Eat This, Snowzilla

Hot Food for Cold Days

By Rasha Refaie

It’s Friday evening. People are lined up around the block at Trader Joe’s. Shoppers are tweeting pictures of empty bread shelves at random grocery stores. The snow is coming. Overhead outside, the sky has that woolen greenish gray look to it, hanging low and ominous. I haven’t bought a goddam thing at the store. This is when I love to go out to eat. When the snowstorms move in, spicy meat is the only thing I want. Harissa! Merguez! Deliver me from the snowpocalypse.

Merguez is a sausage made with lamb and it’s heavily spiced with cumin and chili pepper, or harissa. Sumac and garlic might be in there too. I have a couple of lamb burger and merguez dealers that are my stand-by places – I love the lamb burgers with harissa at L’Express on Park Avenue South, even though they’ve gotten smaller and more expensive over the years. But today I go to Salam on West 13th Street, a Middle Eastern restaurant that’s been around for over thirty years. I order the merguez sausage grilled on hardwood charcoal, served with roasted potatoes and salad.

The heat is the perfect sensation to push away the clouds. The harissa-infused sausage has a smoky tang and a back note of sweetness. The slight burn on my lips feels good. The spices move upwards in my mouth until they make my whole palate tingle. The texture is grainy next to the flat smooth starchiness of the roasted potato wedges, and the salad gives that clean acid finish. As I wash it all down with Malbec, I want to giggle at the thought of this big fat storm, all those people clearing out bread shelves in Manhattan. Dude, you could have just had some merguez.

At Salam, everyone around me I can overhear is ordering lamb with okra, tagines, kebab platters. The appetite is in the air for something big and grounding and warm, something with desert flavors to get a few warmer hues inside our bodies before the icy grays take over.

When I wake up on Saturday, the city is under a thick coating of flour-y snow. The winds pick up in the afternoon, and the snow just keeps falling. I want to continue the spicy theme somehow. I make scrambled eggs and basterma, a cured beef seasoned with a paste that’s similar to harissa. There are a lot of different words for basterma, according to Wikipedia, and our good old American pastrami has its origins in this stuff. It’s like bacon but from a cow, and I buy the pre-sliced package at Sahadi’s on Atlantic Avenue. My dad cooked this when I was growing up. The intense cumin-y, pungent smell embarrassed me and I hated it as a child, but I crave it now and the smell makes my mouth water, the perfumes of all those spices filling up the air. Like the merguez and harissa, the powerful taste is how I make a blizzard disappear.

Published January 28th, 2016

Rasha Refaie has written for The Normal School Magazine, Newsday, New York Press, and others. She lives in the East Village.