Growing up in Kiryat Motzkin, a town in the north of Israel nestled near Haifa, Nir Mesika’s Saturdays were defined by his family’s matriarchs. He would often start the day with lunch at his Egyptian grandmother’s home, set out in time for his grandfather Chalifa, a fisherman, to be home from his morning catch. His grandmother Rubi, who he called Nona, would serve leftovers from Friday night’s dinner like an herbed Egyptian soup called melokhia with white rice and chicken sofrito, a whole bird browned in a pan and then cooked over a bed of potatoes, and kalamata olives, laced with cardamom, fresh turmeric, lemon and garlic. By Israeli and Sephardic standards, Nir says: “It’s kind of a breakfast dish.”
That was just the start of the day. After the meal, Nir and his family would pile into the car and drive the short distance to his Moroccan grandmother Mazal’s house, the later time slot reserved so that his religious grandfather Isaac would be home from synagogue. Mazal cooked for 40 to 50 people a week until she passed away. “The kitchen was always open and welcoming, whoever wanted to eat could eat, there was always something in the fridge or on the stove,” Nir says. Through these visits, he grew close with her.
“The year after my grandmother died, the atmosphere around me was very heavy,” he explains. “I wanted to create something by myself.” He left for New York where he opened a casual Israeli restaurant called Zizi Limona. But, “I always wanted to open in Manhattan and wanted to express myself more,” he says, so he started to plan his now hit restaurant Timna in the East Village, with an opening menu inspired by Mazal’s recipes and those shabbats spent at her home.
A week before opening, he stumbled upon SOS Chefs, a spice shop a few blocks away run and owned by Atef Boulaabi. She had the same tagine Mazal had in her home and spices that would become the base of his dishes at the restaurant. But amid the many shelves lined with spices, Nir found a small sign of his Rubi as well — the first fresh turmeric he had spotted since arriving in New York. “That took me back immediately to my grandmother house,” he says.
This fall, he’ll serve a riff on sofrito made with foie gras. For that, we will head to Timna. But, for a version made with chicken, we will take a lesson from Rubi and prepare it at home for friends and family.