Monday, February 20, 2012

My first Syrian dinner party

Some of you might know, or have read, that my awesome grandmother (who reads this blog) is a Sephardic Jew of Syrian descent. Though American (Brooklyn)-born, she grew up speaking Arabic at home and English in the street, and as the eldest of 5 was taught to cook from an early age. So my earliest recollections of going to Mom-Mom's house always revolved around eating amazing food. Her cooking, Syrian Jewish cooking, differs slightly from typical Middle Eastern fare (like Lebanese, Turkish, Israeli, Moroccan, even Greek) as most dishes were designed to work around Kosher laws. So while there is a lot of meat, it's never served with dairy products. And the few dairy recipes that exist are always served with vegetarian dishes. Syrian food overall uses quite a lot of fruit with sweet-sour flavors, and some interesting spice combinations that bring the sweet-sour balance into sharper focus. There is less garlicky-ness and more fullness to the food. Mom-Mom's family hailed from Aleppo, home of what some people claim is the best food in the Middle East; I just think it's my Mom-Mom's food.

Fast forward thirty years, and I'm mastering cooking her dishes by myself. Despite learning to roll grape leaves for Passover over a school holiday at age 8 and being the fastest pistachio sheller in the West, I really didn't do much Syrian cooking until relatively recently. I think it had to do with all of the dishes being so Mom-Mom that it was much better, and more comforting, to get my fix by visiting her. But now that I'm so far away, I have to take matters into my own hands and start cheffing the meals all on my own.

Luckily, Mom-Mom has embarked on an epic project of writing down all of her recipes – recipes that she has known by heart for years. I'm so impressed with her; at 84, she's typing them all up in Word and emailing them on to me. The most amazing part is that these are recipes that previously never had measurements or gauges; she uses her eye and the palm of her hand as a guide. Once when we had a lesson, she told me that because my palm was so small, I would have to add more spices to a dish – and that's just the way it is. But now nearly all of her signature dishes have been written down for me and the family.

So yesterday I hosted my first Syrian dinner party for my former roommates. We started with za'atar flavored pita chips, a really easy snack that you can make in no time. Za'atar is super hard to find in the US, mostly available only in Mediterranean or Arab food stores, but you can pick it up at Waitrose here. We then moved on to a main dish of yebrah or stuffed grape leaves. But these aren't sour, rice-stuffed grape leaves like you get in Greek, Turkish or Lebanese restaurants; these grape leaves are stuffed with a meat and rice mixture, covered in apricots and then cooked with a tomato-tamarind sauce. Side dishes were Syrian-style rice with spaghetti bits, peas cooked with allspice and kiftes (meatballs), and a sweet-sour sauce called hamoud. For dessert, I let The Irishman into our kitchen to make cardamom ice cream and together we made little cookies with semolina dough and a sweet nut mixture inside.

Happily, the food went down a storm and I was really pleased with the results. It's really rewarding to cook the food I grew up loving for others, and introducing them to something that is so familiar and comforting to me but sounds exotic and wonderful to them. If you are interested in this special type of cuisine, here are a few books you might want to check out – unfortunately, I'm under strict orders not to release Mom-Mom's recipes outside the family otherwise I would totally share.

by Jennifer Abadi
This is a great primer for Syrian Jewish cooking, written by a girl like me who loved her grandmother and worked with her to write down all of her recipes. She then illustrated the book and published it, and the recipes are fairly close to Mom-Mom's.

by Poopa Dweck
When you're done laughing, this is the coffee table book of Syrian cooking. I'm actually related to this woman through distant cousins, and Mom-Mom highly approves of this tome. It's a lovely book of lovely recipes.

by Claudia Roden
Claudia Roden is the grand-dame of English cook book authors from the Middle East. Her book of Middle Eastern recipes is the bible when it comes to Middle Eastern cooking on this side of the pond.

by Claudia Roden
If you're Jewish and/or interested in food, or both, Claudia Roden devoted a few years to researching and writing this tome of traditional Jewish cooking from both Ashkenazi and Sephardic regions. It's a great history book as well as a great cookbook. 


  1. ohmygoodness YUM. can I come over next time?

  2. Wow. Sounds amazing. Can you tell us how you made the pita chips?

  3. It's really easy - you just cut up pita bread into small pieces, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with zaa'tar. Bake in the oven on a baking tray around 350 deg F for 5-8 mins, or until they're brown (but not burnt!). Good luck!