A Gust of Sesame and Saffron - The Buffalo News
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A Gust of Sesame and Saffron

NEW YORK – When Ghaya Oliveira was appointed head pastry chef for the restaurant empire of Daniel Boulud, she began a stealth campaign. As she constructed new desserts for Daniel, the very French flagship in a very upscale ZIP code, she started to sneak in the flavors of her childhood in Tunisia: jasmine and sesame, rosewater and saffron.

“We didn’t list them on the menu,” she recalled. (After 14 years cooking in New York City, she knew that customers were cautious about these tastes.) “Only when the plate went on the table, then the server mentioned it.”

She was not only persistent, but prescient. Today Oliveira is one of many chefs, with and without roots in the Middle East and North Africa, who are pulling those regions’ rich and ancient culinary traditions into the limelight. And though there is still some hesitation – political as well as practical – to label the food Middle Eastern, it is becoming a key component in New York’s busy palette of cuisines. Long available as cheap street food, it now has a secure foothold in fine dining.

At creative new Middle Eastern restaurants like Glasserie, Bar Bolonat and Zizi Limona, there is no room on the menu for basic falafel and plain hummus, no matter how expertly prepared. In their place are brilliant combinations like wood-smoked baba ghanouj spiked with fresh basil and feta; tabbouleh tossed with cauliflower, yogurt and pistachios; and chocolate falafel, a surprisingly successful fusion of molten-centered chocolate cake and sesame crust.

Fattoush, a standard salad across the Middle East with tomatoes, greens and crisp shards of bread, has lost its tomato in the hands of Einat Admony, the chef at Bar Bolonat, but gained silky avocado, handfuls of fresh mint and a sharp dressing with lemon and mustard, accompanied by a drop of honey to smooth things over. Springing up in various places are creations like harissa oil and peanut tahini, arugula yogurt and Persian lemon crème fraîche.

Young entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the city’s robust food markets to introduce treats old and new: spreadable halvah from Brooklyn Sesame, savory yogurt with spices from Sohha Yogurt, and manousheh, a staple street food in Lebanon. It’s made from a very thin flatbread called manakeesh, painted with za’atar and wrapped around tomatoes, cucumbers and jibneh, fresh cheese that is crumbly like feta but mild like mozzarella.

Ziad Hermez was so certain that New York would embrace the manousheh that he bought a commercial dough roller and special domed griddle, shipped them from Lebanon and opened Manousheh, a chic, short-lived pop-up in an abandoned subway station in lower Manhattan. (It proved popular, and Hermez is now shopping for a permanent space.)

At the high end, Eldad Shem Tov, the newly installed chef at Glasserie, has a most glamorous résumé, including stints at Aquavit and at Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. He opened one of the first restaurants in Israel to offer tasting menus, high-end counter dining and its own greenhouse produce. Israel has experienced a culinary revolution similar to that of the United States, but in fast forward: over the last 20 years, rather than 50.

“We went from French, to Italian, to modernist, to local, all in my lifetime,” Shem Tov said. “Now I just cook food that tastes good to me.”

That covers the spectrum: from a rethought kebab of tuna and halibut wrapped around a cinnamon “skewer” and served with the cinnamon stick aflame at both ends, to a homely feast of stuffed vegetables surrounded by fresh herbs, pickled baby carrots and turnips, yogurt, smoky flatbread and red and green chili relishes.

“It’s always good to open up the game and have more to play with,” said Ignacio Mattos, the chef at Estela, who credits Atef Boulaabi, an owner of the ingredient emporium SOS Chefs in lower Manhattan, with educating his palate. “Most people, even chefs, don’t know yet that there is a real difference between a freshly dried chickpea and an old one.”

Defining where the Middle East begins and ends is as difficult from a culinary perspective as it is from a political one. Historically, Arabia and Asia traded spices and flavors back and forth, as merchants crossed through Persia, famous for its luxurious cuisine. Rice came from China, chilies arrived from South America via a detour to South Asia; all these belong firmly to the Middle East today.

So although traditional Yemeni food may not look much like the cuisine of the fertile Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, the region shares some building blocks: sesame, za’atar, yogurt, grapes, apricots, coffee and spice mixes that occupy an entirely different space than they do in Western kitchens. “You have to understand that these spices are not only something you add to food,” said Lior Lev Sercarz, a New York spice purveyor whose clientele at La Boîte includes top chefs. “They are a food in themselves.”

One fundamental seasoning of the region is za’atar; confusingly, it exists in two forms. The fresh green herb called za’atar is related to oregano and savory, but it also has notes of thyme, mint and sage. For the mixture called za’atar, the dried herb is ground with sumac and salt, sometimes with dried thyme and mint, and mixed with whole sesame seeds, in as many variations as there are cooks.

Israel is another place where the gastronomic heritage of places like Libya and Yemen, Iran and Syria have been preserved, and today it serves as a sort of ark for Middle Eastern food. Even as Jews have left those countries for Israel, they have continued to cook in the style of their ancestors: with chickpeas and sesame, lamb and allspice, pomegranates and apricots. Modern staples there include amba, a strong mango pickle from Iraq; zhug, a fresh chili sauce from Yemen; and spice pastes like harissa and charmoula from North Africa, ancestral home of the Mizrahi Jews, who have strongly influenced modern Israeli cooking.

Admony, of Bar Bolonat, grew up in Israel; her mother’s family is from Iran, her father’s from Yemen, and her cooking crisscrosses regional lines of nation and religion.

What is easy for spices has proved difficult for people. And the troubles of the Middle East have had repercussions for chefs here, including a reluctance among many to draw attention to their background.

Although Bishara proudly calls herself a Palestinian-American, she rarely uses the word Palestine in her book. Others avoid the term Middle Eastern, identifying their food as Arabian, Mediterranean, Sephardic or Moorish. Mattos, of Estela, said he changed the name of a flatbread on the menu: “matzo” became “cracker” after friends convinced him that the word invited controversy.

But Lev Sercarz, the spice merchant, is eager to trumpet his Middle Eastern heritage from the rooftops.

“I am a proud ambassador of the Middle East, and I am not quiet about it,” he said. “I’m proud of the food, and I’m proud of the hospitality.

“When I’m back there, we are always doing business over coffee and something to eat. In New York, you could die of thirst in a meeting before someone offered you a glass of water.”

Avocado Fattoush with Mint Vinaigrette

Adapted from Einat Admony, Bar Bolonat, New York

Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings


1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 and 1/2 teaspoons honey

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste

1/2 teaspoon chopped shallot or a small garlic clove

1/2 cup grapeseed or extra-virgin olive oil

8 to 10 fresh mint leaves


1 pita bread or other flatbread such as lavash, preferably slightly stale

2 mini seedless cucumbers (also called Persian cucumbers), chilled

1 Hass avocado, ripe but firm, chilled

1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh mint leaves

1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 large handfuls (a scant 2 ounces) arugula

2 large handfuls (a scant 2 ounces) watercress

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1/4 teaspoon sumac

1. Make the vinaigrette: In a blender, combine the lemon juice, mustard, honey, ¼ teaspoon salt and shallots or garlic. Blend until smooth. With the machine running, slowly pour in the oil and blend until mixture is emulsified. Add mint leaves and blend very briefly, just until incorporated. Refrigerate until ready to serve, up to 1 day.

2. Make the salad: If using pita, separate the two layers. Toast bread until crunchy, let cool, then break into rough bite-size pieces. Set aside. Cut chilled cucumbers in half lengthwise and turn cut sides down. Cut crosswise into slices ¼-inch thick. Peel and pit the chilled avocado and cut into ½-inch cubes. Combine cucumber and avocado in a salad bowl. Add the mint, parsley, arugula and watercress.

3. Pour in about ¼ cup of the vinaigrette and toss gently. Taste, then add more dressing and salt as needed. (Save unused dressing for future use.) Sprinkle feta over the top, then add the sumac and bread. Serve immediately.

Brussels Sprouts with Pomegranate-Tahini Sauce

Adapted from “Olives, Lemons and Za’atar” by Rawia Bishara (Kyle Books, 2014)

Time: 1 hour if roasting; 40 minutes if frying

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

3/4 cup tahini (Middle Eastern sesame paste)

2 garlic cloves, crushed or coarsely chopped

1/3 to 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 3 lemons)

1/3 teaspoon salt, more to taste

1 cup low-fat plain yogurt

2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

Corn oil for frying or roasting

3 to 4 pounds brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

1 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)

Lemon wedges and chopped parsley, for garnish

1. Make the sauce: In a food processor or blender, combine the tahini, garlic, 1/3 cup lemon juice and 1/3teaspoon salt. Blend until smooth. Add the yogurt and pomegranate molasses and blend again. Add more salt or lemon juice to taste, then set aside.

2. Make the sprouts: If frying, pour ½ inch corn oil in a deep skillet. Heat until very hot but not smoking. (Test by gently dropping a half sprout into the oil; when oil is ready, sprout will pop loudly and sizzle immediately.) Working in batches to avoid crowding the pan, fry sprouts until browned and crisp but still bright green, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove to paper towels to drain.

3. If roasting, heat oven to 375 degrees and place a pan of water on the bottom shelf to prevent sprouts from drying out. Toss sprout halves in about 3 tablespoons corn oil until slick, but not dripping. Spread them out on 2 sheet pans and bake until tender and browned, about 30 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, make the breadcrumbs: in a small skillet, heat olive oil over gentle heat until medium-hot. Add garlic and stir; it will sizzle. Immediately add breadcrumbs and stir until toasted and golden brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in salt, then remove to paper towels to drain.

5. When ready to serve, spread cooked sprouts on a platter. Drizzle with about ½ cup sauce and top with breadcrumbs. Tuck in lemon wedges around the edges and sprinkle parsley over the top. Serve immediately, passing any extra sauce at the table.

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