Tag Archives: middle eastern food

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?


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.


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.


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


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.












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.
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!

Almonds, Chocolate, and Pears, Oh My!


Thanksgiving is around the corner, and I have already eaten a record amount of pies for the year. Pumpkin, apple, and pecan are amazing, but I wanted to try something new this year, something that incorporated Middle Eastern flavors and ingredients.

We don’t have a lot of pies in the Middle East, but we do have a lot of almonds, and a lot of pears, and I’ve found a wonderful pear, almond, and chocolate tart that is absolutely delicious. It is not a very difficult tart. The pastry used is a regular piecrust that you can buy from the store or make from scratch. The tart shell is filled with a delicious frangipane and then topped with pears and chocolate, and baked. This recipe is good for a 9 inch fluted tart pan. If you’re using a pie dish, you might need to increase the recipe by multiplying the ingredients by 1.5. I hope you enjoy it!


For the pastry, you will need:

1 ¼ cups of flour

½ cup butter, cold, cut into small pieces

2-4 tbsp. ice water

½ tbsp. sugar

¼ tsp. salt


For the almond filling, you will need:

9 ½ tbsp. ground almonds

7 tbsp. butter at room temperature

7 tbsp. sugar

2 eggs

(If you have a scale, the ingredients are simply 100 g each of almonds, butter, and sugar, and 2 eggs).


For the toppings, you will need two pears, cored and cut in half, and about 2 tbsp. of chocolate chips, but the amount of chocolate really is to taste. An optional topping is apricot jam that you can use to glaze the top of the tart.


To make the pastry, first cut your butter into small pieces and return to the fridge to stay cold. Then whisk flour, sugar, and salt. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients using a pastry blender or two knives until you see course crumbs. Add two tablespoons of the ice water, and gently combine, continue adding water in ½ tablespoon increments, until the dough stays together when pressed between two fingers. Try not to go over 4 tablespoons. The less water you put in, the flakier and crispier your dough is! Once you’ve added enough water, turn your dough out on a sheet of plastic wrap, and using the edges of the wrap, press the dough together into a disk. Wrap it tightly, and refrigerate for 45 minutes.


At this point, you can also preheat your oven to 350 degrees.


Meanwhile, make the filling by creaming the butter and sugar together, then adding the eggs, followed by the ground almonds. You can use store-bought almond meal or process 100 grams (9 ½ tbsp.) of blanched almonds in a food processor, be careful not to over-process though, because the ground almonds tend to lump together if processed for too long. If you’d like to accentuate the flavor of the almonds, you can add just a drop of almond extract. Alternatively if you want to have more of a pear flavor with a bit of a kick, you can add a little bit of pear brandy.


After the pastry is properly chilled, roll it out and gently insert it into your tart pan. To make it easier for myself to roll the dough out, I always put it between two sheets of parchment paper. I never to use extra flour, and I never have a problem with the dough sticking to the surface.


Add the filling, and arrange the pears cut-side down. Distribute the chocolate chips evenly, then bake the tart for about an hour, or until the top of the frangipane becomes golden brown.


A couple of minutes before the tart comes out, heat a few tablespoons of apricot jam in the microwave. Once the tart comes out, brush it with the jam while it’s still hot. Apricot jam doesn’t really affect the flavor of the tart, but it gives it a beautiful glaze, and prevents the fruit from turning brown.

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










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)



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!

Knafeh: A sweet treat for the whole family

A half-eaten tray of knafeh

Last week, I wrote about my favorite Middle Eastern meal. I’d like to tell you about my favorite dessert, the dessert that I look forward to having every time I go home: knafeh, also known as künefe in Turkey, and kadaifi in Greece. This popular Middle Eastern dessert originates in the Palestinian city of Nablus, which is a historically busy commercial center located in a valley between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. This city is well renowned for its white, brined cheese made from sheep’s milk, known all over the Middle East as “Nabulsi cheese.”

The soft, mild Nabulsi cheese is the main component of the knafeh, which is made by sandwiching a tray-full of cheese between two layers of noodle-shaped semolina dough. Once baked, the knafeh is soaked in a sweet sugar and orange-flour syrup, and topped with some crushed pistachios. Made in big, circular trays, this dessert is served at very, and I mean very, large family gatherings, where everyone gets to cut off a slice from the tray at the center of the table. Enjoying the knafeh in a communal setting is a tradition all over the Middle East. There aren’t many desserts that bring families together like the knafeh does, and it is because of this, and its delicious, gooey sweetness, that knafeh is by far my favorite Middle Eastern dessert.

Craving it once in a while, I find myself heading to Falafel on Broadway for a bite of their knafeh. But, if you want a place that serves an authentic slice of this dessert, take the M60 towards LaGuardia Airport, and stop at Steinway street, otherwise known as Little Egypt, in Astoria, Queens, where you’ll find many Middle Eastern bakeries serving it warm and freshly made. It is also worth making this thirty-minute trip for the great Middle Eastern restaurants and shisha lounges concentrated in the neighborhood.