Your guide to eating Middle Eastern on Long Island

Consider the glistening koobideh kebab at Ravagh Persian Grill. It reclines imperially on its square platter, dividing the realms of rice pilaf and charred vegetables. The beef, minced and kneaded with aromatic spices before being threaded onto a wide skewer, was ridged by practiced fingers so its surface undulates with fire-kissed peaks and valleys that trap juice. It’s hard to believe you’re in Roslyn Heights.

Lamb shish kebob and koobideh kebob served with green rice...

Lamb shish kebob and koobideh kebob served with green rice and saffron rice at Ravagh Persian Grill in Roslyn Heights. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Skewered ground meat—what’s known as koobideh in Iran, kofte in Turkey, kofta in Jordan or Israel—may be served alongside rice or bulgur, or wrapped in lavash or pita bread, and it is impossible to avoid as you make your way from Turkey to Egypt. This swath of the eastern Mediterranean may have given the world written language and monotheism but, to a food lover, it is the home of kebabs and hummus, parsley and lemon, and baklava. The invention of that multilayered nutty confection is one of the tamer disputes that simmer in the region.

Our Department of State defines the Middle East as Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula, and Syria, plus Turkey (partly in Europe) and Egypt (in North Africa). Many of these countries, however, are less than 100 years old—Persia wasn’t called Iran until 1935, for instance—and their millennia-old cuisines fall into three overarching categories that correspond to the region’s languages: Turkish, Iranian (Farsi) and the Levantine tradition of the Arabic-speaking countries and Israel.

The categories flow into each other because this piece of earth was dominated by successive empires, all of which introduced ingredients and techniques from one locale to another. Persia, ancient Iran, was a dominant power early on, and by the 14th century, the Ottoman Turks had come to power. They controlled the Middle East and parts of Europe and North Africa until the end of World War I.

The Ottomans still reign on Long Island, where there are far more Turkish restaurants than those of other Middle Eastern countries. Their quality is uniformly high, from Suffolk’s Turkuaz Grill (Riverhead) and Pita House (Medford) to Nassau’s Ephesus Mediterranean & Turkish Cuisine (Massapequa Park) and Turkuaz Mediterranean Gourmet (West Hempstead).

In general, Middle Eastern restaurants tend to shun the term “Middle Eastern.” Cafer Sahin, owner of Pita House, said, “When I opened my first restaurant in 1993, I stayed away from ‘Middle Eastern’ because it made customers think of the Palestinian issue and bombings.”

Chef Cafer Sahin, owner of the Pita House in Medford,...

Chef Cafer Sahin, owner of the Pita House in Medford, holds a plate of miniature Lahmacun in the kitchen of his restaurant. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Masoud Tehrani, a partner at Ravagh (with a branch in Huntington as well as Roslyn Heights), noted that “people associate ‘Persian’ with the carpets and the cats,” whereas “ ‘Iranian’ makes people think about hostages and terrorists.”

So, on Long Island (and often elsewhere), “Mediterranean” is the heading under which most of these restaurants le themselves, conjuring the diet vaunted by nutritionists and the sea bordered by popular vacation destinations such as Greece and Italy, France and Spain.

Too bad those countries are lacking in the hummus department. “Hummus,” the Arabic word for “chickpeas,” is the signature dish of the historical Levant (present-day Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Syria). The preparation we are all familiar with—a purée of chickpeas with tahini (sesame paste)—is more accurately called by its Arabic name, hummus bi tahina. Turkish and Persian restaurants are compelled by customer demand to serve it, but Arab and Israeli chefs typically afford it a menu section of its own.

Hummus can now be found in virtually every American supermarket and convenience store, said Philippe Massoud, chef-owner of the haute-Lebanese restaurant in Manhattan, Ilili. Massoud, a Lebanese-American whose cousins own Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue, noted that the quality of the dip has degenerated with its ubiquity.

“In its purest form it is a perfect trinity of chickpeas, tahini and lemon juice,” he said. “Nowadays people blend olive oil into it to make an emulsion, but, traditionally, the olive oil should just be used as a garnish.” At Ilili you can have your hummus liberally anointed with olive oil and then, if you desire, topped with hot peppers, pine nuts, basterma (air-dried beef), lamb or even shrimp.

At Laffa Bar & Grill in Hewlett, the impossibly silky-smooth hummus can be topped with sautéed mushrooms and onions or falafel. The most popular Israeli iteration is hummus masabacha, where garnishes include whole chickpeas, more tahini and quartered hard-cooked eggs. General manager Michael Arabov recalled that when he worked in restaurants in Israel, he served both Arab and Israeli diners. “If you put hummus on the table,” he said, “everyone will eat.”

Hummus masabacha with fresh baked Laffa bread at Laffa Bar...

Hummus masabacha with fresh baked Laffa bread at Laffa Bar & Grill in Hewlett. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Grind the chickpeas, season the mixture, form it into balls and fry it and you’ve got another Levantine masterpiece: falafel. At Laffa, it is served as a sandwich wrapped in either pita or the Levantine flatbread called laffa, which is baked on the walls of a taboon, a cylindrical clay oven used since biblical times.

Hummus or no, every Middle Eastern cuisine features a wealth of meze (small dishes eaten as appetizers or as part of a meal), many of them vegetable-based. And no vegetable gets a better workout than eggplant. First cultivated in eastern Asia, it was spread throughout the Mediterranean by the Arabs by the Middle Ages. In America, its most familiar Middle Eastern form is babaganoush, where the eggplant pulp is, as with hummus, blended with rich, creamy tahini. And, like hummus, babaganoush is primarily Levantine.

In a Turkish restaurant such as Pita House, eggplant might be stuffed with tomato, onion and garlic and baked to make imam bayildi, “the priest fainted.” Or the pulp of a flame-roasted eggplant might be mixed simply with olive oil, lemon juice and other seasonings for patlican salatasi. At Ravagh, you’ll find the roasted pulp combined with kashk (dried whey) for a classic Persian kashk bademjan, which is about as colorful as Cream of Wheat but, with its garnish of fried onions, is a vivid expression of eggplant’s essence.

One signature feature of Middle Eastern cuisine has traveled far beyond its borders: Grilled, skewered meat is also vital to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, beloved as shashlik in the Balkans and satay in Southeast Asia. The drama that swirls around its origins includes a legend about an ancient soldier who used his sword (wiping it first, one hopes) to spear some meat and then extend it into a cooking fire. What we do know for sure is that “shish kebab” is an adaptation of the Turkish “sis kebap,” “sis” meaning “skewer” and “kebap” meaning “roast meat.”

In the United States, we (somewhat inaccurately) use “kebab” to refer to any skewered meat. “Shish” will get you cubes of marinated meat; koobideh and kofte are examples of minced meat pressed around the skewer.

With some cosmopolitan exceptions such as Beirut, there was, historically, little restaurant culture in the Middle East, and the cuisines are largely based on home cooking. Kebabs were the exception. “When it came to meat at home, it was mostly stews,” said Ravagh’s Tehrani. “Kebabs were difficult to make at home. It was a big production and you needed a big charcoal grill, so people would go out. The kebab shop was sort of like the diner, a lunch spot that usually closed around three.”

Not surprisingly, classic kebabs form a sizable part of the menu at any modern Middle Eastern restaurant, along with a newer rendition, doner kebab, thin slices of marinated meat solidly packed onto a mechanical vertical rotisserie and roasted. As the spit turns and the column browns, pieces of meat are shaved off the outside.

Iskender kebab, slices of lamb doner over pita bread and...

Iskender kebab, slices of lamb doner over pita bread and yogurt topped with a rich tomato sauce, is served in a hot metal skillet at Pita House in Medford. Credit: Daniel Brennan

This technique was invented in Bursa, Turkey, in the mid 19th century by one Haci Iskender, and from Bursa, doner kebab spread all over Anatolia, throughout the Ottoman Empire and beyond, where it’s called gyro by Greeks and shawarma by Levantines. (Fun fact: When Lebanese immigrants eventually took the dish to Mexico in the 1930s, lamb was replaced by pork, pitas gave way to corn tortillas and the whole works was garnished with pineapple and dubbed taco al pastor—that is, “shepherd-style.”)

These days, kebabs are made with chicken, beef, vegetables and, probably somewhere, soy protein, but the most traditional choice is lamb. Whereas cattle need large expanses of grassland for grazing, lamb is the livestock of choice in the less hospitable and more mountainous topography of the Middle East.

Geography is also destiny when it comes to grains. In the Levant and Turkey, the grain of choice was traditionally bulgur, a shelf-stable form of wheat that has been parboiled and ground according to its use: coarse for pilaf and ne for salads such as tabbouleh. “Rice didn’t grow well in Turkey,” Sahin noted, wistfully. “Not like it does in Persia.”

“We are the masters of rice,” agreed Tehrani, justly proud of the Persian pilaf (“polo” in Farsi) that takes its place, along with risotto, paella and biryani, among the world’s greatest rice repertoires. At Ravagh, every kebab comes with a pile of aromatic, ivory-hued, long-grain basmati rice (the closest rice to true Persian varieties), but that’s only the beginning.

The Persian penchant for cooking with fruits both fresh and dried reaches its pinnacle with albaloo polo, featuring sweet and sour cherries, and zereshk polo, where dried barberries and saffron elevate a side dish to a starring role.

A prized feature of many rice dishes is the tah-dig (“bottom of the pot” in Farsi), the rich, golden, crunchy bottom crust formed by putting extra cooking fat in the bottom of the rice pot; the bottom layer of the rice gets pan-fried while the rice above it is steamed until tender.

Rice finds its way into homey puddings in the Middle East, where it is often scented with orange-blossom or rose water and topped with pistachio nuts. But the glory of the region’s desserts is undoubtedly baklava, tissue-thin sheets of phyllo dough brushed with melted butter and layered with nuts before being baked and drenched in a sweet syrup (usually based on sugar, not honey).

Baklava, made in-house, is served at Pita House in Medford.

Baklava, made in-house, is served at Pita House in Medford. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Baklava’s antecedents may be Assyrian or Greek or Roman or Persian or Central Asian, but most authorities agree that it assumed its present form in the sultan’s kitchens in Istanbul by the 15th century. “Everybody argues about it,” Sahin lamented.

Truth. A drippingly sweet nutty-crisp confection, a lush and smoky eggplant dip, a flame-burnished morsel of lamb—these culinary touchstones know no borders.

Long Island's Middle Eastern restaurants

ISRAELI

Ahuva's Grill Express: 480 Rockaway Tpke., Lawrence; 516-239-0110, ahuvasgrill.com

Grill Time: 90 Middle Neck Rd., Great Neck; 516-487-2228

Laffa Bar & Grill: 1326 Peninsula Blvd., Hewlett; 516-341-0400, laffabarandgrill.com

Tanami's: 41 Lawrence Ave., Inwood; 516-341-0699

PERSIAN

The Cottage by Colbeh: 75 N. Station Plaza, Great Neck; 516-466-8181 and 1 The Intervale, Roslyn; 516-621-2200, colbeh.com

Ravagh Persian Grill: 210 Mineola Ave., Roslyn Heights; 516-484-7100 and 335 Main St., Huntington; 631-923-2050, ravaghrestaurants.com

TURKISH

Blu Mediterranean: 691 Route 109, West Babylon; 631-991-8881

Ephesus Mediterranean & Turkish Cuisine: 514 Park Blvd., Massapequa Park; 516-543-4258, ephesusmedcuisine.com

Nazar: 1474 Deer Park Ave., North Babylon; 631-586-2246, nazarrestaurant.com

Pasha Kebob and Grill: 656 Route 109, Lindenhurst; 631-225-7499, kebobtonight.com

Pita House: 2016 Route 112, Medford; 631-289-2262, longislandpitahouse.com

Turkuaz Grill: 40 McDermott Ave., Riverhead; 631-591-1757, turkuazgrillriverhead.com

Turkuaz Mediterranea Gourmet: 493 Hempstead Tpke., West Hempstead; 516-280-2973, turkuazmediterraneangourmet.com

Note: As of this writing, there are no Arab restaurants since the closures of Petra Grill in Carle Place (Jordanian) and Kabobshak in Selden (Jordanian-Palestinian).