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Preserving Palestinian Culture, One Seed at a Time

Last weekend, Vivien Sansour, founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, was on a quick stopover in New York City, from her home in Beit Jala, a small town in the West Bank, on her way to New Haven, Connecticut, a small city on the East Coast. Later in the week, she’d give a talk at the newly opened Palestine Museum US, about her mission to preserve and propagate the nearly extinct varietals of Palestinian farmers. She’d be telling the story of wheats like the Handsome Dark One; legendary watermelons like the J’adii; khyar abyad, white cucumbers of immense flavor; and Baladi tomatoes, a type known for its resiliency. Not only do the seeds need saving but so too do the farmers, whose land has been stolen, water diverted, and selves deracinated. But she was in New York and hungry, and so we ended up in Bay Ridge, at Tanoreen, one of New York City’s few Palestinian restaurants and its best by far.

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Tanoreen’s owner, Rawia Bishara, was born in Nazareth and followed her husband to the United States in 1973. In 1998, after raising two children, she opened the place with only ten seats. Bishara is an elegant and regal woman who runs the now-expanded restaurant with her daughter, Jumana Bishara. As with many Palestinians, a gentle sadness envelopes her like mist as she moves about the dining room. It is the sadness of a woman far from home, the melancholy of the dispossessed, and it diffuses her radiant smile, which glows rather than shines.

Those who know what’s what order from Tanoreen’s ever-changing menu of daily specials. That’s where we find the makdous peppers, the hybrid of Rawia’s family’s recipes and the pepper proclivities of her Latino chefs. Bright poblano and jalapeño peppers are roasted and stuffed with a traditional mixture of walnuts, red pepper, and spicy harissa. That’s where we find molokhia, a type of Egyptian mallow once eaten by kings. Falafel and hummus are on the menu, too. Though delicious, they’re 101 shit, the chicken tenders of the Levant.

Jalapeno Poblano Makdous (R) and Kibbie Cups at Tanoreen

The menu is a manifesto for the full personhood of Palestinians. “I hated how we were looked at and how we as Palestinians were perceived,” Bishara explained. “It is so wrong and there was no way to fix it but one to one. They have to see that we are not what they think we are.” What comes out of the kitchen is Palestinian home cooking — endless variants of rice and lamb, found formed into kibbie balls and stuffed into eggplants and peppers; nakanek, a homemade lamb sausage studded with pine nuts; hummus plain and hummus with beets — and that can’t help but lead the eater to contemplate the Palestinian homes with Palestinian mothers in Palestinian kitchens or, in the case of Bishara, Palestinian fathers, too. “My father always used to help my mother,” she says, on one of her table-side visits, “but he’d close the kitchen door so no one could see.”

This project of humanization has worked, within limits. “People still sometimes come in and ask my mom where she’s from,” explains Jumana Bishara, who earned a master’s degree in Middle East studies from the American University in Cairo before joining the family business a decade ago. “She says, ‘Palestine,’ and they say Palestine doesn’t exist. Well, they’re here, and they’re eating food from somewhere.”  

Jumana Bishara and Rawia Bishara of Tanoreen

Negation of the land takes a more concrete form in the work of Sansour. From her childhood, Sansour remembers the ancient terraces that turned the hills of Beit Jala into green carpets. (In fact, Beit Jala means “green carpet” in Aramaic.) “When I miss home,” she says, “I miss the sound of a rock hitting the shell of an almond,” she tells me. Sansour is a pretty woman with nut-brown eyes and olive skin wearing a white linen shirt with bright flowers embroidered on them. On the day I met her, she wore a pair of earrings from which dangled the ancient protective hamsa symbol and a hamsa necklace, and her wrists were heavy with hamsa bracelets that jingled as she pointed at one of Tanoreen’s excellent wines, a Hamdani Jandali blend from the Cremisan valley in the West Bank. “The whole area is now being confiscated,” she said, matter-of-factly. “The whole winery has been confiscated. It’s gone.”

After studying anthropology at East Carolina University and working with farmers in Uruguay, Sansour was shocked when she returned home in 2013 after years away. “All I saw was concrete, concrete, concrete. Terraces of concrete.” Gone were the beloved apricots and almond trees. The groves were replaced by a dense swarm of apartments built to accommodate the Palestinians herded off their land by the Occupation. This small ghetto was now surrounded by a ring of Israeli settlements that held the high ground of the valley, looming like an invading army. The farmers with whom Sansour had grown up had largely become day laborers at nearby Israeli-owned industrial agriculture operations. The Seed Library started with a search for the purple carrot.

Green abu samra wheat field in the village of Nus Ijbail, West Bank

“When I was growing up,” explains Sansour, as a plate of raw kibbie arrives, the minced lamb like a pink shag carpet under a sprig of mint and mounds of diced onion, “my mother would stuff these purple carrots with lamb and rice and serve it in a tamarind sauce. But when I returned, I couldn’t find the carrots anywhere.” Eventually Sansour found one old farmer who was hiding a crate of them in his trunk. “I felt like I was doing a drug deal,” she says. The farmer agreed to sell her two carrots, which she promptly planted in her family’s house, on one of the only remaining green carpets in Beit Jala. The seed of resistance had been planted.

“Stripping people’s ability to have food production was the last stronghold that would bring down the community,” says Sansour. “With each crop came a tradition, a practice, a story of who you are. So with each crop lost, it’s not just biodiversity but cultural diversity that’s lost as well.” The Heirloom Seed Library is animated by the same spirit of Slow Food in Italy and of community gardens in New York and, to some bougie-extent, of the farm-to-table movement around the country. It’s the idea that no one can be truly free if he does not have food sovereignty. So Sansour began crisscrossing the West Bank, tracking down seeds kept in the junk drawers of old farmers, and carefully coaxing them back to life.

Artasi Bean from the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library in Beit Jala.

She hunted these varietals like Alan Lomax did the Delta blues and, like the blues, these seeds were themselves the fruit of suffering and imagination, and like the blues they are divine and life-affirming. “Farmers are between artists and scientists,” Sansour tells me. “That these varieties exist at all are thanks to generations of Palestinian farmers who never stopped experimenting, never gave up on the land.” Wheats like the Handsome Dark One were bred over generations and generations. Yet it is this very humanity, this very human connection to the land, that the Israeli occupiers are obsessed with uprooting, whether by ringing the settlements with pine trees, which render the soil unarable, or with walls and fences, barring Palestinians from their ancestral villages. The anti-colonial struggle is both one of land and one of hearts. “We are told we are shit all the time,” says Sansour. “We have to be like the West to be of any value. But when you realize your grandmother and great-grandmothers developed this wheat and it is because of your grandmother and great-grandmother that the world eats cookies and cake, it’s a big shift. You begin to think maybe I’m not shit to begin with, and that is the true resistance.”

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Just then, Rawia Bishara arrives behind a caravan of striped bass, festooned with potatoes in a tomato sauce; a small plate of startlingly bright pickled vegetables; and a trio of baby squash into whose hollowed-out bodies are stuffed almonds and lamb. Great plumes of steam arise from the fish and from the squash as we cut their tender skin open. Usually simply a vessel for stuffing, these squash are unusually squash-like. They are not just a carrier but carry value themselves. The secret, Rawia says, is that these crops are grown by a Palestinian farmer in Pennsylvania according to the ancient practice of Ba’al. Ba’al agriculture, offers Sansour as Bishara looks on, is named after the Canaanite diety of fertility and destruction we know as Beelzebub, and is a farming technique in which crops grow with no man-made irrigation. Before irrigation, Ba’al was once a necessity, and now, with water in the West Bank being diverted to the settlements, it a necessity once again. But the result of this technique is vastly more flavorful, a vegetable that has had to fight to survive and through its struggle has found a way to thrive. “The idea you dare to try something in the desert is itself fucking revolutionary,” says Sansour. And the fact that you can try something like it at Tanoreen brings the revolution, the resistance, and at least a small measure of victory to Brooklyn.

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NYC’s Ten Best Savory Pies

Baked in a dish or swaddled by a crust, savory pies are essentially just self-contained stews — and you already know our feelings about those. So indulge your inner carnivore.

10. ChipShop, 129 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-855-7775 Deep frying goes gonzo at the flagship location of this Brooklyn restaurant mini-chain specializing in fish and chips and other UK fare. There’s a time and a place for fried cherry pies and battered chocolate confections, but for a hearty meal that warms right to the core, look no further than the steak and kidney pie. There’s an offal-less steak pie on the menu as well, but the kidneys add a wonderful iron undercurrent to the thickened stock that coats each piece of meat. Like a beefy warrior lording over its fallen starch enemies, the pie sits atop a pile of the shop’s excellent thick-cut chips.

9. Tanoreen, 7523 Third Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-748-5600 Rawia Bishara’s Bay Ridge favorite is beloved for its bold flavors rooted in the foundations of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. But beyond the delectable dips, spreads, and grilled meats are a number of fun and ultimately successful tangential dishes like shawarma sliders and a bronzed brick of shepherd’s pie. A browned layer of garlic mashed potatoes hides cumin-spiced lamb mixed with chopped almonds. It’s hearty without being overly rich, and an accompanying side salad helps lighten things further. You might even have room for dessert.

8. Ed’s Lobster Bar, 222 Lafayette Street, 212-343-3236 Crustacean czar Ed McFarland serves his lobster pot pie in a miniature cast iron cauldron. Hit with a dusting of black truffle salt prior to baking in the oven, the steamed lobster chunks work their osmotic magic on the stew, melding with mushrooms flambeed in sherry. Cracking into the engorged disc of puff pastry that tops the dish begins a dangerous race to the finish that only you and your mouth can complete. [

7. La Villette, 10 Downing Street, 212-255-0300 How do the French do shepherd’s pie? Hachis parmentier isn’t much different from the UK original save for the addition of white wine-enriched sauce lyonnaise. The mashed potato crust gets some much-needed earthiness from being laced with truffle butter. Served at brunch exclusively, this is one seriously decadent hangover cure.

6. Five Leaves, 18 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-383-5345 Like many of the dishes at this nautical-themed Greenpoint standby, the shepherd’s pie features unexpected flourishes to achieve exciting results. To wit: Ground lamb gets a dose of heat from cayenne pepper, and the usual top-layer of potato is blended with celery root for sweetness. Browned and crackly, the crust sports a topping of honey-roasted root vegetables.

5. Gottino, 52 Greenwich Avenue, 212-633-2590 At this Italian wine bar, the bastard boot-centric sibling of Jody Williams’ Francophillic Buvette, the kitchen still puts out a version of the chef’s rabbit pot pie despite litigative entanglements between the two parties. Now that Buvette is an outright success, with a Parisian outpost and NYC waits of up to 2 hours during primetime, we like to get a taste of Williams’ rustic cooking without the blasé attitude. A creamy mixed vegetable base studded with rabbit meat hides beneath a bulbous crust risen like a soufflé that covers the ramekin holding the dish’s contents.

4. Jones Wood Foundry, 401 East 76th Street, 212-249-2700 When Jason Hicks opened his smartly-appointed pub on the edge of the Upper East Side, pint-happy patrons flocked from well beyond the restaurant’s tony 10021 zip code for crumpets, toasts, and plenty of UK staples (including a top notch plate of bangers and mash). Of particular note are the chef’s pies, including a lamb and rosemary number whose crust shines like porcelain under the candlelight that graces every table. Slice into it and large hunks of soft meat spill out onto the plate, the gravy puddling next to a fancifully-piped ripple of mashed potatoes. [

3. Ngam, 99 3rd Avenue, 212-777-8424 When it comes to marrying the flavors of Southeast Asia with dishes that North Americans know and love, Hong Thaimee is all but unmatched. After conquering the almighty hamburger, the model-turned-chef has whipped up an addictive twist on a western classic with her take on the humble pot pie. Meltingly soft shredded lamb shoulder simmered in massaman curry sits underneath a blistered roti bread crust, run through with sweet potatoes and cashews for texture and complexity. Pickled cucumbers sit on the side for tart relief.

2. The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, 30 Water Street, 646-422-7906 Boasting numerous national and international accolades for its incredible cocktail program and pub, the food at this antiquarian two-story drinker’s paradise is better than it has to be. The steak and stout pie, with its burnished crust and wide circumference, finds ample chunks of steak mingling with mirepoix in a luscious stout beer gravy. Served with a side of mashed potatoes covered in more gravy, it’s an especially filling meal — even more so on Tuesdays, when pie orders come with a free pint.

1. The Chelsea Pub, 362 West 23rd Street, 646-998-5831 The grub at this pub from the owners of neighboring Westside Tavern gets very “gastro” indeed with a list of pies that would make Georgie Porgie forget about pudding entirely. Chicken pot pie and Shepherd’s pie both make appearances, but it’s the atypical selections — coconut curry chicken, artichoke and pepper, and mac and cheese with bacon among them — that keep drawing us in. Organ meat fanatics should make it a point to try what seems be the city’s only gravy-soaked sweetbread pie; the nuggets of offal rendered soft and creamy. Skin-on spuds fried crisp (and also smothered in gravy) come piled high next to the savory pastry.

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Hop the Train Out to Tanoreen and Athena Express

Cheap rents, a population of wildly diverse ethnicity, and some charming storefront architecture has helped Bay Ridge grow into one of the city’s foremost dining destinations, so that today you can find well-prepared cuisines as far-flung as Sichuan, Sicilian, Siamese, Syrian, and Spartan. The enhanced speed of the N train—which comes out of Manhattan like a stone from a slingshot—has also fueled this growth, though one has to change for the R at Sunset Park’s 59th Street station to complete the trip. The number of Greek restaurants, in particular, has zoomed, so that now Bay Ridge has become better than Astoria if you have a yen for charred octopus and spanakopita (spinach pie). Here’s the latest restaurant news from the B.R.

Ten years ago, Tanoreen opened in a small storefront that was mostly cluttered kitchen and glass display cases, with a paltry number of tables in a tight space out up front. The fresh-tasting salads and creamy bread dips made the place an immediate carryout hit, and it soon became one of the city’s most respected purveyors of Middle Eastern fare. Very recently, Tanoreen transformed itself into a full-blown restaurant—and a semi-luxurious one, at that. Elegant light fixtures descend from coffered ceilings, while pierced-metal baffles shoot stray beams of light from walls painted desert colors of sand, russet, and ecru. On a recent Sunday evening, jovial Middle Eastern families occupied the larger tables, from elderly mustachioed gentlemen in sports coats with silk scarves flung over their shoulders to babies crawling in pastel onesies.

The proprietor and chef, Rawia Bishara, was born in Nazareth. Sumptuously attired, she now presides over a full staff and prances proudly around the dining rooms rather than waving wanly from behind the counter wearing her apron. She arrived at our table just as the vegetarian mousaqa ($15, a frequent special) appeared. The warm casserole was layered with eggplant, tomatoes, summer squash, and onions, cooked down to a dense, delicious mass and strewn with parsley and slivered almonds. You’ll find parsley ubiquitous at Tanoreen; they must race through bales of it daily.

The menu is twice as long as before, including many items that were once offered only as specials. Another innovation is a magnificent bread basket. Apart from pita cut into wedges, there are several types of homemade lavash crackers, including one smeared with the perky spice mixture zaatar. The heart of the menu is a magnificent take on kibbie ($15)—a cracked-wheat pie stuffed with ground lamb and caramelized onions. Speaking of cracked wheat, there’s an unforgettable salad that features it called shulbato, tossed with chickpeas and dressed with a thick, spicy tomato sauce.

Another vegetarian delight is makdous, a split baby eggplant swimming in pickling juices and sewn topside with chopped walnuts. Of the dozens of uses of eggplant found on the menu, this dish is the most compelling. On a negative note, some of the meat entrées seem meager in size for their price tags, including the $17 grilled combo of diverse tiny kebabs, served with mixed rice and vermicelli. It’s wise to stick with the vegetarian stuff. An exception is sujok, a dried Armenian sausage served in a tart braising broth.

Debuting a few blocks away in the old La Maison du Couscous space, Athena Express is named after the goddess of wisdom. Don’t expect showy whole fish from her—instead you’ll find meaty earthbound delights at bargain prices. Loukaniko ($6.95) is a pork sausage of ancient Cypriot origin; the sausage has been slashed diagonally and then grilled to a sizzling char, and served with something called Greek fries, which in this case might be better described as Greek cheese fries. They come strewn with feta, but unfortunately most of the cheese falls off as you hoist the potatoes mouthward.

A second high point is the saganaki cheese, brought to the table with blue flames licking its flanks. Even the most jaded diner sits up eagerly when it appears. The pitas that come alongside are cut in triangles for easy scooping and tendered warm, which shows admirable attention to detail. Sadly, there was no octopus when we visited, but the calamari ($6.95) was fried squid perfection. The best thing we tasted was the moussaka ($9.95)—the Hellenic equivalent of the Middle Eastern mousaqa described above. This version is freighted with ground meat and top-heavy with a thick layer of creamy, browned béchamel. If you think you hate anything called “casserole,” Athena Express’s moussaka might just beat the pants off your mom’s tuna noodle hot dish.

rsietsema@villagevoice.com