Anatomy of a Smorgasburg Pop Up: A Look at Couscous Specialists NY Shuk
Editor's note: What's it like to be a vendor at Brooklyn's popular—and competitive—outdoor market Smorgasburg? This week we turn our attention to NYShuk, who are, like Noah's Scharf & Zoyer, making their debut this season.
Ron and Leetal Arazi love couscous, and they want you to. Their Smorgasburg stall, NYShuk, is a paean to the culinary traditions of North African and Middle Eastern Jews. The pair, who hail from Tel Aviv, have roots across the region. Ron's parents immigrated to Israel from Lebanon and Morocco, while Leetal, who is is one quarter Iraqi, grew up with her Turkish grandmother's cooking. (Her ethnically Czech mother was born in America.) The Arazis first came to New York in 2009, when Leetal worked at Nobu for 6 months. Ron joined her for part of this stay, and it was after this stint that they realized that New York was where they needed to be.
"The problem in Israel is, the food we cook is so common and everybody is looking for more modern chefs," said Leetal, who fronts the pastry and business side of NYShuk. "We always wanted to do something of our own, but we never understood what that was—"
"—Until we came to New York," Ron finished. "I think that's one of the reasons we needed to leave Israel, and only then things would come together. That we will completely understand what we want."
When they decided to make the move, Leetal remembered her experiences at the Brooklyn Flea and "the power it had." She felt that Smorgasburg was where they needed to be. After arriving in November, Ron and Leetal got right to work developing recipes and seeking out ingredients.
Ron and Leetal's menu brings an unmatched energy to the hugely popular market. They make all their products from scratch, and the food, built upon the foundation of couscous, changes every weekend. There might be short rib stew, fish kebabs in focaccia dough, or Turkish kofta with lima beans in a spiced tomato sauce. All in all, they devote two days a week to cooking. The hand-rolled couscous alone is a half-day enterprise.
They aren't positive what direction their business is headed in, and that's something they're actively embracing. Educating customers is integral to their vision, and when we first spoke, they told me they were leaning towards starting a deli. But their first step after Smorgasburg will be branding their products. To that end, Ron is sending samples to a lab for shelf stability testing.
From the outset, one of the couple's biggest hurdles has been finding ingredients that were common in Israel but are less so here.
"I started making harissa in Israel for a restaurant, just how my mom would make it, and when we got here I said, 'I think this is one of the most amazing things on earth, but you can't really find it here,'" Ron told me. "So we started looking for the right peppers, and it was very difficult.
"My intention was to make the harissa to serve with the couscous, but when we didn't find the right peppers to make it I called my mom and said, 'I can't find the peppers, what can I do?'" he continued. "So she told me, 'Okay, the time when we first got to Israel, we would make chuma. You take garlic, paprika, and some other spices. Mix it all in oil and drizzle it over the couscous.' So that's what we did. We worked on our recipe for a couple of months and eventually I got exactly what I wanted."
For his harissa, Ron eventually settled on a blend of guajillo, New Mexican Hatch, and negro chilies. But this hasn't been the only way they've had to adapt. They cited small things, like how lamb is butchered into different cuts than in Israel and the mineral content of the water. One of their biggest obstacles has been finding affordable, quality spices. In their hunt, they've perused many of the city's most well regarded spice merchants, finding little up to their standards and within their price range. Eventually, they made it to Patel Brothers. But even there they can't find paprika they like.
"We bring it from Israel, but we're going to need find a solution for that," they told me. "Leetal's mom sent us some, and every time anybody comes to the U.S. we ask them to bring one kilogram of paprika. Then there's the poppy seeds. We wanted to make babka with black poppy seeds, but couldn't any fresh. Only paste!"
They resorted to having the poppy seeds sent from Israel. Because they're only serving food once a week, they're limited to buying spices in small quantities in order to preserve freshness. For now, they'll keep having friends bring spices on their trans-Atlantic journeys. But that can't last forever, especially once they start to scale up their business.
NYShuk's strength is, in part, the dynamism of their menu. They initially saw the couscous as the anchor of their menu, but they recognize that they may need to make a particularly popular dish a regular cast member. (That might just be the short rib hash.) They're also working out how to most effectively to communicate their culinary traditions with an American audience.
"It's not like trying to take Moroccan food and making mac and cheese Moroccan style," Ron said, "but making it the way we like it and in a way people can understand it."
We talked about this on both Friday night, when we spoke about the American obsession with sandwiches, and again Saturday at Smorgasburg. Leetal revealed to me some of their ideas, and Ron sees it as a natural fit.
"Just because we really appreciate good bread and Americans love sandwiches," Ron shrugged. "So we can definitely find the right combination to do it. A very good stew, something like the short rib and spinach with the harissa or chuma. Hey, that rocks. Why not?"
For now, they're taking it all in stride and evolving along the way.
"We're just doing what we feel is right, not necessarily thinking about what is going on," Ron added.
Introducing Scharf & Zoyer »
Opening Day on 1 Hour of Sleep »
Getting in Focus, Developing a 'Killer App' »
How a Vendor Figures Out Portion Control »
Meeting Customer Expectations and the Bottom Line »
The Physical & Psychological Toll, Part 1 »
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.