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The Palestinian Summer Feast: Salads, Flatbreads, and a Big Pot of Lamb
When Hasan Diab arrived in the U.S. more than a decade ago, it wasn't hard to find familiar street foods from back home: falafel, pita and even shawarma. But the fresh, spice-rich Palestinian home cooking he took for granted growing up in the Galilee was a rare treat here, usually available only in the homes of friends and family.
Just 17-years-old at the time, Diab was more intent on earning money than on eating well. Years later, when he got married and his young wife arrived in New York City, the absence of familiar foods from home posed a new problem.
"She had a very hard pregnancy. She was very nauseous," Diab recalls. "She couldn't eat anything and she was craving fresh Palestinian food."
It was a problem that also seemed to suggest a business opportunity. So just a few months after his first son was born in 2009, Diab opened Duzan on a quiet stretch of Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens—where immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa have settled among the neighborhood's famously large Greek community.
Duzan is beloved among locals for its chicken shawarma, made fresh each day with a custom blend of 21 spices, although many of Diab's Greek customers still call it "gyro." But it's the salads and house-made hummus topped with everything from ground beef to roasted garlic and pine nuts that offer what Diab's pregnant wife once had to go without: a light, refreshing Palestinian summer meal.
We spent a day inside Duzan's kitchen with Hasan Diab, 30, and his brother Faysal, 29, as they prepared a summer feast. The meal we shared with them included salads dressed with fresh herbs, lemon juice, and sumac; savory flatbreads baked with spices, meat, and olive oil; and a Palestinian specialty served at weddings in the Diabs' home village: tender, spice-simmered beef and rice submerged in a refreshing, tart yogurt gravy.
Salata arabieh ("Arab salad") is a mainstay of Palestinian family meals on summer evenings. Diab's version combines fresh onion, tomato, and mildly sweet, seedless Persian cucumber with handfuls of minced parsley and mint, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.
"When you ask for salad back home, this is what you get," says Diab, who grew up eating salata arabieh as a late night snack—paired with French fries and hummus.
Lettuce is rarely used in Palestinian salads, but arugula (called jarjeer in Arabic) is popular. Diab's jarjeer salad combines greens and slices of onion and sweet red bell pepper lightly marinated in lemon juice, a dash of sharp white vinegar, olive oil and musty-sour sumac (a spice made from the ground berries of the sumac shrub).
Diab's fattoush salad, incorporating brined sheep's milk cheese and crisp hunks of deep-fried pita, is much heartier. (Traditionally, the salad was a way to use up stale bread.) To make it, Diab combines fried shards of pita with chopped romaine lettuce, tomato, Persian cucumber, and onion, which he tosses with the familiar trio: lemon juice, olive oil, and ample sumac. Then he adds grated cheese, pomegranate seeds, and a dusting of za'atar on top.
It's a rustic dish, but the flavors are complex. Salty, creamy cheese and toasty fried pita are balanced against crisp, fresh vegetables, tart pomegranate seeds, and tangy lemon juice and sumac.
Mana'eesh, a seasoned flatbread, is also simple, yet incredibly flavorful. It's a thick flatbread slathered with a generous layer of za'atar mixed with olive oil and baked briefly. (Usually it's made with taboon, a thick flatbread roasted on stones in a wood-fired oven that shares its name, but here in Queens Diab uses tandoori naan from a nearby market.)
The star of this dish is the za'atar, a spice blend made with a wild herb of the same name (its flavor is similar to wild thyme) and toasted sesame seeds, sumac, and salt. Diab's imported za'atar is earthy and nutty, with a slightly sour edge from the sumac (noticing a theme here?).
Musakhan, a flatbread loaded with seasoned chicken, is popular throughout the Palestinian territories. For his version, Diab first browns diced onion and pieces of chicken breast in olive oil with paprika, sumac, and ground cumin. Then the cooked meat is loaded atop flatbread and baked in the oven until the flavors of the sweet caramelized onions, musty-sour sumac, and savory cumin are perfectly married.
While Diab prepares the salads and flatbreads, a huge pot of roz ou foqa'eyeh—a specialty reserved for wedding feasts back in the Galilee—slowly simmers on a back burner in the kitchen. The dish starts with hunks of meat (traditionally lamb, but Diab prefers beef short rib) that are browned with sliced onion. Then Diab adds plenty of water and generous shakes of ground cloves, ground nutmeg, black pepper, and baharat (aka "Arabic Seven Spice," a blend of seven spices that is ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cooking), as well as allspice, bay leaf, whole cardamom pods, and cinnamon sticks—and the simmering begins.
After cooking for more than an hour, the meat is fall-apart tender. Diab strains out the fragrant broth, putting the meat aside. Into that broth goes basmati rice, where it cooks in the spices and meat juices—a dish called roz mfelfel (meaning "rice and spices" in Arabic). Meanwhile, in a separate pot, Diab blends yogurt with water and flour and simmers it, stirring constantly, until it thickens and foamy bubbles (called foqa'eyeh in Arabic) emerge on top.
The final touch brings all of these elements together. Ground beef sautéed with pine nuts and baharat is mixed with the rice, and the yogurt gravy and pieces of beef are loaded atop and sprinkled with toasted almond slices. The meat is fragrant and supple, and the yogurt gravy is tart and refreshing—a finely tuned combination of flavors and textures.
What is Palestinian Cooking?
Palestinian cooking overlaps with the cuisines of neighboring Lebanon, Syria, and other countries along the eastern Mediterranean (a region sometimes called "the Levant" or "Bilad al-Sham"). The staple ingredients—vegetables, meats, fresh herbs, olive oil, and an array of whole and ground spices—are simple and always fresh.
"It's important to respect the food and keep it fresh and flavorful," Diab says.
At Duzan, allspice, cinnamon, bay leaf, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, and baharat (aka, Arabic Seven Spice) are always on hand. Sumac and za'atar are also used in many salads to kick in extra flavor.
Wild local greens—boiled to remove any bitterness and then cooked with onions—are also popular in the mountainous Upper Galilee region where Diab grew up. Chicken, beef, and lamb (the latter reserved for special occasions), as well as lentils and dried beans are typical sources of protein. Tangy, unstrained yogurt is often served as a cooling side dish with meals, and fresh or brined cheeses made with sheep's milk are eaten with watermelon or grated over summer salads.
A light lunch at home might consist of mana'eesh served with salad or long wedges of Persian cucumber. A typical evening meal usually starts with several salads, hummus, and flatbreads, like pita or taboon, and finishes with a meat dish.
During Ramadan—the Muslim month for contemplation and purification, which started in late June this year—fresh dates and refreshing drinks (like the curiously-named "Tamar Hindi," made with tamarind pulp) are used to break the fast after long hot days without food and water. Salads and light soups are popular for iftar (fast-breaking) meals on hot nights.
Back home in the Galilee, Ramadan is a festive time of year, and Diab has good memories of friends and family gathering for evening meals to break the fast together.
"It's very nice in the Arab World during Ramadan," he says. "I mean it's nice after the iftar."