I heard about you,” Rawia Bishara says, coming over to our table of two. “You ordered four entrées.” Our stomachs are already filled with various mezze. She looks at the spread: za’atar-spackled manakeesh; creamy, lemony hummus; musakhan, a flatbread with chicken and a dusting of sumac; raw kibbeh with white onions and mint; and shulbato, the brick-red bulgur pilaf. That last dish prompts Bishara’s memories of harvests in her father’s village of Tarshiha, boiling wheat berries and spreading them out like pebbles on the roof to dry in the sun before grinding them into bulgur. Her family made shulbato with the coarser grains, stewing them with tomato sauce and whatever was growing in the garden: parsley, onions, eggplants, peppers. It’s the first dish she learned to make as a kid and is one of the mainstays here at her restaurant, Tanoreen, in Bay Ridge.
Tanoreen has been on my mind because, naturally, Palestine has been on my mind. The first time I went to Tanoreen was to celebrate a friend’s birthday years ago, and I remember Bishara making the rounds then. Little has changed except for the cane in one hand and a Juul in the other. She is 69 now, and Tanoreen is 25. When it opened, it was the first restaurant of its kind in New York. Back then, in the late ’90s, “Palestinian kitchens for the most part, except for Tanoreen, were just kebab joints,” says Nasser Jaber, the co-founder of the Migrant Kitchen who also ran Mazeish, a Palestinian–South American fusion restaurant.
Tanoreen offers a gracious, specific vision of Palestinian home cooking. Its peers now include Qanoon in Chelsea; al Badawi on Atlantic Avenue; and Ayat, which opened its first location in Bay Ridge in 2020 before expanding across the boroughs as well as to Allentown, Pennsylvania. Still, Tanoreen might be the most beloved: Last weekend, the night after the march in Bay Ridge calling for a cease-fire in Gaza and an end to Israeli occupation, nobody could get a table here afterward. These are geopolitics refracted through New York dining; we are unable to separate the two. The East Village branch of Ayat, that group’s newest location, was flooded with one-star reviews after it called for an “end to apartheid.” More recently the Queens Night Market forced one of its vendors, Baba’s Olives, to take down a sign stating “Your Tax Dollars Are Funding the Genocide of Palestinians.”
Tanoreen’s dining room is warmly lit and decorated with art from the Arab world: a collection of hand-painted Palestinian ceramics with arabesque flourishes, Bedouin necklaces from Jordan, doors from Syria, and ornamental arches overhead. Glamour emanates from Bishara, who’s dressed tonight in a smart black jacket with gold zippers at the cuffs. Being a neighborhood restaurant means maintaining an oasis for your neighbors. There are birthdays and date nights and family meals; as Bishara chats with tables, regulars get up to hug her and ask after her daughter, Jumana. “Honestly, personally, I’m not feeling well,” she will tell me later. “I don’t think anybody with a conscience these days is going to be feeling well. It doesn’t matter what country you come from.”
“The ability to celebrate and laugh and cook is an everyday act of resistance,” says Laila El Haddad, the co-author of the cookbook The Gaza Kitchen, “against a regime that aims to deprive you of even those very basic rights of gathering together with your family, of accessing certain foods, of living normal lives.” Bishara is not explicitly political, but her cooking is clear. Food is a portal for memories, a way to share a place and time with others. At Tanoreen, Jaber recalls he could get one of his favorite dishes: mulukhiyah, stewed leaves made from jute mallow that has a thick, okralike texture. “It’s awful for Americans. It’s like a slimy green soup. Nobody likes it,” he says. “But it’s my favorite dish.”
There’s no mulukhiyah tonight, but they have a Gazan dish called ari’ u adas (meaning squash and lentils), which Bishara adapted from The Gaza Kitchen. The stew is a bowl of autumnal comfort: sweet butternut squash, both mashed and in chunks, cooked down with lentils, garlic, and red-pepper flakes — hearty without being heavy.
Bishara’s cooking inspiration began with her family, Christian Palestinians in Nazareth and the Galilee region, where she still gets her spices every few months, but wanders around the Levant region, an area encompassing modern-day borders of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, until finally settling here in New York. There’s baked kibbeh; various mahshi (vegetables and gourds hollowed out and stuffed) in tart yogurt you would find in the north and rich tomato sauces from the south; and maqluba, the upside-down rice dish. I’m in love with the smoky chew of a freekeh preparation with chicken. There’s the rare seafood dish sayadiyya — fisherman’s delight — made with fried red snapper and rice. “This is one of those dishes Gaza is famous for,” El Haddad and Maggie Schmitt write in The Gaza Kitchen. “Older Palestinians in the West Bank and in Israel who remember when one could simply go to Gaza for the day wax nostalgic about the little beachside restaurants serving sayadiyya by the sea.” The menu is a glimmer of the regional breadth of Palestinian cuisine, recalling land that once stretched from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
Other dishes at Tanoreen simply come from Bishara’s imagination. One day she had extra filling for makdous, a pickled eggplant, so she stuffed some jalapeños from her garden with walnut and harissa. She put a few prototypes in the jar and forgot about them until it was time to eat, and everyone went wild. It’s now a customer favorite. Then there’s a dessert she thought she had made up — little fairy tale eggplants stuffed with walnuts dressed in syrup. “All of a sudden, my sister tells me, ‘This is exactly the same dessert [my] mom used to make for us. Don’t you remember it?’” she says. “I said, ‘No.’ My God, I couldn’t believe it.”
Bishara moved to Bay Ridge in 1973; this has been home far longer than anywhere else. It feels much the same as it did then, she says, where the boutiques and pharmacies and restaurants are run by people you know: “It’s still a place that keeps its culture.” When her daughter joined the restaurant in 2006, Bishara decided Tanoreen would be her legacy. “The minute I heard that she wants to be part of the business, that’s it,” she says. “It’s the minute I decided I’m staying and I’m going to make it work forever.”
More of The Year I Ate New York
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