New York serves a true taste of the Middle East

When I recently took an Iranian, an Iraqi and an Emirati to lunch on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, a breakthrough occurred. Not diplomatically, mind you, but gastronomically. After eating a Jordanian delicacy in a Palestinian restaurant, we reached a consensus that it was one of the best meals we had ever had.

This was a turnaround, and no mistake. For years, Middle Eastern friends – politicians, diplomats, journalists and business leaders – visiting New York for the UNGA have complained that their cuisines are poorly represented in the city’s restaurant scene. My standard response that my hometown offers the best of anywhere else in the world has been met with grumbling acknowledgment at best.

And having endured diplomatic jamborees in far-flung places, I can understand their frustration: After a few too many rubber chicken meals, courtesy of this embassy or that think tank, every palate would crave the taste of home.

Therefore, I was happy to inform my friends and demonstrate to their satisfaction that my city now has them covered. In the three years I was away in London – where I was spoiled with Middle Eastern choices – New York has seen a boom in restaurants serving the great cuisines of the region: Arabic, Persian and Israeli.

A quick caveat: New York has always had good hole-in-the-wall eateries that cater to Middle Eastern tastes, but few places where a visiting diplomat or business executive would feel comfortable entertaining their peers. A notable exception is Tanoreen, in Bay Ridge, where Rawia and Jumana Bishara have served excellent food for over two decades and earned citations from the James Beard Foundation.

The new wave of Middle Eastern restaurants extends from Ayat, a 10-minute walk from Tanoreen, which serves huge plates of Palestinian lamb dishes in a homely setting, to up-and-coming Israeli eatery Laser Wolf, where the vibe is distinctly Williamsburg-trendy. and Marabu charcoal-grilled brisket kebabs much more expensive.

Somewhere in between these extremes are Qanoon, a mid-priced Palestinian spot in tony Chelsea, and a pair of Persian fine-dining spots, Sofreh and Eyval, in Prospect Heights and Bushwick, respectively.

I took my friends to Al Badawi in Brooklyn Heights, a slightly upscale sibling of Ayat, and where I had previously dined, on separate occasions, with two other aficionados: restaurant critic Robert Sietsema of and MSNBC host Ayman Mohyeldin . You can read Robert’s review here; he is especially fond of the flatbreads, which come in toppings ranging from ground pistachios on melted cheese to chicken marinated in zaatar.

Ayman ordered fattat jaj, a layered dish of fried chicken, rice, chickpeas, mint yogurt, pita chips, garlic sauce and almond slivers. He lives within a stone’s throw of Al Badawi and has the opportunity to work his way through the menu. His verdict: It’s as authentic as you’d expect coming from the West Bank or Gaza, places he’s spent far more time reporting (and eating) than I have.

Why has it taken so long for Middle Eastern cuisine to find its place under the New York sun? After all, the Big Apple has had significant Jewish and Arab populations for decades; Iranians have tended to go to the other coast.

Ayman’s best guess is that in recent years there has been a generational change. “My parents didn’t go to Middle Eastern restaurants often,” he says. “Maybe they felt they needed to adapt to American tastes, or maybe it was just that they cooked these things at home.” Ayman himself is a great cook, but that’s rare for a second-generation Arab-American. “When we go out to eat, we’re looking for connections to our ancestry, we’re looking for the authentic taste,” he says.

Not that any of this mattered to my Middle Eastern visitors: whatever the reason for the spread, they were happy to be the recipients. We ordered the mansafen, a lamb stew that is practically the national dish of Jordan and has long been my personal favorite. The meat is slowly cooked in a fermented sheep’s milk yogurt known as jemeed and served on a bed of rice, which in turn sits on an oval saj bread. Sprinkled over the top are slivered almonds, which add a crunchy texture to the umami flavor.

On my many visits to Amman, I always set aside at least one meal at Ajyad, where the mansafe is popular with the working-class clientele. Each of my fellow diners had a recommendation for where to try the dish – interestingly all in Dubai. My tablemates and I agreed that the version at Al Badawi was at least comparable, if not superior, to our favorites.

As a New Yorker, this would have made me swell with pride—that is, if all the lamb and rice had left me any room.

More from Bloomberg Opinion’s Bobby Ghosh on food and drink:

An Indian restaurant’s rise mirrors Asheville’s

Momos are taking over the dumpling world for a reason

New instant coffee fans should try this hack from India

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times, managing editor of Quartz and international editor of Time.

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