The Midwest may be known for steak and potatoes, but there are still a goodly number of people who enjoy a vegetarian meal. Springfield’s Holy Land Diner serves a vegetarian buffet every Saturday.
Holy Land Diner owner Afaf Rashmawy, who grew up in Bethlehem, West Bank, does all the cooking at the diner.
“I learned how to cook from my mother — it is Greek, Lebanese, Middle Eastern dishes,” she said. She likes the vegetarian buffet because it is more like the cooking she grew up with.
“We didn’t eat as much meat and as much butter as here,” she said.
“Here it is all butter, butter and cheese. Growing up, we had meat with one meal, lots of olive oil — that’s healthy fat. We have fruits and vegetables and bread and not a lot of sweets,” she said.
“The cheese we had was goat cheese, and my mother would make it once a year and store it in jars. We didn’t have problems with high cholesterol, and we used to eat lots of eggs — it’s because we balanced it out with healthy things.”
There are salads, soups, falafel and homemade hummus at each buffet, but also an assortment of hot vegetable dishes and baklava for dessert.
Rashmawy or her husband, Jamal, go through the buffet items with diners. Afaf prides herself on being able to cook for all manner of special diets. Her love for her diner and her customers, as well as her pride in serving tasty, healthy food, is evident.
“People show up, and they say, ‘What can I eat? My doctor says I must have this.’ And if I don’t have it, I can make it. My food has been evaluated as heart healthy. I make everything myself. The hummus doesn’t have a lot of oil, and I use fresh herbs and ingredients.
“I buy fresh when I can, or use frozen. Maybe one or two ingredients come from a can — everything else is fresh or frozen,” she said.
When Holy Land was located near the capitol, a certain young senator who has gone on to greater things was a frequent visitor. If he was too busy, she said, he would send staff members over to bring a meal — especially falafel.
Rashmawy looks on cooking as a learning experience.
“I called Prairie Heart (Institute) and asked them about cooking healthy years ago. From that time on, I keep learning and keep cooking with lentils and beans — lots of healthy stuff,” she said, although she added that Westerners are more apt to eat a vegetarian dish if it has cheese added to it.
“I look at the plates and if there is a lot of one dish left on a plate at the end of the meals, I either don’t make it anymore, or I change it. Sometimes,” she said with a laugh, “if I add cheese to it — it’s all gone next time.”
She imports spices and roasts or toasts them to add the flavor. “I cook with olive oil or canola oil. I use spices to flavor. Vegetarian food should taste like the ingredients, not like a bunch of stuff that got added. Westerners think they need to put salt and pepper on everything. Try it first before you do that,” she advises. “Get the flavor of the vegetables and think about what is in the dish.”
A recent buffet featured two soups — lentil and potato flavored with carrots, two cold salads, hummus, falafel, rice, a cauliflower dish with garbanzo beans and red and green peppers, and a cabbage dish with a light tomato sauce. There is tzatzki sauce created with Afaf’s homemade yogurt.
Diners can have soft-serve ice cream or Afaf’s baklava.
Afaf uses a deft hand when making her baklava. It is crispy, light and sweet without the lower layers being soaked with cloying honey syrup.
“I buy fresh ingredients from the farmers market when they are in season. So we might have baba ganoush if eggplant is in season. We might have foule — I try to vary the buffets, and if there is something I can buy and freeze and it still tastes good, that’s what I do,” she said.
Throughout the years, customers have asked for recipes and Afaf has obliged, but not anymore.
“They want something, I’ll make it. If they try to make it themselves it never turns out exactly right and then they think I left something out. I learned to cook from my mother and my grandmother by cooking. It is hard to duplicate it just telling someone,” she said.
Afaf said she will probably write a cookbook when she retires. But then she laughs — retirement isn’t on the horizon anytime soon.
Holy Land Diner serves a variety of meat dishes on its noon buffets as well as on its Friday night buffet. But Afaf takes great pride in her healthy, vegetarian buffet served on Saturday nights. Eating Saturday night dinner at the Holy Land is like going home to Mom for dinner — if she was the best vegetarian cook around.
Holy Land Diner
Some tasty vocabulary
Springfield Vegetarian Association
Charles Hershey, president of the Springfield Vegetarian Association, said the buffet at Holy Land is the only vegetarian buffet in town. “I am particularly fond of the soups there,” he said. “Afaf also makes a potato, zucchini and tomato dish, which is just great.”
He said she doesn’t add a lot of oil to the tahini like a lot of Western cooks are prone to do, and it tastes great.
Hershey said Gateway to India, 3115 Chatham Road, and Taste of Thai, 3053 S. Dirksen Parkway, are two restaurants that are particularly accommodating to vegetarians. “They will leave out the meat if you ask and put in extra vegetables,” he said.
For more information about the Springfield Vegetarian Association, call 787-0014.
Story published Friday, May 7, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 3 )