Middle Eastern ingredients are popping up all over — even on bagels.
Growing up in Carroll Gardens, Fowad Assad’s daily breakfast was not, as you might expect of a native Brooklynite, a hard roll, a bialy or even a bowl of cereal. Instead, Assad’s mother, an American of Palestinian descent, would smear a pita with plenty of fruity olive oil, sprinkle it with a hefty dose of za’atar, and toast it in the oven. When it emerged, hot and fragrant, she’d quickly cover it in crumbled feta cheese, slice in a hard-boiled egg, roll it up and serve it to Assad.
That typical Middle Eastern breakfast — so popular in many countries in the region that it’s often peddled by street vendors— was the source of Assad’s inspiration when, about seven years ago, he opened F Line Bagels in his native neighborhood and, alongside the standard sesame, poppy and pumpernickel varieties, he displayed a new kind of bagel: za’atar-topped. With that addictive sesame seed-dried thyme spice combo kneaded right into the dough as well as sprinkled on top pre-baking, the za’atar bagel quickly caught on among Assad’s customers.
“When we opened, we wanted to offer something that no one else had,” Assad explained. “But we couldn’t figure it out. We were racking our brains trying to think of an original bagel. And one day, I just said, ‘Let’s try za’atar!’”
“Za’atar is a funny thing to work with — it’s kind of unpredictable,” he continued. “It took us anywhere from two weeks to a month to get the bagel exactly right.”
Assad has since sold F Line Bagels; he opened a new shop, Olde Brooklyn Bagel Shoppe, on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights about three years ago. There, the za’atar bagel is still going strong, and Assad also offers a tangy za’atar-laced cream cheese — inspired by the classic Middle Eastern combo of labneh and za’atar — as an alternative to the usual schmear.
Assad asserts that by serving a za’atar bagel, he’s not trying to conform to any trend; in fact, he insists that most of his customers are still unfamiliar with the spice blend and that his staff is trained to explain what za’atar is and offer samples. But whether he knows it or not, Assad is part of a nationwide food movement that’s seeing the rise of traditional Middle Eastern flavors—think punchy preserved lemons, perfumed saffron and delicate rosewater — both in restaurants run by chefs who trace their lineages to that region of the world as well as chefs that do not.
Here in New York, Israeli-born chef Einat Admony’s massively popular Taïm falafel chain, comfy-casual Balaboosta and Bar Bolonat, her most recent addition, are a few examples of trendy temples to Middle Eastern cuisine; in San Francisco, Morrocan-born chef Mourad Lahlou serves couscous garnished with organic vegetables and locally-raised meat at Aziza; and in London, of course, there’s Israeli-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s eponymous restaurant, the impossible-to-get-a-reservation flagship that led to the seventh-best-selling cookbook of 2013, Jerusalem, which, as of January, sold over 100,000 copies.
Since its release in 2012, Jerusalem has inspired cooking clubs and themed potlucks and, undoubtedly, has played an enormous role in the current wave of Middle Eastern restaurant cooking. Importantly, in the book’s introduction, Jerusalem’s authors — Ottolenghi co-wrote the book with friend Sami Tamimi — get at what’s so special about food in this region of the world: It’s as appealing to Jews as it is to Muslims, and vice-versa.
“Hummus, for example,” the authors write, “is a highly explosive subject, is undeniably a staple of the local Palestinian population, but it was also a permanent feature on dinner tables of Aleppine Jews who have lived in Syria for millennia…Who is more deserving of calling hummus their own? Neither. Nobody ‘owns’ it a dish because it is very likely that someone else cooked it before them and another person before that.”
That shared love — and, of course, the sometimes-fraught idea of “ownership” — of treasured ingredients and cooking technique rings true at Olde Brooklyn Bake Shoppe, an only-in-New-York business that’s owned by an American Palestinian serving classic Jewish-style bagels to every kind of ethnicity of customer in multicultural Prospect Heights.
Assad, the owner, said that Jews have been among his best customers from the beginning.
“Not a lot of people know about za’atar, but those of Jewish descent, they know,” he said. “They come here specifically for the za’atar bagels.”
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