A mother-daughter dynasty: New Teaneck restaurant has a well-known counterpart in Jerusalem
BY ABIGAIL LEICHMAN
Six thousand miles and seven times zones apart, Miriam Binyamin in Israel and Ofira Zaken in New Jersey serve up the same dishes to hungry diners. The key link in the mother-daughter chain is kubbeh.
Kubbeh (also called kibbeh) are fried, baked or boiled dumplings made of semolina or bulgur and stuffed with rice and spiced chopped meat or vegetables. This substantial and versatile Middle Eastern menu staple was often on the family table in Mosul, Iraq, where Binyamin lived until she was 11. Kubbeh remains a menu staple at her Jerusalem restaurant, which opened in 1981, and it figures just as prominently in her daughter's Teaneck restaurant, which opened last month.
"Ofira was the one of my six children who cooked the most like me, who had the knack for it," said Binyamin.
Both women started their restaurants at age 45 with the encouragement of well-fed friends and family. Both restaurants are named Ima (pronounced "EE-ma"), Hebrew for "mom." Both offer authentic Iraqi/Kurdish cuisine, with kubbeh as the star player. For now, the Jerusalem branch has a larger menu and space, situated famously at the intersection of three main roads near the capital's open marketplace, the shuk.
"I was 17 when my mother opened the restaurant and I worked there after graduating high school," said Zaken, who moved to Fair Lawn with her husband and children three years ago. "For a few years, I was her right-hand person."
Binyamin, at 71, has turned over much of the restaurant's operation to her son Yoram, 50. Another son is in charge of the large bakery she established 10 years ago in another part of Jerusalem, while a third son manages the new Ima Kubbeh Bar in the shuk.
Binyamin still oversees a staff of chefs across the street from the restaurant and on premises. Her sister Batsheva still hand-rolls and fills the date-nut cookies. Amram, her husband of 53 years, still rises before dawn to procure the fresh vegetables and strictly kosher meats.
For frequent travelers from Bergen County to Israel, the brand name Ima resonates. One Teaneck resident told Binyamin he comes to Jerusalem every two months, and goes straight from the airport to Ima for a bowl of hamusta, a sour sorrel soup studded with kubbeh.
An Israeli North Jersey businessman related to the Binyamins that he once asked a colleague to meet him at Ima's upon arrival. He meant the restaurant, but his friend misunderstood and waited at his mother's house.
Like her own Ima, Zaken insists on preparing every item in-house from scratch. Using meats from nearby Best Glatt on Cedar Lane and produce from a market in Hackensack, she cooks everything herself.
That includes fresh table salads such as hummus, tehina, baba ghanouj, carrot salad, beet salad and tabbouleh, in addition to five varieties of kubbeh and a popular combination plate of kubbeh with stuffed vegetables and piquant sauce.
Binyamin taught Zaken to use plenty of lemon and tomato. She also stocks up on rice, farina and bulgur, a quick-cooking form of whole wheat. Round rice is for fillings, jasmine for side dishes. "Don't change the taste, and the people will be happy," her father advised her.
"I put my soul into the food," said Zaken. "I love to cook, and I love to make connections with people."
Binyamin said her children always tried to keep her away from the cash register because if soldiers came in for a meal she wouldn't let them pay. "Ofira is the same way," she said with a laugh.
She misses her fourth child — all the other Binyamin children and grandchildren live in the Jerusalem suburbs — but she understands Zaken's passion. "Everything about the restaurant business is hard, but if it comes from the heart it will be successful," said Binyamin, who is well known throughout Israel despite a no-advertising policy. "We do it because we want to."