Navigate to Food section

Business Booms for Sephardic Food

Women are leading the way as small businesses bring traditional recipes to the commercial marketplace

Esther Levy Chehebar
May 21, 2019
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Lisa Grazi/Instagram
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Lisa Grazi/Instagram
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Lisa Grazi/Instagram
Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Lisa Grazi/Instagram

I’m convinced that the pillars of my grandmother’s home are seasoned with allspice—the indispensable condiment that flavors many of the Egyptian and Syrian dishes she cooked for us growing up. It’s clichéd to say that food is the lifeblood of Sephardic Jews, yet anytime an outsider asks what differentiates my Middle Eastern community from others of, say Eastern European origin, I’m compelled to address our diet.

Food is not just an opiate—overindulge and you’ll feel sick (until the next craving)—but a direct line to our ancestors. Recipes are shared and “willed” to family members like edible talismans. Local bake sales continue to be held almost weekly in people’s homes, where women (and men) peddle their specialties for charity, supporting one another in the process. This one is known for molachiya, a plant-based soup eaten over rice, that one for her kibbe sineyeh, minced meat topped with bulgur, a cracked wheat. A family gathers around a dinner table, saying, “Fadal—join us,” and soon thereafter six mouths become 12, with leftovers to be had. When a community member passes away, tins of food come to pay their respects: kibbe hamid, a lemon- and mint-infused soup typically eaten with rice, colored with celery, carrots, and ground meat and then fashioned into miniature globes; or whole Pyrexes of frozen chicken and eggplant, to be thawed whenever the hunger for comfort strikes.

In the past five years or so, however, there’s been an added dimension to the way food is experienced in our community. We are undergoing a culinary small-business boom, and women are leading it.

When she was a freshman in high school, Florence Cohen attended a cooking class taught by her grandmother (a notably modest cook in our community), Moselle Tobias. Tobias’ forte was cheese, specifically string cheese, a common delicacy in Brooklyn’s Syrian community. It’s often eaten with pita bread and accompanied by a glass of orange juice for breakfast (or lunch, or dinner). The distinctiveness of the cheese is in its shape, which resembles a thick, twisted braid. When executed correctly, threads of cheese can be pulled away from the larger whole, hence its name.

Cohen was struck by the grueling process that making the cheese required. She learned how the grandmothers in our community (many of them born in Syria) would melt cheese curd over a stovetop until it was nearly liquid. They would then mold the cheese with their hands while it was still steaming hot, repeatedly making knots. The trick, Cohen told me, is in this braiding process. Like most of our ancestral recipes, it can only be done by hand. There are no exact measurements, only “feelings” (and occasionally, a bestowed, oil-stained index card scribbled with illegible approximations). Cheese can be notoriously finicky and it takes a combination of intuition and resolve to achieve the perfect braid. Cohen would spend hours in her mother’s kitchen, practicing her technique. She began to give some to her friends and neighbors. It wasn’t long before people were asking to purchase some. In Brooklyn, word of mouth is still the best marketing strategy.

In 2013, Cohen launched Grandma’s Cheese, which operates out of an industrial kitchen in Midwood. She chalks up the initial support to her grandmother’s reputation as an excellent cook, but since opening, Cohen has grown her business; soon she was braiding 200 cheeses a day, delivering to nearly 50 homes. She has expanded her flavor menu beyond traditional flavors like za’atar and olive, to include popular options like “everything” spice and pesto.

Cohen still receives feedback from her grandmother every week. “She’s my taste tester, my best critic, and definitely my number one customer,” she said.

Lisa Grazi has also built a food business out of a family tradition, although in her case, she’s focusing on sambusak, a savory Syrian pastry that resembles a tiny calzone. As the owner of Sambusak by Lisa she makes up to a thousand sambusaks a day, all out of her home.

The dough is a simple mix of semolina flour and salt, divided into walnut-size balls and dipped in sesame seeds. Grazi presses each portioned ball flat with the palm of her hand and then places a mixture of grated Muenster cheese and egg in the center. She folds one side of the dough over the other, creating a neat half-moon. Despite some help in the kitchen, Grazi crimps every edge herself, so that the rounded part of the pastry creates a spiral effect.

For Grazi, this is a family tradition: “My mother was making sambusaks with her mother the day I was born!” she said with a laugh. But eventually that family tradition turned into a community business. “I used to help my mother bake sambusak before I was married,” Grazi explained. “When I was pregnant with my second son, I decided to fill my freezer just in case I wanted to make a bris in the house. One friend asked for a dozen, and that was it. From then on, the phone just kept ringing.”

Grazi started selling her sambusaks 22 years ago. She remembers the surprise and honor she felt when elder community women began buying them from her; having the approval of the community’s “OGs” has been the ultimate validation. But she also treasures the response she’s gotten from children in our community, a demographic from which she now enjoys an almost cult-like following.

Today, Grazi dedicates two freezers in her home to sambusaks. In the summer months (high season) she borrows another two from her brothers. She stays busy up until the day before Passover (her slowest day of the year, although she still baked some 200 sambusaks), working 10 to 14 hours a day, baking, selling and delivering her products. Most of her customers don’t even need to pick up the phone; they have a set order each week.

“The smell is intoxicating. It’s something we all grew up on,” Grazi said. But these days, fewer and fewer people are baking their own sambusaks. “It’s kind of becoming a lost delicacy,” she added—but the fact that fewer people are baking them also means that more people want to buy them.

I heard a similar sentiment from Raquel Habert. By the time she got married, at the age of 18, Habert already had a near-encyclopedic knowledge of Syrian cooking from her mother. After she married into an Egyptian family, she learned traditional Egyptian dishes like sofrito and molachiya from her mother-in-law. In 2005, she started Mazza Queen, a Brooklyn-based catering service offering an array of Middle Eastern hors d’oeuvres in the tradition of her local Sephardic Jewish community. She is just as well known for catering engagement parties with a guest list of 500 as she is for preparing a single tin of a dozen pulled-beef wontons, a common pre-Shabbat appetizer for a small family. The desire for old recipes combined with the modern drive for convenience has turned Mazza Queen into a household name in Brooklyn.

Over the years, Habert has managed to adjust traditional recipes to a climate that is increasingly health conscious. “It’s become a real job to keep the traditions alive now that food has become so trendy and healthy,” Habert admitted. This shift has led to vegan spins on meatcentric recipes like lahmajin—pastry dough topped with chopped meat—which Habert now offers in a vegan version with lentils and Ezekiel bread.

Cohen, Grazi, and Habert are among more than 100 local vendors who offer their products on the Brooklyn-based website Kosher Valet, started by Joe Danziger in 2015. Best described as “artisanal Amazon meets kosher farmer’s market,” Kosher Valet delivers the goods to the Tri-state area every Thursday. The site is not just an expedient way to avoid the Friday rush hour that clogs Brooklyn’s streets when all you needed was challah but now you’re stuck on the corner of S and Ocean Parkway and there’s three minutes before sundown and that’s including the 18 that God so generously gifted you (but did he really?). It’s also a platform for these women to expand the reach of their delicacies beyond our Sephardic community.

“One of the key advantages to vendors is that they are able to now sell their products to a much larger customer base, as we provide delivery to many markets that would be out of their reach individually,” said Danziger, whose background is in computer programming. “For the customer, it allows them to obtain specialty foods that may not be available in their local shops.”

Kosher Valet currently services Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queen, the Bronx, Westchester County, and Long Island’s Five Towns, as well as Deal, Teaneck, and Englewood in New Jersey. Danziger has plans to eventually ship cross-country, allowing for vendors anywhere to market their wares through his platform. “Most of our growth has come from word-of-mouth,” Danziger said.

Sam Mishaan would love to bring the business he runs with his grandmother, Sallie Mishaan, beyond Brooklyn. Much as Stacey’s did with pita chips, Sam believes that ka’ak—small spherical breads with the consistency of a cracker—has mass-market appeal.

When Sallie began selling her ka’ak in 2012, she kept the market confined to a small counter in a local salon, but as word spread and demand increased, she decided to transform her basement into a mini factory. Sam got involved a year later. Working with his grandmother, he says, has strengthened his connection to his roots and family. Sallie credits her grandson with taking the business to a new level. The savory pastries sell well on Kosher Valet, where even among other competitors, they stand out for their consistency and reputation.

“I’m definitely a bit harsher in terms of quality control,” Sam said with a laugh. Consistency is crucial, and Sam prefers the ka’ak, which is now sold in a variety of flavors, extra crispy. The dough is a combination of flour, organic palm oil shortening, spices, and yeast. After it’s risen, the dough is placed in a machine that creates fine, segmented strips, which are then circled, brushed with egg, and dipped in sesame seeds.

Sallie’s ka’ak has become such a staple that they began producing mini bags for the community yeshiva’s vending machines. “My younger grandson called me to say, ‘Grandma! Your ka’ak went viral in school,’” Sallie said.

Esther Levy Chehebar is a Brooklyn-based writer. She is currently at work on a novel loosely inspired by her Syrian Jewish upbringing.