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Bittersweet: Palestinian home cooking

The best Palestinian food can only be found at home โ€” or at Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

A Palestinian woman throws olives in the air as she separates them from leaves during harvest in the West Bank village of Zababida, Oct. 2, 2008. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

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.”