Tag Archives: Syria

Remembering Grandma Fritzie

GrandmaFritzieAbadi

On May 22, 2001, Grandma Fritzie passed away on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
I have been thinking a lot about her lately.

Only a week ago I received an email by a woman named Francine in Tucson who had purchased  a lithograph by my grandmother at an estate sale.

After doing a search online Francine came across my website and information about the life of my grandmother. She was intrigued by her strong personality and drive to be a female artist in the sixties and seventies, and was reminded of her own Brooklyn born Italian-American family, with their large family gatherings that centered around great food. When I received this email with the photo of my grandmother’s lithograph, I was happy to know that her artwork was keeping the memory of her alive. 

Unfortunately Grandma Fritzie never got to see my cookbook “A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes From Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen” when it was officially printed in 2002. But I am so very grateful that I spent so much personal time with her while writing it. This book was what brought me into the world of recipe recording and teaching, and Syrian food was my first lesson.

 

Painting_Grandma_1

Painting by my grandmother hanging in my apartment, possibly a self portrait from the 1960s

Very recently I received a letter from the publisher that all rights to the cookbook had been reverted back to me. My first reaction was to feel sad because I thought that if my cookbook was no longer being printed, my grandmother’s, mother’s and family’s stories and recipes would be forgotten (which was the whole point of writing this book to begin with!). But then I realized this was an opportunity for me to take back my book and relaunch it with revised (and possibly even new) recipes. I have learned a lot about self-publishing this last year when “Too Good To Passover” was released in January, and it almost feels like “A Fistful of Lentils” has finally come back home to me in my care. 

By the end of this year I hope to relaunch a new edition to “A Fistful of Lentils” that will continue to keep my family’s stories and recipes, and the Syrian-Jewish culture alive. Stay tuned! 

 

 

 

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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

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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.)

Time to sort the rice: Let the preparations for Pesach begin!

Rice_BlogNow that Purim is over, many individuals begin their Passover cleaning as early as today, one month before the holiday begins. It can be a meticulous period, especially if you have a large house with multiple rooms and floors. One of the most time consuming and important tasks to complete for many of the communities that I had interviewed was the process of sorting and cleaning large quantities of rice for the holiday, as it needed to last the entire week for the whole family. Some individuals even explained how it could take weeks to do, as only small portions would be sorted through each day, grain by grain, only to be sorted again two more times before being considered clean for Passover. While many may only do a good cleaning a week or just days before, I spoke to some individuals who went as far as the following in their homes:

Iran, Syria, India, Iraq: The purchasing and sorting of rice grains (this could take several weeks to do as each grain was individually checked, discarding any broken pieces or grains of wheat that might have gotten mixed in).

India: Purchasing, sorting, roasting, and grinding of fresh spices
(this may have been done as early as 2 months ahead!)

Morocco: Removing the stuffing from all pillows and mattresses, washing the outside cases,
then re-stuffing them with new, fresh cotton (that has been sorted for cotton seeds or bugs).

Ethiopia: Making all new ceramic dishes, bowls, cups, and even pots by hand in time for the holiday
(the previous year’s dishes and pots would ALL be broken then discarded a few days before Seder).

Egypt, Morocco, Iran: Washing and painting of all the interior walls of the house.

Yemen, Egypt, Iran: Buying a young lamb and raising it on the terrace or in backyard before slaughtering it for the Passover Seder night (this might have started 2 months before).

QUESTION:
How early did your family start preparing for the holiday,
and what were the first things that you would do?

Will the single, marriageable girl please leave the room?

Serving_ShadowLately I’ve been interviewing individuals from the Levantine countries of Syria and Lebanon. An interesting custom that has been described to me (with slight variations) is the one where a young, single woman of marrying age would pick up the Seder tray at the very start of the Seder and leave with it to another room. During her absence those sitting at the table would sing a song or two, then call her back in when finished. Upon returning to the room with the tray, the young woman might be asked, “What is it that you have there?” (Indicating the tray), or she herself may ask them, “What is going on here?” (Indicating that they have gathered around the table and that something is about to happen.) Immediately after this brief inquiry, the leader would then begin with the first lines from the Haggadah, and with that the Seder (and Passover holiday) has officially begun. I find this custom interesting on many levels. For one it shows the importance of marriage in the community, and how it then takes the opportunity during the Seder to indicate “who is next in line.” It also elevates the act of carrying and presenting the Seder tray/plate to one of honor. Secondly, it highlights the importance of hospitality in the Middle Eastern culture, especially with regards to a woman serving a guest in her home. And thirdly, it connects the Seder, which symbolizes freedom (and therefore, the future of the Jewish people), renewal (spring season, cycle of life, fertility), with the woman’s future to getting married, raising a family, and therefore, continuing the lifeline of the Jewish community as a whole. When I first learned about this ritual my first reaction (as an American, Westerner, and New Yorker) was one of discomfort. I wondered how these young women felt to have the spotlight put on them, which basically said, “Hey, you’re single — it’s time to find a husband!” But when I asked many of these women individually how they had felt it about it, many of them instead said that they were happy to do it, and that when it was their turn, they in fact felt proud.

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