Ramadan, Algeria Style

September 6, 2008

Mediterranean Coffee Shop & Grill

25-75 Steinway St., Astoria, Queens, NY

It turns out New York is short on Algerians, which on consideration makes perfect sense.  Algerians are far more likely to immigrate to Paris or Marseille, where there are already large, deeply rooted North African communities.  Still, after some digging on a few online community boards, we discovered that the small Algerian community that does exist here has found a home among the hookah bars and North African groceries of Steinway St. in Astoria, Queens.

The neighborhood is primarily Egyptian, but we found a nice and well patronized Algerian spot there.  The dining room had a buoyant, communal feel with large long tables, and it was packed when we arrived (though it had completely cleared out by the time we left at around 9:30).  We were led through the restaurant and outdoors to a concrete slab graced with a few tables and folding chairs. If you were so inclined, it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine yourself in a small courtyard somewhere in the casbah of Algiers.

It hadn’t crossed our minds that Ramadan had started.  Everyone had come in after sunset to break his or her fast for the day.  Apparently, the restaurant discards its usual menu during the holy month, so everyone who comes in after sundown gets the same traditional post-fast feast, which suited us perfectly and added to the perceived authenticity of the experience.  Our waitress (who also turned out to be the chef) was warm and worked hard to make us feel welcome. Although she seemed to have an excellent command of English, her food vocabulary was strangely limited.  So our efforts to find out exactly what we were eating came to very little.  I’ll do my best do describe anyway.

We were started out with some orange juice obviously meant to get our glucose levels back up after a day without food.  This was quickly followed by a tomato-based soup  packed with vegetables, chickpeas, rice, and chunks of meat that we had a hard time identifying (after further research it turned out to be lamb, and the soup is called harira).  The soup was accompanied by a plate piled with a ratatouille-like dish mostly comprised of tomato and green peppers, two burek, which are crisp, almost egg-roll-style pastries filled with seasoned beef, and an Algerian version of the Indian confection, jalebi.  By the way, for those of you who have been paying attention, we also encountered burek in the last entry.  Algerian burek is much different from Albanian burek, however.  It’s more of a roll than a pie. Next came chopped liver in a punchy tomato-based sauce that I associate with a lot of North African food I’ve had, along with plates of prunes and raisins cooked in a sweet and tart syrup. The bread that accompanied everything was similar to Turkish bread and was perfect for soaking up the soup and liver sauce. Finally, for dessert, we got some healthy-sized chunks of fresh watermelon. We topped everything off with some incredibly strong coffee with milk and tea steeped with fresh mint leaves and lemon.  Our waitress then brought us some more jalebi and some delicious sticky sesame biscuits.

The entire meal seemed designed to provide as many essential nutrients as possible for a fasting body.  Even Noquar, who had been struggling mightily for most of the day after his exploits the previous evening, seemed to brighten as we worked our way through all the food.  From the vegetables in the soup, to the iron and protein in the liver, to the fiber and natural sugars in the dried fruits, we went home feeling very well nourished… perhaps even too well nourished by the time all that fiber had worked its way through our systems.