Chow Bella

Best Thing I Ate All Week: Sugary Fritters and Funnel Cakes from the Middle East

Fritters soaked in flavored syrup from Caspian Food Market
Fritters soaked in flavored syrup from Caspian Food Market Chris Malloy
The phrases “kid in a candy store” and “kid on Christmas” are exhausted from heavy use, but the feeling behind them — pure runaway wonder — is one that people love to feel again. One of the foolproof ways for an adult who’s really into food or culture to spark that feeling of total fascination is to enter a new international market. Picture me, eyes wide, fingers dancing across my iPhone screen to look up new words, lingering in the fava- and feta-lined aisles of Caspian Food Market in Scottsdale.

Caspian Food Market sells groceries and prepared food from the Middle East and other largely Islamic lands once part of the Persian Empire. Products range in geography from North Africa to Bulgaria to Iran. The grocery is unexpectedly affordable, especially when you consider its North Scottsdale surroundings.

The other day, I filled up a plastic hand basket for $25.

Browsing the aisles is Candyland for the cook, heaven for the eater. There’s goat meat in the back, fresh labneh in the display case up front. In the middle run aisles packed with canned, boxed, wrapped, and fresh delicacies. You can score anise and chamomile tea, Egyptian fava puree, halvah, tahini, honeycomb, and a trove of other cool groceries. The refrigerators to your left (when you enter) hum with dairy products like haloumi cheese and labneh. Labneh is a creamy hybrid of yogurt and soft cheese, and, with olive oil, one of my favorite foods.

Caspian Food Market's imported and house-made dairy products are tempting. Ditto its hummus and eggplant puree with fried onions. This market’s flavor apex, though, is dessert.

click to enlarge Zolobia bamie and jalebi. - CHRIS MALLOY
Zolobia bamie and jalebi.
Chris Malloy
Caspian Food Market sells two kinds of sugary fritters. Both are made of wheat-flour dough fried and soaked in flavored syrup. The first is shaped like a date with furrows. These are called zolobia bamie. When you bite in, the doughy walls of the knobs collapse in a syrupy gush, sweet and fragrant and unending. So explosive is the surge that the fritter's middle seems to be hollow and filled with syrup. They are subtle, addictive, and boost the argument that Arab desserts are the world’s best.

The other fritter is jalebi, which looks like a tiny, thin funnel cake. It's a little hypnotic to peer at a tray of jalebi with its interwoven, bird’s-nest laces of fried dough. Order a jalebi, touch the outer lace, and you’ll find that the crisp exterior is as sticky as putting your thumb on tape. The dough has fried to hardness. It quickly shatters to your bite, brown laces saturated with sweet syrup and heavy with almost meaty oily decadence. This is funnel cake's smarter and much cooler long-lost cousin.

click to enlarge Rosewater ice cream flavored with saffron and pistachios, sandwich style. - CHRIS MALLOY
Rosewater ice cream flavored with saffron and pistachios, sandwich style.
Chris Malloy
We end with a sophisticated take on the ice cream sandwich. Two pizzelle-like buns sandwich a mountain of house-made ice cream. The ice cream has been flavored with saffron and rose water, the latter lending a wild perfume and florality of the kind you’re more likely to find in a teacup than a dessert. Pistachios fleck its slopes of frozen cream. Here, some of the Middle East's great flavors meet in the best way. The dessert has a simple elegance common to the market’s offerings, which are fantastic to behold and groovy to taste.

Caspian Food Market. 17040 North Scottsdale Road, #18, Scottsdale; 480-513-8797.
Sunday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy