Middle East Rock

Middle East Rock

Nestled in the shadow of East Rock, perpetually shaded by trees, lies a small gateway to the Middle East: Ayah-H Market, a quiet, unassuming gem among the grander Victorian houses of East Rock and the bustle of Wilbur Cross High School. Two picnic tables stand sentinel in the front courtyard, and, upon entering, an Arabic television show on an iPad or the analog television, volume turned up a little too loud, will probably meet your ears, along with the cicada-like buzz of refrigerators and various kitchen machinery. Meanwhile, a small but unique selection of spices, prepared foods, grains and various sundries meets the eyes, as do the somewhat threadbare environs. The store has been this way for years, and there is comfort in its consistency.

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The Alharbali family—Ieman and Hassna run the shop along with owner Amir—are quite happy being so close to the park and the high school. “People love to sit out here for July 4, and kids come here after practice,” Hassna says. “The park is great—it’s free, and there’s water and a mountain and people can enjoy themselves.” This explains the striking juxtaposition of ostentatiously packaged American snacks—peanut butter, chips, candy—with more understated goods from quite a few time zones away: Egyptian mango drinks, preserved lemons from Lebanon, spices galore (available in bulk), freekeh (a cereal made from durum wheat), pitted dates.

Besides what’s on the shelves, Ayah-H also boasts a menu of made-to-order specialties, including one of the best falafel wraps in town. Fried to order, the falafel balls are made Syrian-style—the owners are from Syria—with no flour, rendering the tasty chickpea-based spheres gluten-free and vegan. Packed with herbs, the falafel is crispy on the outside and soft, moist and savory on the inside, remarkably light for something fried. Layered with chopped lettuce, smooth and spicy sauces and a variety of tangy, colorful pickled vegetables, the sandwich provides a perfectly satisfying, healthy and, at $6.50, affordable lunch—a tightly bundled torpedo of joy that’s warming during the winter and refreshing in summer.

Catering, too, is a specialty at the market, ranging from hummus, salads and baba ghannoush—a roasted eggplant dip—to more complex biryanis and even a whole sheep. “Often people will bring us a sheep, or part of a sheep, and we will cook it and dress it in the traditional way along with other dishes,” Hassna translates for Ieman. Oftentimes it will be Arab families that ask for these dishes, and they are happy to comply. “Over the years we’ve had more catering business and less customers dropping in—but we still have food here!” Just beyond the counter lay a rainbow of vegetables and toppings, adding a pop of color to the mostly off-white interior.

The shop is sleepy, with hand-lettered signs indicating homemade items, and the sort of presentation that speaks more to function than form. The Middle Eastern products in particular, a mix of strong flavors (carob molasses) and staples (lentils), often tell you exactly what they are and don’t use frilly branding to sell themselves. Spices such as cumin, turmeric, sumac, Lebanese seven-spice blend are for sale at low prices relative to the neighborhood—prices that encourage actually using the spices as opposed to keeping them ornamental on a forlorn kitchen shelf.

Think of Ayah-H like some of the specialties it sells: modest package, rich contents.

Ayah-H Market
831 Orange St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Sat 10am-7:30pm, Sun 10am-7pm

Written by Allison Hadley.

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