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Beyond the Bagel

Exploring the Many Flavors of New York City’s Jewish Cuisine

In the early aughts, shortly after I moved to New York City, some new friends invited me out for kosher Bukharian food in Rego Park, Queens. I had no idea what they were talking about. Growing up Jewish in suburban Chicago, I thought I knew what Jewish food was: challah and brisket for Friday night dinner, Sunday morning lox and bagels, and visits to the delicatessen for matzo ball soup and the gastronomic wonder known as the pastrami sandwich.

That trip to Queens changed everything. Rego Park is home to some 30,000 Bukharian Jews—a community with ancient Persian roots that thrived in Central Asia (primarily what’s now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) for more than 2,000 years. Their cuisine, I soon discovered, is a delicious amalgam of dishes and flavors: pilafs and glistening kebabs, dumplings and hand-pulled noodles, chewy tandoor-baked flatbread and pickled vegetables—the entirety of the Silk Road on one groaning table. Honestly, I felt a little cheated. Where had this spectacular Jewish food been all my life?

Of course, there's a good reason that people's understanding of Jewish cuisine tends to be reduced to pastrami and pickles. Between 1880 and 1920, more than one million Eastern European Jews immigrated to New York City, bringing their old-world food traditions with them. Thanks to the smoky, salt-cured, and carb-heavy legacy of the delicatessens and other food establishments they opened, New York City's Jewish cuisine—and, by extension, Jewish cuisine in America—is almost exclusively associated with the foods of Eastern Europe.

As iconic as dishes such as corned beef, matzo ball soup, and babka are, they tell only part of the story. New York is home to hundreds of thousands of Jews with staggeringly diverse backgrounds. In addition to Queens' Bukharian enclave, you’ll find 75,000 Syrian Jews living in Gravesend, Brooklyn. The city is also home to many Israeli natives with their own blended heritages, a congregation of Indian Jews, the only Greek-Jewish synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, and the headquarters of the Beta Israel of North America Cultural Foundation, an organization for Ethiopian Jews. And that’s just the beginning.

Each of these communities has its own take on what Jewish food should taste like. And luckily, many of them have decided to share their distinctive Jewish cuisines with other city-dwellers. For restaurant-goers eager to dine outside the box, there is an entire world of Jewish food, much of it kosher, to explore in New York City—and the pastrami is completely optional.

By Leah Koenig

[Photograph: Liz Clayman]

  • Bukharian Specialties at Salute

    [Photograph: Liz Clayman]

    Rego Park’s 108th Street is known as Bukharian Broadway, thanks to a cluster of kosher restaurants like Salute that serve the community's Silk Road–inspired cuisine. A delightful meal could be made out of a few grilled lamb kebabs, a plate of pickled cabbage, and Salute's French fries, which are dressed up with piles of chopped fresh cilantro and garlic. But you’d be cheating yourself if you didn’t order a bowl of lagman, a meaty, cumin- and coriander-spiced soup brimming with thick, slurpable noodles and showered with fresh cilantro.

    And you can’t leave without a platter of plov (called "Asian Pilaf" on Salute's menu), a heady rice dish enriched with beef and sweetened with softened grated carrots. Bukharian Jews traditionally serve plov for weddings and other special occasions, but Salute brings the party every night—except Friday, when it closes for the Sabbath.

  • A Kosher Steakhouse With More Than Just Steak

    [Photograph: Liz Clayman]

    Steak is the main attraction at Mabat, a 29-year-old kosher restaurant, located just off of Kings Highway in Midwood, Brooklyn. But beyond the juicy ribeyes and prime rib, Mabat's menu is peppered with worthy iterations of dishes from throughout the Middle East.

    A bowl of grated tomatoes mixed with s'chug (Yemeni chili and cilantro paste), which comes gratis to the table, is fiery and fresh. And the Moroccan-style matbucha, a chunky relish made from tomatoes, peppers, and garlic, is ideal for swiping up with Mabat's pillowy, brioche-tender pita.

    Order a bowl of turmeric-brightened Yemeni beef soup, a brothy elixir brimming with hunks of beef and potato. The soul-nourishing dish goes perfectly with a few crunchy torpedoes of Iraqi-style bulgur kibbeh. And, since the mantra "more is more" is central to the shared, small-plates ethos of Middle Eastern dining, don't skip the Jerusalem mixed grill. Mabat’s take on this late-night Israeli street snack offers a jumble of chicken, turkey, mushrooms, and onions, seasoned with cumin and coriander and served straight up or piled onto the tahini-rich hummus.

  • Medieval Fare at La Vara

    [Photograph: Liz Clayman]

    Named after a 20th-century newspaper printed in Ladino (the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish), La Vara offers a small-plates menu peppered with the Jewish and Moorish flavors of pre-Inquisition Spain. In practice, that means a menu focused on the ingredients—chickpeas and eggplant, artichokes, almonds, and quince—and techniques—braising, deep-frying, stewing—that evoke this storied legacy. "It was never my idea to open a restaurant serving medieval cuisine," says chef/owner Alex Raij. "But so many dishes that people think of as purely Spanish have these influences from before. I wanted the menu to start a conversation."

    Berenjena con miel, crispy fried eggplant covered with melted cheese, a drizzle of honey, and pungent black nigella seeds, is a great place to start. So are the albóndigas, juicy lamb meatballs once favored by Spain's historical, and famously interconnected, Jewish and Muslim communities. And dishes like Raij's spiced fried chickpeas, crispy artichokes with a slick of anchovy oil, and a date and walnut tart encased inside a shortbread crust and dolloped with a shock of lemon curd recall a lost time while maintaining a contemporary feel.

  • Inventive Modern Israeli Food at Timna

    [Photograph: Liz Clayman]

    Kubaneh is a Yemeni Sabbath bread that’s baked overnight in a low oven until it develops a caramelized crust around its downy interior. Chef Nir Mesika's version at Timna, a modern Israeli restaurant in the East Village, is more riff than melody. But thanks to his strong baking background (his grandparents owned a bakery, where he regularly played and observed as a child), the butter-rich dough, which rises three times before heading into the oven in its ceramic pot, captures the original's yeast-perfumed appeal.

    The rest of Mesika’s ever-changing menu at Timna also skews toward rooted improvisation. For example, "The Wild Fish," a recent standout, is an impressive, hearty fillet of wild sea bass, dressed in a puréed take on Moroccan matbucha in honor of Mesika’s Moroccan-born mother. On my last visit, he paired it with ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and crème fraîche. Mesika also tops virtuous bowls of harira, a red-lentil stew, with a rebellious trio of meat: lamb bacon, smoked foie gras, and grilled sweetbreads.

  • A Journey to Georgia at Marani

    [Photograph: Liz Clayman]

    Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia (the republic, not the state) was home to a large, millennia-old Jewish community. Today, the majority of Georgian Jews live in Israel. But, fortunately for New Yorkers, one of them, Tbilisi-born Ana Epremashvili, settled in Queens and opened a glatt kosher restaurant serving Jewish-inflected Georgian cuisine—a culinary canon prized for its sumptuous feasts.

    Any meal at Marani (which also operates a small, kosher-dairy bakery downstairs that turns out several varieties of the beloved Georgian cheese bread khachapuri) should start with a trio of green bean, spinach, and beet spreads. Collectively known as phali, all three use the same technique: The base veggies get steamed, pressed by hand (which Epremashvili says yields a more traditional, rustic texture than using a food processor), and rolled with walnuts and secret spices until they form a chunky pâté. Scoop them up with a hunk of puffed shotis puri bread, but try to have a little restraint—there is more food on the way, and the portions at Marani are ample. Don’t miss the chakapuli, a long-simmered lamb stew flavored with tarragon, cilantro, and tkemali, a mouth-puckering sauce made from wild green plums. "We import new spices from Georgia every two months," Epremashvili says. Marani's commitment to freshness and flavor is evident across the menu.

  • First-Rate Sephardic Baked Goods at Mansoura

    [Photograph: Liz Clayman]

    With baking roots that stretch back to 18th-century Aleppo and early-20th-century Cairo, the Mansoura family has semolina and sugar running deep through their veins. Today, brothers David and Jack Mansoura, along with their mother, Josiane, follow in their ancestors' footsteps, turning out Middle Eastern and Sephardic pastries at their kosher shop in Gravesend.

    "It is hard to pick a favorite pastry," David says. "This has been our family's business forever. We're good at all of them." Mansoura's baklava (pistachio or walnut), with its astonishing 70 layers of crackling phyllo dough and orange blossom–scented syrup, is a case in point—it is every bit as gooey as baklava ought to be, while retaining a snappy crunch. Equally delicious is their basbousa, a dense semolina and coconut cake doused in syrup, and their dried apricot roll confection, which comes packed with diced pistachios. Everything, from the rosewater-infused Turkish delight and chewy almond nougat to the date-filled, powdered sugar–topped maamoul cookies, is made in house—a bit of Willy Wonka–style magic, deep in Brooklyn.

  • Homey Israeli Food at Balaboosta

    [Photograph: Liz Clayman]

    I adore all of Chef Einat Admony's four restaurants, from her beloved falafel joint, Taim, to her upscale Israel-meets-Spain venture, Combina. But Balaboosta, which features her imaginative spins on Middle Eastern home cooking, is my favorite. Growing up in Israel with Iranian and Yemeni parents, and with Moroccan neighbors who were like a second family, Admony takes culinary inspiration from all over the regional map. For her standout dish, Israeli Street Fair, she wraps shawarma-spiced chicken, chopped merguez, and caramelized onions in a pita and tops the mix with a tangy pickled-mango aioli and parsley. Cornstarch-crisped sweet potato fries come on the side, but a few can, and arguably should, be stuffed into the sandwich at the table. A dessert of orange blossom and fig bread pudding, topped with an inky-black tahini ice cream—at once hot and cold, crisp and creamy, spicy and sweet—rounds out the meal.

    Grab a table at brunch to try Admony's take on the hearty Sephardic Sabbath stew hamin. Barley, kidney beans, and chickpeas are slowly simmered with beefy short ribs until the beans turn creamy and the meat falls apart at the touch of a fork. She adds allspice, garlic, and dried prunes and apricots for sweetness. It’s served in individual cast iron pots and garnished with half a hard-boiled egg that gets cooked inside the stew.

  • Roving Shakshuka From the Shuka Truck

    [Photograph: Liz Clayman]

    We agree that Shakshuka, the North African delicacy of eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce, is good enough to merit its own food truck. The dish is already wildly popular throughout Israel, and expat chefs have helped introduce it here, to significant fanfare. In 2014, the humble breakfast-lunch-or-dinner dish even got its own (kosher, vegetarian) food truck, which parks in a different Manhattan location each weekday.

    Like most natives of Israel, the Shuka Truck’s chef, Gabriel Israel, comes from mixed ancestry—in his case, French, Moroccan, and Algerian. "I try to squeeze them all on the menu," he says of his diverse backgrounds. In practice, that means poaching the eggs of his aptly named "Green" shakshuka in a rich, mousse-like purée of asparagus, zucchini, and spinach and sprinkling the delightful mess with tangy pickled onions and sumac. The more traditional "Red" shakshuka, meanwhile, is lightly spicy and has distinctive touches like homemade harissa and an unexpected drizzle of honey that enhances the tomatoes’ sweetness. Eggs are poached to order in the sauce, and each platter comes with soft pita for mopping up sauce and yolk.

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