Many holiday parties kick off with a stiff glass of eggnog. But at a potluck hosted by Rita Nakouzi, a fashion consultant for companies like Timberland, and her husband, Touré, a novelist and a correspondent for Black Entertainment Television, guests started with something a lot stronger. "This is totally hard-core," said Rita as she filled highball glasses with arak, the anise-flavored liquor that’s a staple in her home country of Lebanon. Her friend Alireza Sadeghzadeh, a native of Iran, took a sip and nodded in agreement. "Is it too early in the day for this?" he asked. None of the other guests thought so. They sampled the arak with store-bought mezes—pickled beets and turnips, salty Lebanese pickles, hummus and tabbouleh—as they put the finishing touches on a truly international meal.
Rita’s three closest friends, all in attendance at the party in her Brooklyn apartment, have deep roots in Iran, Israel and Montenegro, a former republic of Yugoslavia. The fact that these countries are all zones of political unrest—and, in some cases, are at war with each other—is not lost on the friends; it has actually drawn them closer together. "It was an immediate point of interest for us," said Israeli-American author Periel Aschenbrand. "We often talk about the political dynamics of our backgrounds, and what our relationships would have been like if we’d met in our home countries. Rita is like my sister. We’re a little peace alliance amid all the craziness."
Guests gathered around a table decorated with an embroidered tablecloth from Lebanon. Rita, a vegetarian, made the tangy yogurt drink ayran as well as loobyeh, a garlicky Lebanese dish of green beans stewed with tomatoes. "I’m trying to perfect my mother’s recipe," she said. "A lot of our culture is about women being in the kitchen and gathering around food." Periel contributed crispy, silver-dollar-size potato latkes, made from her grandmother’s recipe. Alireza, who was born in Tehran, served Persian rice, which is steamed, then fried and turned out of the pan like a cake onto a platter. "This is a staple of the Iranian diet," he said, amid playful taunts from Periel that he’d brought Uncle Ben’s to dinner. "It’s served with everything: kebabs, meats in heavy sauces. A green version made with parsley usually goes with fish, and a version with nuts and barberries, which taste like tart currants, goes with chicken."
The centerpiece of the meal came from Artan Gjoni, the Montenegrin-born general manager of the Norwood Club, a new private arts center and restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village: a platter of branzino (a type of sea bass) stuffed with fennel, lemon and orange slices and baked in an herbed sea-salt crust. "Montenegro is a big producer of sea salt, so we cook a lot of fish this simple way," he said.
As the group passed around platters of food, they chatted about technology—the pros and cons of text messaging, the virtual world of the website secondlife.com—and its role in bringing people together and keeping them apart. "Once you go into Second Life, there are so many places to go," Rita said approvingly, then conceded the downside: "People are texting and e-mailing, and not hanging out." Touré laughed. "That’s what girls did when we were in high school!" he said. "They hung out, then went home and talked on the phone all night."
For dessert, Rita laid out a platter of pomegranates, plums and oranges and served bowls of meghli, a creamy Lebanese rice-flour pudding spiced with caraway seeds and cinnamon that’s traditionally served at Christmas and on birthdays. "Having lots of international flavor in your group of friends adds zest to your life," Alireza said. "If everyone’s from the same place, it’s not all that spicy."