From Damascus to the Upper West Side: Syrian cooking with Nada Mahfouz

On January 31st, 2017 I received an email from a student who has attended several of my classes at the Institute of Culinary Education in lower Manhattan:

“This is an email introduction to those who love Syrian food. Dr. Zeizafoun tells me his mom is visiting from Syria and is a great cook — so of course I thought of you!”

— Daphne Semet 

P.S. I want leftovers. 

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I immediately responded and Daphne connected me to Nebras Zeizafoun, a doctor in New York City, whose mother had just arrived from Damascus (not long before the ban on individuals entering the U.S. from Syria was declared). After a few emails back and forth, Nebras and I were able to work out a short menu of dishes to prepare, as well as the ingredients list. A few weeks later, Nebras’ wife Lana (serving as my Arabic interpreter) came over with his mother Nada, who toted a bagful of baby eggplants, a jar of sweet red pepper paste, a container of dried mint (from Syria), and a corer with a long wooden handle. There was barely enough time to introduce ourselves when Nada walked into my apartment, took off her coat, and immediately found her way to my kitchen to start working (seriously). It reminded me of the no-nonsense Syrian women in my own family when it came to cooking in the kitchen, and I had to scramble for some paper and a pen to jot notes down. After an hour or two a few Arabic words came back to me, and we all relaxed a bit more into our roles as teacher, interpreter, and student/recorder.

Quick notes about what I learned was:

  • Syrian food requires a lot of oil and lemons
  • It’s not so easy to core a tiny eggplant (without breaking it)
  • Halabi food (from Aleppo) is sweet and tart combining fruit with meat, 
    while Shami food (from Damascus) is more garlicky-savory
  • American parsley leaves and stems are much tougher than Syrian parsley
  • Fruit and vegetables are much better in Syria than in the U.S.
  • Za’tar leaves are often used as well as the dried za’tar spice blend
  • You can’t use low fat yogurt (“like water,” Nada said)
  • My dried mint is not so great (after a few sniffs Nada pulled out her own jar
    of dried mint that she had brought from Syria)

The following is one of the dishes that we prepared that afternoon. Like many Middle Eastern recipes, there are several steps, and you serve it in multiple layers. 

Fattet Makdous
(Beef Stuffed Baby Eggplants with Tomatoes, Sweet Red Pepper Paste,
Pomegranate Syrup, and Tahini-Lemon Sauce)

Yield: Serves 6

*Combine the following for Tahini-Lemon Sauce and set aside:
1 cup whole milk yogurt
2 teaspoons crushed or very finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)
2 to 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons pomegranate syrup or concentrate

*Note: For those of you keeping kosher, you can leave out the sauce entirely,
or make a non-dairy sauce combining the following: 
½ cup tahini (sesame) paste
¼ cup cold water

1 teaspoon crushed or very finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons pomegranate syrup or concentrate

FattetMakdous_4_blog.jpg

FattetMakdous_5_blog.jpgIngredients for Filling:
1 tablespoon sunflower or canola oil
¼ cup very finely chopped white or yellow onions
1 pound ground beef
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground paprika

Prepare the Filling:
1. Heat oil in a large skillet or frying pan over high heat for 1 minute.Add the chopped onions and cook until soft and transparent, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the ground beef. Mix and press down with the back of a large wooden spoon to break up the meat. Cook over medium-high heat until brown, about 10 minutes.

3. Add the salt, nutmeg, cloves, and paprika and mix well. Continue to cook with the meat an additional minute or two. Remove from heat and pour into a small bowl to cool.

FattetMakdous_2_blog.jpgFattetMakdous_3_blog.jpgIngredients For Frying Eggplants:
24 baby eggplants (each about 3 inches long, these small eggplants are usually found in a special Middle Eastern or Turkish grocery), rinsed in cold water

2 to 4 tablespoons sunflower or canola oil, for frying

Prepare the Eggplants:
1. Trim off the stem of each eggplant and reserve tops in a small bowl.

(Note: Try to cut the minimum amount off so that most of the eggplant remains intact.)

2. Working from the stem to the bottom of the eggplant, peel off a strip of the outer purple skin to create a white stripe. In this same fashion, peel 2 or 3 more strips to create a design of purple and white stripes all around.

3. Core each eggplant, being careful not to break the outside shell. Place any excess pulp from inside of eggplant into the same bowl as the reserved stem tops.

4. Stuff each cored eggplant with about 1 tablespoon of the meat filling, pressing it in with your finger to make it compact. Take a small piece of the leftover pulp and press it into the top to plug the opening and prevent the filling from falling out while cooking. Place each stuffed eggplant onto a large platter or plate. (Note: Set aside any extra beef filling for sprinkling on top of the dish before serving.)

5. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Gently place in as many stuffed eggplants as you can and fry over high heat until browned on all sides, about 2 minutes. Remove each frying eggplant and place onto a clean tray.

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Ingredients for Tomato and Red Pepper Sauce:
1 tablespoon sunflower or canola oil

1½ cups coarsely chopped onions
(may also be cut into 1-inch strands)


½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground paprika
Kosher salt, to taste

½ cup tomato paste


1 tablespoon sweet red pepper paste
(sold in Middle Eastern or Turkish grocery stores)


2 tablespoons pomegranate paste or concentrate
(sold in Middle Eastern or Turkish grocery stores)

2 cups cold water

Prepare the Sauce:
1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan (about 10 inches wide and 8 inches tall) over high heat for 1 minute. Add the chopped onions or onion strands and cook until soft and transparent, about 5 minutes.

2. Mix in the nutmeg, cloves, paprika, and salt.

3. Add the tomato paste, red pepper paste, pomegranate syrup, and water and mix well until tomato paste dissolves.

4. Gently place each eggplant into the sauce (you can layer them to to fit, if necessary). Cook over medium-low heat, covered, about 10 minutes. Remove lid and simmer an additional 10 to 15 minutes for sauce to cook down and thicken slightly. Dish is ready when eggplants are soft.

5. Taste and adjust for salt if necessary.

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Layer and Serve the Fattet Makdous in the following manner:
1. Line the bottom of a large serving platter or large wide bowl with about 2 cups of
pita chips (if preparing for Passover, use broken up pieces of matzah instead).

2. Pour the tomato-pepper sauce over the pita chips (or matzah pieces).
3. Place each cooked eggplant on top of the sauce.
4. Sprinkle the top of the eggplants with any extra cooked meat filling.
5. Sprinkle the top of the meat with a few tablespoons of flat-leaf parsley leaves.
6. Finish the dish with a few tablespoons of slivered almonds or pistachios (if desired).
7. Serve immediately.

Sah’tein! (“To Your Health,” in Arabic.)

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3 thoughts on “From Damascus to the Upper West Side: Syrian cooking with Nada Mahfouz

  1. May zeizafoun March 1, 2017 at 4:13 pm Reply

    Am so glad that my mum share with you one of best Syrian dishes specially when she make it with love
    Hope you enjyed your time cooking together

    • Jennifer Abadi March 1, 2017 at 5:28 pm Reply

      Yes it was great to cook with your mother, and I truly appreciated the time that she took to teach me one of her specialties!

  2. The Seder March 1, 2017 at 7:18 pm Reply

    What a fantastic opportunity! Thank you for sharing the experience, AND recipe.

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