In today's ever-evolving food culture, once-beloved culinary traditions and practices can get left behind, buried beneath the "new" and the "now". But for Ron and Leetal Arazi, the husband and wife team behind Brooklyn-based New York Shuk, keeping their Middle Eastern culinary heritage alive is a calling close to their hearts. Inspired by family recipes and memories of life in their native Israel, the pair are on a mission to share the flavours of Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish cuisine with New York City.
New York Shuk (shuk meaning "market" in Hebrew) - encompasses the feel of the traditional marketplace, and in the spirit of communal energy Ron and Leetal throw open their beautiful Bed-Stuy home, inviting guests to join them at their kitchen table for one-of-a-kind Middle Eastern supperclubs, cooking classes, pop-ups and events, all built around their own range of handcrafted traditional Jewish Sephardic pantry staples.
If there's one ingredient at the very heart of Middle Eastern cooking it's harissa, the vibrant red, piquantly spiked North African spice blend, that's fragrant perfume is entwined with the region's history. Ron and Leetal create theirs with painstaking obsession, the recipe lovingly crafted to just the right balance of heat, sweetness and smokiness that transports you straight you to the streets of Tel Aviv or Marrakech - it's no wonder those in the know have been touting harissa as the new sriracha.
For the Arazis, simply producing an ingredient is not enough to spread the joy of their culinary heritage - through their cooking classes they not only teach recipes, but how to handle the ingredients so that their guests foster a long-term love for the flavours. The stronghold is emotion; Ron is a professional chef with a Jewish Moroccan-Lebanese family, Leetal is a pastry chef and stylist. For them, it's about the connection. By approaching their business with an openness, warmth and authenticity that reaches out and grabs its followers by the heart strings, the pair have earned something of a cult following. In opening their home, they are forging connections and making the city of New York feel a little more local.
What inspired you to bring new Middle Eastern flavours to New York?
When we moved to New York from Israel a few years ago, it was very apparent that the whole "Jewish food in New York" is one very thing - it's the bagel and lox, it's the gefilte fish and so on. And while that is Jewish food, we felt like the Sephardic Jewish Middle Eastern side of things was not being represented here - and there's so much joy to be taken from that area.
What lead you to open your home rather than a restaurant?
It's about connection. Our emphasis is home cooking; we want to help people cook better at home because we feel like the food that we grew up with is really special. You can have an amazing time in a restaurant, but there's something about cooking for someone in your house and opening your heart and kitchen which you can't replace. In our past lives, Ron was a professional chef and I was a pastry chef - we had both worked in kitchens and we knew we didn't want to work in a restaurant because you just don't get the same interaction.
How have you found the experience of welcoming people to your own kitchen table?
The classes are small, but we want to give people that experience. It's mostly just for us to be with people who like our products, so that we can enhance how they cook. People can be familiar with ingredients - a bit of naga, some harissa - but they might not really know how to really use them. A big part of it is education, some people have the notion that harissa is very, very spicy, so when they see Ron use like a half a jar and really embrace the flavour it changes everything.
How did you come to the idea of creating pantry ingredients?
It was a lightbulb moment. Middle Eastern food is gaining momentum and a lot of people have cookbooks, but you can't translate the recipes into the kitchen because you don't have the right tools and ingredients. You open up a cookbook and have ten different types of ingredients, many of which you have trouble finding in the supermarkets. It was obvious that we had to create a Middle Eastern pantry to expose people to the flavours that we love so much and grew up with.
How do you find life in New York compared to home?
It's different. It's interesting because we see New York as the centre of the food world, but being able to move away and look back on how we grew up and what we had is the reason we do what we do. It's really made us appreciate what we grew up with.
Tell us some of your favourite spots in New York?
In terms of the food culture we like to go to the food stalls around the city and mostly hang out around Brooklyn and Queens. We go to Brighton beach where there are a lot of bakeries, as well as Jackson Heights to the Indian markets. These places are the complete opposite of our world and it's kind of nice to experience that.
Our favourite spots in New York…
Phayul Tibetan Restaurant in Queens for spicy beef tongue and Gulluoglu for su burek filled with feta cheese and the hazelnut baklava. We love the picante sandwich at Despaña, the chicken kebabs at Café Kashkar and wedding plov (and so many other things) at Nargis Cafe. Other than that, we recommend khachpori at Brick Oven Bread, Mille-feuille at Cannelle Patisserie and any of the paletas at the new La New Yorkina spot in Soho.