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A group of friends and I were polishing off the last of our Turkish coffees at Yaffa’s Savory Mediterranean Culinaria when a charismatic brunette approached our table. She placed a trio of samples before us and said, “Here’s a sweet ending for you. I’ll come back soon, and when I do, you guess what they are.” She, we soon discovered, was Yaffa Hanouna, chef-owner of the casual southeast Denver Mediterranean cafe-market.
We had just finished a meal of Israeli salad, shawarma and hummus, noodle-less chicken soup, and Moroccan pastilla, but that didn’t stop us from tasting Hanouna’s offerings. We dipped spoons into what we thought was a candied-date preserve. It was sticky and dessertlike—the kind of conserve that could dress up a cheese plate. The second dish was a fresh yogurt reminiscent of Noosa but whipped to a lighter consistency. The third sample—candied oranges—was the most familiar and a delightful note on which to lay down our spoons.
As promised, Hanouna returned, and after listening to our detective work, she gently corrected us. The jam, she said in her warm accent, was made with eggplant, not dates. The recipe was her grandmother’s; small whole eggplants are slow-simmered with honey, cloves, and spices. As for the whipped yogurt, we were close: It was “labneh,” a Mediterranean yogurt cheese.
Growing up as the youngest of 10 children in a Moroccan-Jewish family from Israel, Hanouna found her niche in the kitchen and has been cooking ever since. My friends and I were fascinated by Hanouna’s explanations of the dishes: The chicken shawarma—her signature interpretation of the Arab lamb snack—is dusted in Old World spices like cardamom, sweet paprika, and cumin. The phyllo dough–encased pastilla, which is iconic of Moroccan special occasions, is filled with saffron, eggs, caramelized onions, and ground turkey. The celebratory dish is topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar—sometimes Hanouna adds a dab of eggplant jam for good measure.
In the end, the flavorful samples and the tales that Hanouna gifted us with were what made the meal truly memorable. I will be back for those tastes and the generous entrées (reasonably priced at $9.95)—and hopefully more of Hanouna’s stories. 2200 S. Monaco Parkway, Unit B, 303-758-0083, yaffassavory.com
Shawarma and Hummus $9.95
Moroccan Pastilla $11.95
Yaffa’s Eggplant Jam $9.95 (for 12 ounces)
Turkish Coffee $2
Labneh Yogurt Cheese $5 (for 8 ounces)