A FEW YEARS AGO, David, a young Brooklyn native, was on vacation in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula when he met a stranger from Cairo.
After chatting amicably for a few minutes, David mentioned that his family was originally from Heliopolis, a Cairo suburb, where they once owned a bakery.
David’s new friend asked him his last name.
“Mansoura,” David replied.
His new friend’s eyes widened.
“Mansoura of the pastries?”
The Mansoura bakery in Egypt closed almost half a century ago, but its legend was still alive and well to the people of Heliopolis, where it once took up a full city block, complete with café and garden.
“This guy was not old,” David recalled. “He was only like 30 or so, so he couldn’t have ever been there himself.” But David’s new acquaintance was excited enough to introduce David to other Egyptians as the Mansoura heir, and to tell David that the sign for his grandfather’s bakery was still up.
Everyone was impressed.
Even before they were famous in Egypt, Mansouras were bakers in Aleppo, Syria, for a hundred years before that. And even if the Egyptian Mansoura of yesteryear is no more, the Mansoura clan has kept the family tradition alive in Brooklyn, with its kosher bakery on Kings Highway.
The Mansouras left Egypt in 1958 as the situation for the country’s Jews worsened, following the rise to power of the warmongering, anti-Semitic Colonel Gamal Abdel-Nasser. “They boycotted my father’s store,” said David’s father, Alan. “And they threw Molotov cocktails through the windows.” Alan’s father settled in Brooklyn, where he set up shop in 1961. Ever since then, the transplanted bakery has been a local—and an international—favorite.
“We get orders from everywhere,” said Alan’s Moroccan-born wife, Josiane. “Florida, Brazil, even Panama.”
Josiane said that the family even gets fan mail. She recalled a letter she received from an Egyptian Jewish expat. “They said that they were seven years old, and they remember leaving Egypt, and their last stop was Mansoura,” Josiane said with a grin.
David Mansoura, now age 28, has toyed with the idea of expanding; either moving to Manhattan or opening up a café. (“Do you think I should?” David asked The Eater with a nervous smile.) For now, Mansoura is one of the borough’s handful of Sephardic Jewish bakeries that serve up kosher versions of Middle Eastern delights, like baklava, burekas, and sweet, moist basbousas, orange-hued Egyptian cakes made with almonds.
Everything is prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws, which forbid the mixing of meat and milk, so almost nothing is made with butter. Yet the taste, surprisingly, does not suffer. (The few dairy items, such as the cheese burekas, are made separately and kept in their own cases.)
There are Syrian specialties, like kaak, a small, pretzel-like lasso sprinkled with sesame seeds; kibbeh, balls of cracked wheat and meat; and the more obscure meat delicacy, basterma.
“Basterma came before pastrami,” Josiane insisted. Basterma is originally an Armenian dish—a leathery, spicy dried beef that many believe to be a forerunner to the more familiar European Jewish meat dish served up at local establishments like Katz’s Deli. The Mansouras cure their own basterma, hanging cuts of beef for about two weeks and salting and seasoning them with paprika, garlic, and other spices. It retails for $25 per pound.
“The original way to make it is with camel,” said Alan, who, despite being as much of a basterma expert as anyone else, admitted that he has never tasted it made the original way. “Nobody has it that way anymore,” he said.
The Eater was offered a pita overflowing with basterma, which was—like almost everything else at Mansoura—exotic yet delicious.
Both father and son were pleased that The Eater had such a positive reaction. David, in particular, was beaming.
“I sort of fell into it,” David said of the family business. His brother became an accountant, his sister a physical therapist; he is the only one to have gone into the bakery. “We all helped out, growing up,” David said.
“The thing about this business is the kids watch you,” Alan said. “It’s a tough business, and it’s labor-intensive. It’s one of the reasons you don’t like to get workers.... Nobody works like your family.”
Alan smiled at his son.
A few minutes later, The Eater was led out of the store, loaded with a box of Mansoura’s goodies.
“Come back soon,” David said at the door.
He then turned and went back into his bakery—and into hundreds of years of Mansoura family history.
Mansoura Middle Eastern Bakery, 515 Kings Highway, Gravesend (F to Kings Highway) 718-645-7977.
Max Gross is a staff writer at the New York Post.