious giveaway to the lack of homogeneity: It features such exotic offerings as falafel (a type of vegetable burger), gyros, Armenian basturma and provolone cheese sandwiches, lahmajune (Armenian pizza), Greek salad, tabooleh (a Bulgar-based salad) and a large selection of Greek pastry.

Cultural clashes are few, said Bonnie, when one is talking about food. However, she said, preferences do surface.

"There are little things sometimes," she said. "Like if an Israeli person picks up a can and sees that it's from Lebanon, he might put it back on the shelf. But the feelings one way or another aren't strong. I think it's because everybody's at ease with Jack. There were so many foreigners in Kuwait when he was growing up, he was around them all."

SABA'S MEDITERRANEAN MARKET AND DELI AT A GLANCE Where: 14161 Newport Ave., Unit C, Tustin.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.

Services: Takeout deli food and some catering available.

Information: (714) 730-7262.

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