“If you want to change the building blocks of something then you have to tear it down completely and build it from the ground up.” Ron and Leetal Arazi’s mission is not a simple one. Their goal to introduce New Yorkers to “real” homemade harissa, Tanzeya, L’ekama and other traditional Jewish Sephardic culinary traditions is an architectural passion-project in the tasting.
Two and a half years after relocating to New York from Israel, that project boasts firm foundations. NYShuk, a brand launched to showcase their artful and flavorful food, is the platform upon which they’re introducing chefs and the food-curious to these culinary traditions. Aptly named after the Hebrew word for “market,” NYShuk showcases the diversity, range of ingredients and warmth of Middle Eastern markets translated into spice blends, condiments and small-batch couscous.
Inspired by family traditions founded in community and culinary craft, the two founders are embracing food as a means to connect New Yorkers. Ron, a trained chef and baker who has worked under the likes of Yuhi Fujinaga and Susur Lee, brings complex flavors to a growing audience as diverse as his own Jewish Moroccan-Lebanese heritage. His wife Leetal is a pastry chef, food photographer and stylist. Her own experiences of family bonds forged in the face of adversity highlighted the transformatory power of simple acts of kindness, and cooking. Now the couple harness that power; each jar of harissa or L’ekama is an act of love, each grain of finely crafted made-to-order couscous precious as pearls.
These artistic inclinations are apparent in the luscious images that abound on the site. Whether or not you’re already a fan of their warm, aromatic fruit and spice blends or homemade couscous — another culinary tradition Ron and Leetal are hoping to rescue from the cardboard box doldrums — their website is guaranteed to get the mouth watering. In this context food is art and art is food. That becomes even more apparent when their food escapes the bustling backdrop of the city. Last Fall Ron and Leetal traveled upstate accompanied by friends Christine Han and ceramic artist Shino Takeda to showcase couscous in the wilds of upstate NY. The contrast of raw woodland beauty, textured ceramics, saturated photoscapes and delicate yet fiercely flavorful food makes for quite the digital artistic experience.
An existential act of eating, NYShuk’s food is inspired by the sum of its creators’ experiences to date. NYShuk is more than a business; Ron and Leetal have an emotional connection with their products. As the couple puts it, “food is… a memory. Every good memory has food in it”. These memories stem from time in Israel, travels in France, studies in the UK and watching their family members — accomplished bakers and chefs from Europe and the Middle East — turn tradition into culinary voyages.
Interestingly, despite hailing from the Maghreb, harissa encapsulates voyages as old as America itself. A warm blend of chile, white wine vinegar, oil, toasted spices and garlic has been the “spine” of that cuisine ever since New World explorers first introduced the Latin American pepper to Europe in the 16th century. Despite still being a staple across the Middle East and countries such as France with a large immigrant population it is, rather ironically, still relatively unknown here in New York.
Now many of the ingredients such as the chiles for NYShuk’s harissa are sourced from the USA, though sadly New York’s climate is not conducive to growing fiery capsicums (they’re grown in New Mexico). Ron and Leetal scoured the States for farmers dedicated to their own causes of sustainable and passionate agriculture. In the meantime their work with chefs such as Daniel Boulud, classes around New York and online storefront are cultivating a new following dedicated to a not-so-new tradition.
Join Ron and Leetal for an introduction to The Art of Couscous at Whole Foods’ Bowery Culinary Center on April 17.