Jews speaking Arabic? Cooking with Muslims in a communal kitchen? Using tamarind with cumin, prunes and allspice to cook okra? Who knew?
These are tales of the Jews of Syria, whose story is told with warmth and recipes in the (new to me) cookbook A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen by Jennifer Felicia Abadi, published by Harvard Common Press.
For Abadi, the book is both an offering of the traditional recipes of Syrian Jews and an homage to her wonderfully colorful and irrepressible maternal grandmother, Frieda Abadi Hidary Ginsburg. “Fritzie” was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1915 or 1916 and emigrated to the early 20th century’s promised land through Ellis Island with her mother and siblings when she was 7 or 8.
The family had been left in Palestine to survive and wait to join her businessman/rabbi father, who came with the great wave of immigrants seeking a way out of the poverty of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The family was not alone: emigration continued through the ’50s as the early years of the state of Israel brought war and exile for all but a handful of Syrian Jews, the Mizrachi, some of whom had lived and prospered in the environs of Aleppo for 2,000 years.
Although many Syrian Jewish immigrants left New York to take their financial chances in the Midwest, South and West, the majority stayed in the Bensonhurst district of Brooklyn and created a neighborhood filled with the scents of cinnamon, rosewater, Aleppo pepper and cumin.
The cooking of Syrian Jews is Sephardic, with the traditional Moorish/Iberian influences that followed the flight of Spanish Jews across Europe after the exile of 1492, but it is just as much Mizrachi, exuding deep Arab flavorings that developed centuries ago as the Jewish spice-trading Syrian merchant class adopted Far Eastern spices and the Persian penchant for flower waters and fruits.
Abadi makes it clear in her well-researched introduction that Syrian cooking differs in very specific ways from other Jewish cooking in the Middle East: cinnamon, cumin and allspice are the favored spices in Syrian dishes, while Moroccans share a fondness for saffron with Persian cuisine.
And while olives and preserved lemons grace Moroccan tagines, Syrian cuisine wraps many flavorful recipes around a sweet-sour extract derived from tamarind. Greek and Turkish pastries are drenched in honey, but Syrian sweets add apricots and the delicate scents of orange flower and rose waters to their nut-laden sweets.
Descriptions of Fritzie’s family life in Aleppo memorialize scenes that are difficult to reconcile with our contemporary understanding of the overriding relations between Arab Muslims and Jews. Poor Jews and Muslims housed their families in community living spaces opening onto an interior courtyard called a “hoh’sh.”
Private rooms where separate families lived surrounded the “hoh’sh,” but cooking was communal and very social, the women in the families chatting and gossiping as they Cookd and cared for each other’s children.
Abadi makes it quite clear that Jewish households, in large part, followed the laws of kashrut. Perhaps keeping kosher and following the Muslim food laws of halal were similar enough in practice that it was not difficult for both religions to cook happily side by side in the same big kitchen. I wish I could have been there to learn some marvelous dishes and see how it all worked!
The picture Abadi paints of the wonderful smells and flavors in Grandmother Fritzie’s American kitchen and the sheer volume of the food at family gatherings really warms the reader to how important eating — and eating very well — is to Syrian-American Jews, and sends a message of sharing that underlies the entire message of her book.
In between the recipes are little stories of Fritzie’s and Abadi’s parents and siblings and notes on how the Jewish holidays are celebrated in the Syrian way. Here are a few recipes to whet your appetite for reading the whole book!
First, this easy, slow-Cookd sauce is usually added as one of the last ingredients before a dish is Cookd or as an addition just before serving to give the dish its special “Aleppo” flavor. Tamarind is sold as a mass of pitted pods packed into a block, available at Middle Eastern grocery stores. Citric acid is easily available in Middle Eastern groceries, natural foods stores and in many well-stocked supermarkets, and can be kept on hand to use in place of lemon juice and to keep fruits fresher tasting when refrigerated or frozen.
“OOH” Sour Tamarind Sauce
1-3/4 lb. packed tamarind
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. citric acid
Place the tamarind in a large bowl and soak overnight (10 to 12 hours) in cold water to cover. The next day, drain off the excess water, place in a large heavy pot with fresh water to cover, bring to a boil and let boil for five minutes. Drain the tamarind through a stiff colander placed over a bowl, mashing it down with a wooden spoon to extract as much juice as possible. Discard any pits and stems. Strain again through a fine mesh strainer or food mill set over the same bowl, pressing once again on the pulp. Discard any remaining solids.
Rinse out your large heavy pot and pour the strained juice back into it. Stir in the sugar and citric acid and cook over medium heat at a strong simmer until the mixture is reduced by half — about two hours. Stir every 15 minutes with a wooden spoon and begin tasting when the mixture becomes dark brown and thick. Adjust the flavor to taste with more sugar or citric acid. Remove from the heat and cool completely to room temperature. Store in a clean glass container with a tight lid; will keep indefinitely refrigerated.
Makes about 2-1/2 cups
Green (String) Beans in Tomato Sauce
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup coarsely chopped yellow onions
1 tsp. minced garlic
Two 6-oz cans tomato paste
3-1/2 cups cold water
1 lb. fresh green beans, stemmed
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. salt
A few grindings fresh black pepper
1 to 2 tsp. Sour Tamarind Sauce (or Worchestershire sauce with tamarind)
Preheat the oven to 325º. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and cook the onions, stirring, until golden and soft. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for one minute longer, being careful not to let it burn.
Combine the tomato paste with the water until dissolved and add to the onions, then add the green beans and mix well. Cover, bring to a simmer and let cook 20 to 30 minutes. Add the cinnamon, allspice, salt, pepper and tamarind sauce. Transfer to an ovenproof casserole, cover tightly and bake for one hour. The dish is done when the green beans are very soft. If the sauce seems too thick, add 1/4–1/2 cup cold water, stir in well, and season again to your taste.
Serves 4 to 6
Meatballs with Cherries
3/4 lb. ground chuck
2 Tbs. matzoh meal or dry bread crumbs
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 Tbs. cold water
1/2 tsp. salt or to taste
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 cup finely chopped onions
Small dish of iced water
One 24-oz jar Morello or other pitted sour cherries
or 2 lbs. fresh sour cherries, pitted over a bowl to save the juice
3/4 cup sweet wine or water
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/4 cup unsalted tomato paste
1 tsp. vegetable oil
1/4 cup cold water, as needed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 to 2 Tbs. dark brown sugar, to taste (depending on the sweetness of the cherries)
Combine all the meatball ingredients (except the ice water) in a medium bowl and mix with your hands until well blended and the meat is very soft. Shape tablespoon-sized pieces into small balls between your palms, dipping your hands into the ice water occasionally to keep the meat from sticking. Place the meatballs on a plate as they are made and set aside in the refrigerator.
For the sauce, drain the liquid from the cherries into a medium saucepan, or combine the fresh cherry juice with the wine or water in a medium saucepan. Add the onions, tomato paste, vegetable oil and, if using jarred cherries, 1/4 cup water. Cook over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the salt and pepper and the brown sugar, adding enough sugar to obtain a sweet-tart flavor. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered for five minutes. Add the cherries and stir in gently with a spoon.
Add the meatballs to the cherry sauce, mixing them in very gently so as not to break up the meat. Cover and simmer over low heat until the sauce thickens enough to coat a spoon and the meatballs are Cookd through, still fairly soft but firm, about 20 to 30 minutes.
Serve over rice or pilaf.
serves 4; about 24 to 30 meatballs
Note: When the meatballs are Cookd, the sauce and meatballs may be frozen together in a tightly-sealed container for one month.