Category Archives: Taste of the Middle East

Amir’s Chicken Wrap with Tahini – Worth it?

Amir’s on Broadway is one of those places that you pass by but never seem to notice. It has a small store front and looks like any other store. But, turns out, it’s a Middle Eastern restaurant!

I walked in and I saw plastic chairs and a counter under screens showing the menu. Hmmm… Fast food Middle Eastern style?

I was hungry, and I was in the mood for a comforting shawarma. Here, you can get shwarma in a bowl, wrap, or pita. Since in Jordan I used to get shawarma in a thin flatbread called rqaq, I thought I’d go with the wrap.

My sandwich came out of the kitchen very quickly. It was large and looked very satisfying. Cut in half, the sandwich had large chunks of chicken, tomatoes, lettuce, and pickles. Normally these are toppings I get on smoked turkey wraps, but, hey why not with shawarma?

Lunch!
Lunch!

I took my first bite and I could taste the tahini, which was really the only Middle Eastern part of the whole sandwich. The chicken was delicious, crispy and smokey. But it was just not shawarma chicken. It didn’t have the right spices, and it was into chunks as opposed to thin slices like the shawarma that I am used to.

I really did enjoy my sandwich. It was satisfying and I would have it again. But it is just like the chicken sandwiches I can get at Uris or Milano’s, with the exception that it has tahini in it. Given that the wrap cost around $10, I feel like I’d just rather get my quick lunch sandwich somewhere that sells practically the same sandwich for a lower price.

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Bagels alla Turca!

A bakery with multiple locations around the city, Simit + Smith is one place that’s been on my bucket list for quite some time because its namesake bakery item is a delicious bagel-like bread served in Turkey and the Levant, called simit. Simit is made in the same way as a bagel is (boiled in water and then baked) and has a similar round shape, but it is more like a ring than a fat bun with a tiny whole in the middle, and it is topped with lots of sesame seeds.

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You could have cream cheese and lox with your simit at Simit + Smith, but this morning I opted for the more traditional kasseri cheese with tomatoes, cucumbers, and olive tapenade. Heaven. I was instantly transported back home. The simit bread itself was crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. It had a hint of sweetness that was cut through by the savory goodness of the sesame seeds. The tomatoes and cucumbers were fresh and the kasseri cheese salty and rich. A great alternative for kasseri cheese would have been labne, the tart, creamy yoghurt of the Middle East, but they did not offer it at the bakery. Hmmm… Home-made simit and labne? Worth a try!

Greatly recommended for a fresh, somewhat healthier, and definitely much tastier alternative to the bagel and cream cheese breakfast.

Simi+ Smith

Upper West Side

124 W. 72nd St. New York, NY 10023

 

Worth Street

111 Worth St. New York, NY 10023

 

Financial District

100 William St. New York, NY 10038

 

Celebrating the Persian New Year? Visit Ravagh

Eid Mobarak! Last Friday, Persians all over the world celebrated the Persian New Year, and the first day of spring. Nowruz has its root in ancient Persia. It is a holy day for Zoroastrians, and a major secular holiday for Iranians of all faiths.

This week, in honor of the Persian New Year, I’d like to tell you about one of my favorite restaurants in the city, Ravagh. This Persian restaurant is wildly popular among Persians and non-Persians in New York, with three locations in Manhattan alone, and others in Long Island. Their restaurant in mid-town will stay packed until 12 am with families munching on kebobs, stews, and buttery, fluffy Persian rice. I have yet to try something on the menu that is not delicious. It is the first restaurant that I think of when I am in the mood for a warm, comforting, generous meal.

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A well-known dish at Ravagh that is often considered Iran’s “national dish” is Ghormeh Sabzi, a stew of herbs, beans, and beef. The herbs are bitter, set off by tangy lemon juice, and the meat, stewed for a long time with the herbs, is tender and seasoned with turmeric, a spice essential to Persian cuisine. Many will admit that the stew does not look very appetizing, but it is so full of flavor, and so comforting, that no one really pays any attention to the way it looks.

Normally, Ravagh serves this stew with white Persian rice, but add a couple of bucks to substitute it for Zereshk Polo, saffron rice with sweet, tangy barberries. Rice in Persian cuisine is an art. It is washed eight times in water before being cooked to get rid of most of the starch, giving it a fluffy, air-like texture. After the water is fully absorbed, the rice left at the bottom of the pan is cooked a little longer in butter and saffron so that it becomes crunchy, almost scorched. In Farsi, this is called “tahdig,” and is considered a delicacy all over Iran. Variations of it are made with potatoes, bread, and even Spaghetti! I didn’t order the plate of crunchy goodness this time, because a stew with a whole plate of Zereshk Polo was a lot, but normally, tahdig is served with a stew of your choice as a “side-dish.” Because portions at this restaurant are so generous, though, one tahdig and a small soup will make for a heavy dinner.

Arguably the most important part of going to a Persian restaurant is the kebob. During the number of times I’ve been there, I’ve had the barg kebob, sirloin beef, marinated and grilled to perfection, koobideh kebob, a grilled skewer of ground beef, and jujeh kebob, succulent Cornish hens marinated in lemon and saffron. All of their kebobs come with lots of rice, and you will be struggling to finish he last pieces of meat and grains of rice left on your plate.

That is why I strongly recommend that you go to Ravagh in a group of three or four, order a stew, a plate of kebob, and tahdig to share so you get to taste everything without overeating. If you’ve never had Persian food, I hope that I’ve been able to entice you to make a trip to one of the three Ravagh locations in Manhattan and try it. Ravagh, for me, has been one of the most exciting culinary experiences in New York, and I hope that a visit to this restaurant will do the same for you!

 

 

Greek Food: Does it Count?

Think Ancient Greece, and immediately you think, the center of Western Civilization. But for centuries the Greeks were under Ottoman Turkish rule, leaving them with a culinary tradition that is very similar to that of Turkey and the Levant, using many of the same essential ingredients of the eastern Mediterranean like olive oil, yoghurt, eggplants, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

I had been wanting to have some Greek food for a while, and I wanted to find a Middle Eastern restaurant close to Columbia that wasn’t Falafel on Broadway or Amir’s. One restaurant that had great reviews was Kefi on 85th and Columbus, so I decided to try it out.

I went with a friend who is a fan of Greek food, and we went all out; we ordered a mezze platter for two and a Greek salad to start, then he ordered souvlaki and I had a roast chicken with lemon, garlic, and potatoes, and we ended with a traditional walnut cake.

Pork Souvlaki with rice and Greek salad
Pork Souvlaki with rice and Greek salad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a lot of food, but there was no regret. The mezze platter consisted of yoghurt, chickpeas, eggplant, and “caviar” dips. The first three were very familiar to me. They were basically labneh, hummus, baba ghanoush, and they were great in this platter. The last one was something I had never had before as a mezze. It was fish roe, and I did not find it to be very great. That was because it was not very flavorful, and I was probably a little bit shocked that fish roe would be on a mezze platter. The Greek salad that we had was not as good as others I’ve had. It was missing the briney olives and salty feta that I love in a Greek salad.

Next came the main dishes. My friend found his pork souvlaki to be very succulent, and the rice that came with it well seasoned with lemon juice and parsley, giving it freshness. The roast chicken was delicious: the chicken itself was juicy, flavorful, and had a very crispy skin – my favorite part of roast chicken. It was paired with a delightful, creamy lemon and garlic sauce smothering perfectly roasted, melt-in-your-mouth potatoes.

Roast chicken with lemon, garlic, and potatoes
Roast chicken with lemon, garlic, and potatoes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, we had a moist, mildly sweet walnut cake topped with sugar and with walnut ice cream on the side. If there is one reason why you should go to Kefi, it’s for the walnut ice cream. It was fantastic.

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The mediocre salad and strange fish roe mezze aside, Kefi was a great experience for me and my friend. It has made it into our list of go-to Middle Eastern restaurants around Columbia. I hope you give it a try!

Oh, and, Happy Restaurant Week! May your restaurant holiday season be filled with good company and great food.

Chipotle for Middle Eastern Food

Bowl or wrap? Hummus or Baba Ghanoush? Protein?  Interrogated by the employee behind the counter at Naya express, I look into the glass at the choices in front of me, remembering not to reach over with my contaminated hands, and trying to make a decision before the people waiting in line behind me get too angry.
Sounds familiar? It should. This is Naya Express, the Chipotle for Middle Eastern food. You get a choice between a rice bowl, salad, or wrap, and get to add on hummus, baba ghanoush, garlic, and vegetables. If, however, you choose not to go through the assembly line to get your food, you can opt for their great selection of  sides, ready-made salads, flatbreads. Also on offer are Middle Eastern dessert classics like baklava and mhalabie (milk pudding).
The Assembly Line at Naya Express
The Assembly Line at Naya Express
 Once I had looked at all of the food behind the glass, and having made the employee sufficiently impatient, I decided to go for a bowl with chicken shish taouk, topped with garlic, baba ghanoush, pickles, lettuce, and tomatoes. A note before I talk about the food: just like Chipotle is not authentic Mexican food, Naya  Express is not authentic Middle Eastern food. Adding a bunch of random vegetables and toppings to rice and chicken is not really a thing where I come from. That being said, the meal I had was pretty good. The rice, mixed with short, thin vermicelli noodles, was warm, soft, and well seasoned. The chicken was marinated and then grilled, giving it a nice smokey flavor. It was a little bit on the dry side, which is always a risk we have to take when we order chicken breast. The baba ghanoush, a mixture of roasted eggplant, tahini, and lemon juice, was really good, with just the right eggplant to tahini ratio.
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Chick Shish Taouk with rice, pickles, vegetables, and baba ghanoush
I think that Naya Express is a great place to get Middle Eastern food on the go. With already 3 locations around the city, they are planning to expand. Who knows? We might even get one closer to us!
New location coming up!
New location coming up!

Mama Ghanoush: Unpretentious Lebanese Food

Spinach Flatbread
Spinach Flatbread

 

A few friends and I were planning to go to Mama Ghanoush, a new Lebanese restaurant in Kip’s Bay last week, but, as the city shut down in preparation for the storm of the century, we decided to go to flat top on Amsterdam instead.

Mama Ghanoush was still on my mind and so a few days later I made the trip down. The name of the restaurant is a play on the name of the eggplant appetizer found in almost every Middle Eastern restaurant, baba ghanoush.
Coming up to the place from the street, you see the name Mama Ghanoush, written with a few Arabic letters. Entering the restaurant, you hear Arabic pop music, and you are greeted with friendly staff. Wooden tables, soft green and blue pillows, clay vases, and a billboard filled with  postcards, postage stamps, and photos of the ‘greats’ of Lebanese and Middle Eastern music give this place a rustic, Mediterranean feel.
The menu, not too large, offers a great selection of mezza (Middle Eastern small plates), flatbreads, and the traditional grilled meats like shawarma and kebab.
Because it was very cold outside, I ordered a lentil soup, which turned out warm and comforting, but, garnished with lemon juice and parsley, it was not too heavy. I then ordered a spinach flatbread, not very traditional as far as I know, but very delicious. The bread was topped with a spinach and feta mixture, similar to what you’d find in the Greek spanakopita. The star of this dish, though, was the bread. Thin, and beautifully charred, it was crunchy on the edges and warm and soft in the center.
I left Mama Ghanoush satisfied, refreshed, and ready to walk out into the biting cold. I’d definitely recommend going to Mama Ghanoush, for some light, authentic, and unpretentious Lebanese food.

Beyoglu: Istanbul, a Short Walk from the Met

One of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon in the city is to visit the Met and then walk over to 3rd avenue and 81st St. to Beyoglu, a restaurant that serves traditional Turkish and Middle Eastern fare. Beyoglu is the name of a beautiful district in the European side of Istanbul, written about extensively by Orhan Pamuk, Columbia professor of comparative literature, in his award-winning novels, including The Museum of Innocence and My Name is Red. You walk in to Beyoglu on the Upper East Side, and it is as if you were in the lively Istiklal Street in Istanbul. There is a feeling of tradition, but also a comforting informality.

Mezze and Turkish bread
Mezze and Turkish bread

The first thing my friends and I look forward to when visiting Beyoglu is the bread. The BREAD! It is soft and on the inside and coated with a salty, crispy crust. Unlike what you would expect at a Middle Eastern restaurant, this is not pita bread. I actually prefer having mezze with this bread than with traditional pita bread. Mezze are shared small-plate appetizers served with bread in many Middle Eastern and Balkan countries, usually in the form of a dip.

We ordered three small-plates: cacik, cucuk, and patlican salatasi. Cacik is a cross between yoghurt and cheese, known in other Middle Eastern countries as labne. I personally prefer the Turkish cacik to other versions of this mezze because it is creamy, silky, and not very salty – resembling the American cream cheese, but mixed with cucumbers, which adds freshness to a dip that might otherwise be too rich and dense.

Cucuk is a type of spicy sausage found in Turkey and the Levant region. At Beyoglu, the sausages are served with fried potato cubes. Normally, these potatoes are very good, but last time I visited, my friends and I that the potatoes were very bland. This was a disappointment, because the crispy, salty potatoes pair up really well with the spicy, meaty sausages.

The last mezze we ordered was the patlican salatsi, a mashed up eggplant salad that is delicious scooped with a piece of bread. The salad is earthy, as roasted eggplant should be, but it has a nice tangy kick to it that makes me want to have the whole plate for myself.

When it came to the main dish, I was almost too full to even order anything, but I caved when I saw the waiter carrying some plates of kebab over to the table next to us. I decided to order the Iskender kebab. This dish consists of slices of lamb cooked on a vertical rotisserie, the Turkish cousin of the Greek gyro. The meat is served over crunchy croutons, the very same ones you would have in a caesar salad, but coated with a delicious warm tomato sauce. The whole dish is then topped with a large dollop of fresh yoghurt. The sauce and croutons make a perfect flavor combo: sweet tomatoes, tangy yoghurt, and salty crouton. The meat itself is very tender and filling. I am usually afraid of ordering this kind of kebab anywhere else since, more often than not, it comes out tough and almost gelatinous, which is not pleasant at all.

So, whenever you are at the Met on a beautiful day, you should take a beautiful walk along the fancy townhouses of the Upper East Side and treat yourself to delicious comforting Turkish food.

Tabouli, A Summer Salad To Start The Fall

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Tabouli is a classic salad that comes from the Levant, the region that includes the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. It is a simple salad served at many occasions, and is considered a “mezze” a small plate appetizer served among many other small plates in a traditional Levantine dinner. The recipe itself is quite straightforward, and you can definitely play around with the amounts of the ingredients to suit your taste. Tabouli ingredients include parsley, tomatoes, mint leaves, and bulgur wheat, dressed with some olive oil and lemon juice. Traditionally, the parsley and mint leaves are chopped very finely, and the tomatoes are cut into very small pieces, so that one bite of tabouli contains many small pieces of each ingredient. This makes preparing tabouli quite time consuming, and, even though many people back home would be upset by my saying this, I don’t think you actually need to cut the pieces into really small pieces. Again, this recipe is very malleable, and you can really do whatever you want with it. Here is a general guideline for the amounts of ingredients you’ll need to serve 4-6 people:

 

4 bunches of parsley

1 bunch of mint leaves

4 tomatoes

¼ cup of bulgur wheat, soaked in water for 10 minutes (not boiled)

 

Dressing:

4-5 tbsp. lemon juice

½ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste.

 

Allayet Bandora

Allayet bandora with a side of rice

I only really started to cook in the summer before I came to Columbia. I had spent some time in the kitchen, but never seriously. Before leaving, I believed that I needed to quickly learn how to cook so that I could feed myself when the dining hall closed. The first thing that my mother said I needed to learn to make was an allayet bandora, which means tomato stir-fry in Arabic. This is a simple meat sauce that can be eaten with rice, and is very easy to make. If you’d like, you can also turn it into a breakfast dish by frying some eggs with it.

 

 

For a recipe that feeds four, you’ll need the following ingredients:

1 medium onion, chopped into small pieces

1 Ib. ground beef

4 tbsp. corn oil

A handful of pine nuts, fried in vegetable oil

1 tsp. Arabic spice mix*

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. black pepper

2 Ib. tomatoes, cubed

1 green chili (optional)

*You can make this spice mix yourself by mixing the following spices, or you can try to find it at a Middle Eastern specialty store. If you’re only using this spice mix for this recipe, then I don’t think it’s worth buying all of the spices just make one teaspoon. You can just add whatever combination of these spices that you like or that you already have.

2 tbsp. ground black paper, 2 tbsp. paprika, 2tbsp ground cumin, 1tbsp ground coriander, 1 tbsp. ground cloves, 1 tsp. ground nutmeg, 1 tsp, ground cinnamon, and ½ tsp. ground cardamom.

  1. This recipe starts out like you’re making any other ground beef/tomato sauce dish. You add a little of vegetable oil to a frying pan, and fry the onions until they become transparent.
  2. Add the beef, a teaspoon of salt and the teaspoon of the Arabic spice.
  3. Once the beef is cooked, add the cubed tomatoes and cook for 30 minutes on a medium-low heat.
  4. If you’d like to make your allayet bandora spicy, cut up some green chili and add it to the tomatoes.
  5. While the meat and tomatoes are being cooked, fry the pines nuts in a little bit of vegetable oil.
  6. Once you see that your tomato/beef sauce is well cooked, add it to a plate of rice and top it with the pine nuts.

I hope you will like making this recipe for a quick, traditional Middle Eastern stew!

Restaurant Review: Falafel on Broadway

Falafel on Broadway (Photo credit: Yelp, Falafel on Broadway)

Located on Broadway between La Salle St and Tiemann Place, just before the 125 St. 1 train stop, this Middle Eastern eatery offers authentic hummus (voted the most authentic in Morningside Heights in our hummus competition), some falafel, labneh, kebabs and shawerma. They also have some traditional Middle Eastern stews like bamieh (okra with tomato sauce), and desserts like baklava and knafeh (check out my previous post about this delicious dessert!).

Warning: this is not a fancy place. It is probably one step up from a Halal cart. But it’s good. And it’s cheap. You’ll walk in to a long, narrow room, with a counter on the right behind which the owners prepare their kebabs, and shawermas. There is also a glass display where they put all of their desserts and skewers of raw meat ready to be grilled. I don’t think the raw meat is very appetizing, so, if you think that would turn you away, try not to look at the glass case until after you’ve finished your meal!

Walk further down the narrow room and you’ll find tables are set up, as well some nicely cushioned booths. Covering the walls are some “Jordan Tourism” advertisement posters, owing to the country of origin of Falafel on Broadway’s owners.

For me, the ideal night out at Falafel on Broadway will include some hummus, falafel, warm pita bread, a good shisha, and a cup of black Middle Eastern tea. Get a deck of cards to play with your friends as you snack, smoke shisha, and listen to Middle Eastern classics playing in the background,  and it’ll be just as if you were in a small shisha place in the Middle East!