Bittersweet: Palestinian home cooking

NEW YORK — For restaurant-goers throughout the Middle East there’s an aura of inevitability that grows with each step the waiter makes toward the table, menus in hand. I often think to myself: Don’t bother with the menus, my friend, just ask the only questions that matter. Will it be lamb kebab, sir? Or kofte kebab? Or chicken kebab?

From Ramallah to Baghdad to Tehran the kebab is the overwhelming presence on thousands of restaurant menus. Chunks of perfectly nice, usually marinated meat, threaded onto skewers and grilled over coal are almost inescapable — and they bore me to tears. What grates is that the dominance of the kebab is also entirely unnecessary. Arabic and Persian food is varied, complex and subtle — but the good stuff is rarely served outside the home. Eating out is a treat in the Middle East, and for a treat there’s only one thing to have: meat. Big, dull, expensive cubes of the stuff.

Which is why I have to write this slightly odd sentence: In over 10 years of working and traveling in the Middle East, the best Arabic food I have ever eaten, by a very large margin, is to be found in a small storefront Palestinian restaurant named Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. This is a neighborhood better known for being the location of Saturday Night Fever than for the Saturday night pilgrimmage so many New Yorkers make to a corner of the city to which few would otherwise venture. But it is very much worth the subway ride.

The chef and co-owner (with her daughter, Jumana) of Tanoreen is Rawia Bishara, 54, who left her family home in Nazareth, Northern Israel, in 1974 to move to the United States as the young bride of a Palestinian-American man. She opened Tanoreen 11 years ago partly, she said as we sat in the restaurant on a recent afternoon, to show publicly that Palestinian home cooking is a thing of subtlety and sophistication, not just chunks of grilled lamb or chicken on a stick.

“There’s lots of Italian home cooking in Italian restaurants,” Rawia said. “I did what I did for my culture. Here we are. This is what we are about. We’re not just about war and politics.”

It’s pretty hard for any Israeli or Palestinian, however, to escape war and politics. Rawia’s brother is Azmi Bishara, a former member of the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, as the leader of an Arab-Israeli political party. Azmi Bishara is now a fugitive who is wanted by the Israeli security services for allegedly spying for Hezbollah during the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese militia.

I used to interview Azmi Bishara occasionally on the phone when I was based in Israel and he was rarely anything but a furious critic of his own country’s government. He was, in fact, occasionally in trouble with the law for visiting Syria and making what many in Israel considered treasonous comments. But the current charges are more serious: He is accused of accepting money from Hezbollah in return for providing the Iran-backed guerrillas with target information inside Israel. While in Cairo in April 2007, Bishara resigned his parliamentary seat and has not returned to Israel since.

“He used to come here a lot,” his sister said. “He’s a foodie himself. He loves food.”

Those visits to New York — and the yellow-painted dining room of Tanoreen — are over now, perhaps forever, given the possibility that the United States might arrest and extradite Bishara to Israel were he to enter the U.S. Rawia does not know where her brother is, she said, and when she speaks to him on the phone they never discuss his location for fear that the Israeli security services are listening. “It is likely Mossad has planned to kill me,” he told an Israeli newspaper in April 2007, “but I don’t scare at all.” Rawia has a Google alert set up for her brother and follows all the news she can about him.

Nobody knows him like she does, she said, and laughed at the idea that he is guilty. “I think it’s all a big lie,” she said. “Azmi is a philosopher, not a spy.” What he is constantly guilty of, she said, is speaking his mind: “He criticizes everybody, he talks his conscience.”

The hometown he may never be able to return to, Nazareth, was a place where the five Bishara children grew up — Catholic but secular — in the care of a mother who held down a job as a school teacher but who was always feeding the family delicious Palestinian food. “She was the best cook ever,” Bishara said. But she did not school young Rawia; instead, the young Palestinian woman taught herself to cook “from memory and taste.”

After she emigrated to the United States, Rawia would call her mother in Nazareth and ask her questions about cooking. Sometimes her mother would come to stay for two or three months. “That was the best time to learn,” she said.

When I ate at Tanoreen for the second time recently I asked Rawia to choose our main courses. She had made a special that day that wasn’t even on the specials list, a chicken tagine with a sweet, tart sauce of tomato, dried cranberries, pearl onions, green and black olives and caramelized onion — flavors that played off each other with perfect more-ish balance. The two chicken legs were slow roasted and the meat came off the bone with a touch of my fork.

The other dish Rawia recommended was the makdous fetti, a dish of toasted pita layered with rice, shredded lamb and yoghurt tahini sauce, with fresh tomato sauce on top and the meltiest baby eggplant stuffed with lamb and spices. Sprinkled on top and around the dish were shredded parsley and perfectly toasted slivers of almond, which provided an occasional crunch.

It was one of the most delicious dishes I have ever eaten.

Many of Rawia’s recipes feature her secret Tanoreen Spice, which she is considering retailing. It’s a combination of numerous spices, in the same proportion, all toasted before mixing: cinnamon, coriander, rosebud, allspice, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, black pepper and more.

“We’ll leave a few out,” she said when I asked her what was in the mixture. She changes the mixture for many of the dishes so that they don’t all taste the same but the underlying character and complexity is constant.

When Rawia was 30 her mother, who was 59, died. Rawia was crushed. Her mother’s food, however, lives on in Tanoreen and will soon be available to many more people. Within the next couple of months Tanoreen will move to new premises — a block away — that will be able to seat three times as many profoundly lucky diners.

Tanoreen, 7523 Third Avenue, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn N.Y. Directions: Take the R train to 77th Street and walk one block over to Third Avenue. Telephone: (718) 748-5600. Bring your own bottle.