September 16, 2019

Mixing cocktails and conversation

Jews and Muslims in Los Angeles don’t often get together for drinks. After all, religious Muslims don’t drink, and the two groups have had their differences. 

But a new project aims to get individuals from both backgrounds talking to each other, while crafting simple yet delicious non-alcoholic beverages, or “mocktails.”

On a recent Monday evening, about a dozen people gathered around a table at the Silverlake Independent JCC as Howard Seth Cohen demonstrated how to make a drink called a mule — featuring ginger beer, blackberries and more, but no liquor.

“What we’re doing is getting all the juice from the berries out, and we’re expressing out the oils from the mint,” Cohen, an actor, told the group, as he slapped a handful of mint leaves together.

Cohen squeezed lemons and limes using a heavy-duty stainless steel bar press, poured the juice through a strainer into a mixing glass, placed that glass into a tin cup filled with ice, and shook vigorously. He then strained that liquid into another ice-filled glass, poured in ginger beer and added a bit of grapefruit peel, twisted into a garnish. He finished it off with an edible orchid flower on top.

The workshop participants scribbled away in notebooks, but they were clearly eager to get started on their own drinks. They paired up and started mixing fruit and liquids, tasting the results, and adding sweet or sour elements to get the taste just right.

This workshop comes with a somewhat inflammatory name: “72 Virgins.” It’s Cohen’s playful take on the idea — based on a mistranslation of a quote by the prophet Muhammad — that every Muslim martyr will be rewarded in heaven with 72 beautiful and pure sex slaves.

“I thought it was absolutely kind of hilarious in my head, like, what if a martyr finds themselves in heaven and are presented with 72 virgin cocktails?” Cohen said.

The name also confronts the negative stereotypes that people have of Muslims.

“As a Muslim, and as a woman and a feminist, it was always something that annoyed me and frustrated me because it was people taking the language away from what it actually meant,” said Saba Mirza, who organized the workshop with Cohen. 

When Cohen first made Mirza a non-alcoholic cocktail — a tamarind sour — she said it was a revelation.

“It looked like the sunset and sunrise all at once, and it tasted like the best tamarind candy that you’d want to sip on and then chug down at the same time, but then you wouldn’t because you want to sip it,” Mirza said. “It was lovely.”

Cohen and Mirza created the “72 Virgins” workshop with a micro-grant from the nonprofit NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

“My husband and I were traveling to the Middle East, maybe five years ago, and we had all these fancy amazing drinks at one of the coffee shops. And we were like, this doesn’t exist in the U.S., it just doesn’t,” said Aziza Hasan, NewGround’s executive director. “And so that’s also kind of the appeal tonight, is to be able to experience really great drinks that have nothing to do with alcohol.”

At the recent workshop, Paula Dromi, who is Jewish and lives in Koreatown, paired up with Maryam Saleemi, who lives downtown. They made an orange-ginger mule with egg foam.

“I’m Muslim, so I don’t drink alcohol,” Saleemi said. “So I love this, because whenever I go to the bar with my friends, I’m like, ‘I don’t really want another Coke. Is there something else?’ And there usually isn’t. So I love this.” 

Before long, the participants relaxed and started sharing recommendations for their favorite qawwali singers (a type of Sufi devotional music), how to make the best hummus and, of course, the best cocktails. 

Dromi and Saleemi asked Cohen if they could start drinking their concoctions.

“You should be drinking the whole time! What fun is the class if you can’t enjoy yourself, right?” Cohen said. “So you should be drinking, you should be sharing, getting other people’s opinions of the drink, think, ‘How can I make this drink even a little bit better?’ ”

Danielle West, who came with her friend and co-worker Annie Cavanaugh, muddled cucumber, mint and ginger in a glass, but couldn’t taste the ginger. She kept adding more ginger, but it didn’t help. So, with Cohen’s advice, she added ginger shrub (made of ginger, sugar and apple cider vinegar), agave and lime juice.

“Now it’s lovely. … It’s spicy and it’s sweet and it tastes like cucumber and ginger,” West said. 

“I actually don’t drink alcohol at all. I’m a Mormon and we choose not to drink alcohol, and so when [West] found this, I got so excited, because I love fancy glassware, I love fancy drinks but without the alcohol, and so this was everything I love,” Cavanaugh said.

Heavy topics such as politics and religion didn’t come up the entire evening. The group was more focused on making delicious drinks. 

“I happen to love to cook, so this is just fun,” Dromi said.

“But I’ve never cooked with someone I don’t know, and I like this,” Saleemi told Dromi, laughing. “I feel like I know you more already!”

At the end of the workshop, everyone sat in a circle and described the last drink they’d made: ginger beer with hibiscus juice, a ginger cucumber mint soda, and sparkling tangerine juice with egg foam and an orange twist on top. 

Cohen said his next project will be to get Muslims and Jews to square dance together. And, he said, you can bet there’ll be nonalcoholic cocktails there as well.