New York Jewish is well-worn territory for local food lovers. Rhapsodizing over pastrami and knishes is practically a residency requirement, and even babes in arms know the difference between Nova and belly lox. These foods were brought here by Eastern European Jews – the Ashkenazim. Sephardic cuisine, featuring salted chickpeas and ripe melons, fresh pita bread and wrinkled pickles, fleshy apricots and succulent shish kebabs, is foreign to most of us, and yet New York is home to some of the best Sephardic cooks outside of Israel.
The Sephardim – Jews of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and North African descent – first arrived here around 1654. Today’s community of Syrian, Moroccan, Turkish, Yemeni, and Israeli immigrants is centered on the synagogues and food shops radiating from the intersection of Ocean Parkway and Kings Highway. To explore this flip side of New York Jewish food, make room in your freezer, then take the F train to the Kings Highway stop. (These vendors sell exclusively kosher food and so, naturally, are closed on Saturdays.)
Make Mansoura Middle Eastern Bakery (515 Kings Highway; 718-645-7977) your first stop. Alan Mansoura was born into a long line of Syrian bakers in Cairo, and with wife Josiane and sons Ike and David, he’s preserving the tradition for the future. Their handmade, sesame-sprinkled pastries filled with cheese, meat, or spinach come in a gorgeous variety of shapes and sizes and are bound to delight lovers of Indian samosas or Latin empanadas. Sambusik are half-moons of pie-crust-type pastry; mora are made with phyllo dough. My favorites are the lahmajine, savory little dough rounds topped with ground lamb, pine nuts, tamarind, and tomato paste. They’re ideal for quick dinners or cocktail-party hors d’oeuvre.
Josiane Mansoura cures her own bottarga, compressed caviar, called batarekh in her native Morocco. At $55 per half-pound chunk, it’s worth every cent, as you’ll see when you shave it over a buttered baguette or hot pasta.
Mansoura is also one of the few remaining practitioners of the art of Mediterranean confectionery. Traditional treats like balls of apricot paste are worked with fresh pistachios, and Turkish delight, a rose-water-flavored pistachio confection, is made according to an ancient recipe. Mansoura’s kaak (rings of pastry crisped with salt and sesame seeds) are easily the best on Kings Highway. Everything comes in finger-friendly portions: rounds, diamonds, squares – the nibbling opportunities are endless. Be sure to sample the crisp cookies filled with toasty cinnamon-date paste.
On the next corner, the Levy family runs the Bat-Yam Middle East Grocery (525 Kings Highway; 718-998-8200), a great source for Sephardic cooking ingredients such as bulgur wheat, tamarind paste, rose water, pink pickled turnips, white cheese ready to be “strung” into a pile of tangy shreds, and even dried whole eggplants. In the freezer case, you’ll find sartitcha (delicately spiced sausages) and slim Moroccan “cigars” of pastry rolled around a spiced-meat filling. Kibbeh is one of the key dishes of the Syrian table; Bat-Yam makes both long torpedoes and small balls of this homey mixture of ground meat, bulgur, onions, and parsley, ready for deep-frying or poaching in soup. Before you leave try the dry-roasted salted chickpeas, the preferred theater snack of the ancient Romans.
It’s unwise to go food shopping when you’re hungry, so if these sights and smells make you peckish, head for David’s Restaurant (539 Kings Highway; 718-998-8600), a beacon of authentic Sephardic cooking along a strip otherwise dominated by kosher versions of American fast food. Here you can satisfy your on-the-spot craving for hot, crisp Moroccan cigars, served with Yemeni chili sauce and Israeli pickles. Or try the Syrian bazargan, an irresistibly intense paste of bulgur wheat, dates, tamarind, tomato, and cumin, with fresh hot pita. On Sunday mornings, try Yemeni breakfast specials such as jachnoon, a roll of eggy dough cooked overnight that you pull apart with your hands and eat with a cool fresh-tomato sauce and bites of hard-boiled egg. Even better for breakfast or lunch is Tunisian shakshuka, a delectable mix of tomatoes, onions, and peppers with a tender egg cooked right in the dish. Order a side of mujadara, a classic Syrian dish of rice and lentils, with a typical fillip of flavor from caramelized onions. There’s also a rotating schedule of the stuffed vegetables for which the women of Aleppo are famous. Try the artichokes braised into submission with delicate, oniony meatballs.
After reviving with a strong Yemeni coffee, visit the community’s central bread bakery, Pita Sababa (540 Kings Highway; 718-382-1100). Unlike commercially produced pitas, the breads made here are soft, floury, and puffy; they come in three sizes and several flavors, including sesame, garlic, and onion. Some are painted with the strong, earthy spice mixture called za’atar. The large, flaky turnovers called koaba are filled with cheese or potato; the atayef and cigar pastries are filled with a walnut-spice mixture and decadently deep-fried.
On the way back to the subway, stop at the rather gory Kings Highway Glatt Meat (497 Kings Highway; 718-382-7655) where you’ll pay much less than you would at any Manhattan kosher butcher for freshly salted brisket and short ribs.