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Archive for August, 2012


Cab rides through Aleppo

I used to love exploring Aleppo by cab. Occasionally I’ll catch myself daydreaming about these simple, ordinary memories: leaning forward from the sidewalk of a bustling street; hailing a cab in the ancient city. The experience made me feel like a local, like a halabi.

As I waited for a cab to pull over, I would practice how to pronounce the name of the street or destination where I wanted to go. “A’al jama’a, low samahet,” I repeated softly, placing extra emphasis on the a’a sound — to the university, please. The a’a sound in Arabic, produced by the letter aeyn (ع), is the most difficult for me, as a non-native speaker, to pronounce. The sound is that of a deep “a” that is starts at back of your throat. Linguists refer to this as an epiglottal sound.

I miss these small yellow cabs (even with all their honking)
cabs in Aleppo

In Aleppo, if you’re male, you’re expected to ride in the passenger seat alongside the driver. This makes the experience more casual — it encourages conversation. It also ensures there is never a dull or quiet ride through the city.

Once I sat in the passenger seat, a few utterances of my soft-spoken Arabic were usually enough to cause intrigue. The Aleppan dialect is known for its rather sharp and assertive tone. When the driver would ask me where I’m from, I usually turned the question back to him, asking where he thought I was from. This way my way of breaking the ice. It was also how I informally kept track of my progress in Arabic. When I arrived to Syria, I started out as an ajnabi, a foreigner. Towards the end of my Fulbright some cab drivers actually thought I was an Armenian from Aleppo. I was elated the first time I heard that.

After a few guesses, I would clarify that I was an American studying food culture in Syria. Mentioning food in Aleppo is an ice breaker in its own right. Aleppans, as you may gather from my blog, are famous for their food. Once food entered the conversation, cultural barriers suddenly dissipated. Shoulders relaxed and polite smiles felt more sincere. If I was welcomed before, the driver would make sure to welcome me again: Ya ahla w sahla, ya meet el salameh.

Cab rides provided great opportunities for cultural exchange. On many occasions I was the first American the driver had ever met. Cabs were also a great place for me to interact with Syrians from all walks of life. I met professionals looking for a second source of income, religious men, young adults who had run-ins with the law (well, just one), business men, Kurds who played lovely Kurdish music, food enthusiasts, and many others. One cab driver, I will never forget him, entertained me with his Arabic-English riddles. “Cat in light” he exclaimed — “cat in light!!” I’m hardly good at riddles in English, let alone riddles between two languages. After a few seconds, he blurted out, ou’t fil duow (قط في الضوء), and then repeated more fluently, ou’tfi el douw (أطفي الضوء). “Get it“, he asked, cackling. You see, the Arabic translation for “cat in light,” if pronounced quickly, will sound like someone is saying, “turn off the light.” I laughed with him. He then presented me with another riddle, which I will leave for my Arabic-English readers to guess: “small donkey, my money.” If you get it, leave your answer in the comments!

One thing I learned about Syrian cuisine is that it is resourceful. Recipes were never exact; more like simple instructions that vary between neighborhoods, and even families. A series of handfuls and pinches that, when executed properly, lead to extraordinary meals. One of the dishes that exemplifies this culinary ingenuity is called maldoum (ملضوم), an incredibly delicious layered meat and eggplant dish. The classic way to prepare this dish is over a grill, where you alternate meat patties and eggplant slices on a skewer. When the dish is prepared over the grill, it is called, kabob banjan (كباب باذنجان). But if you don’t have access to a grill, you can prepare kabob banjan in the oven, and call it maldoum.

Either way you prepare it, the dish is incredibly simple and only takes a few basic ingredients: eggplants, ground meat, tomatoes, tomato puree, salt, allspice, and paprika.

mise en place
mise en place

The eggplants should be sliced fairly thick, about an inch wide, because they will release a lot of water while they cook in the oven.

thick slices
thick slices

Traditionally, the eggplant slices are pan-fried and then layered into the casserole, but I think it tastes better when the eggplants are roasted in the oven. For one, it’s healthier, but you also won’t have to stand over the stove frying slices of eggplant individually.

Before I roast the eggplants, I sprinkle them with a bit of salt to help break them down and remove some of the liquid stored inside.

sprinkle with salt
sprinkle with salt

Then I cover the eggplants with paper towels and place a baking sheet on top. I weigh the baking sheet down with anything heavy to help the eggplants drain more quickly. I used my cast-iron wok, but anything heavy, like cans or even a brick, will do.

drain the eggplants
drain the eggplants

The meat is important. You can use lamb or beef, but make sure it is freshly ground and seasoned properly. I used beef. You might even try ground chicken or turkey for healthier alternatives. Remember, these are merely guidelines.

If you’re using beef, I suggest using 90/10 ground beef (10% fat). The grilled version calls for 85/15 ground beef (15%), but that’s because a lot of the fat drains into the grill.

simply seasoned: salt, allspice, paprika
simply seasoned: salt, allspice, paprika

Maldoum is traditionally prepared in a large round metal pan, similar to cake pans, but slightly shorter. I didn’t have one of those, so I used an oven-proof rectangular casserole dish. I also sliced the eggplants in half so that they can fit nicely in the casserole dish I had. Then I formed the meat patties and sliced the tomatoes to roughly the same size.

alternate: eggplant, meat, tomato
alternate: eggplant, meat, tomato

Top the casserole with your favorite canned tomato puree and bake in the oven for about an hour. The tomato puree not only compliments the flavor of the fresh tomatoes in the casserole, but also protects the meat from drying out in the oven.

maldoum (ملضوم)
maldoum (ملضوم)

Bonne appétit,صحة و هنا

Maldoum

yields 6 servings

Components

  • 1.5 lbs 90% ground beef or lamb
  • 3 medium eggplants
  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup tomato puree
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt, to taste
  • 1 1/2 allspice, to taste
  • 1 tsp paprika, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Rinse and dry the eggplants.
  2. Remove the tip of the eggplants, then slice into thick, even slices (approximately 1 inch thick).
  3. Season the eggplant with salt on both sides, cover with a layer of paper towels, and place a baking sheet with weights on top to drain some of the water from the eggplants. This will take about 15-20 minutes.
  4. Roast eggplants in a 425 degree oven for 20-25 minutes until tender, but not soft.
  5. Slice the eggplants in half if they are very large. Slice the tomatoes into roughly the same size as the eggplant slices.
  6. Season the ground beef with salt, allspice (freshly ground, if possible), and paprika.
  7. Divide the meat into even patties, approximately the same size as the eggplant slices.
  8. Alternate between eggplant, meat patties, and tomatoes in the casserole dish.
  9. Pour the tomato puree evenly across the top of the casserole and bake in a 425 degree oven for an hour.
  10. Serve with rice or pita bread and enjoy.

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Mloukhiyye at the digital dinner table

I’m back.

The situation in Syria has gone from bad, it skipped worse, and plunged straight into bleak. I needed time to wrap my head around the events of the last seventeen months.

Syria has been on my mind since the day I evacuated, April 26, 2011. My friends Bassel, Zaki, and Karam drove me to a bus station in the outskirts of Aleppo where I boarded an almost empty bus to Lebanon at 2AM. I never imagined things would get this bad. I read newspaper articles, blogs, Facebook posts; I watch videos on YouTube, listen to news reports; I follow vetted Twitter users who are inside Syria; I call friends and relatives on a weekly basis — and still, it is difficult to know exactly what is happening inside the country. My heart aches for all the Syrians who have lost their lives and livelihood during this bloody conflict. And my thoughts and prayers go to all those who remain trapped inside.

The reason I decided to write a blog post today, however, is not to discuss politics — at least not directly. I’ve always described my food blog as part of my home. It’s the dining room table where I invite readers to pull up a chair. I share stories, photos, and recipes and start a conversation around food and culture. People from around the world can chime in with a simple comment. I almost let myself forget how incredible that feeling is. The feeling of connecting with another person — of breaking bread across the internet. With that, I want to open my door once more and invite you to my digital dinner table. Please, come in. Let me get you something to drink.

Tea with friends by the historic citdael in Aleppo
tea
Arabic coffee
Arabic coffee

Part of the inspiration for today’s blog post came from the book, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War by Annia Ciezadlo. The book was published February 1, 2011, while I was still in Syria, but it wasn’t until I arrived to Lebanon that I was able to find a copy at a book store in Beirut. If you haven’t read it already, add it to your summer reading list. Annia writes about the conflicts in Lebanon and the war in Iraq through intimate stories of people living their lives in a war-torn region. She puts faces to part of the world that can often seem distant and disconnected. Annia writes, “if you want to understand war, you have to understand everyday life first.” I agree.

Lunch in the darkness
lunch

This is a photo from a friend on Twitter, @HumanGraces. She lives in Aleppo and tweets (mostly in Arabic) about everything from politics to food and family, including random musings from her brothers. On February 5, 2012 she tweeted this image with the caption, غدا اليوم عالعتمة, meaning, today, lunch in the dark.

Electricity in Aleppo (at that time) used to get cut eight hours each day; usually four hours in the early afternoon and four hours in the evening. When @HumanGraces tweeted this image my mouth watered, but I also felt a strange sense of nostalgia. There was kibbeh (a classic Levantine meat and bulgur patty), mloukhiyye served alongside rice, and a big bowl of house salad that completes every meal in Syria. That’s when I noticed something else that was interesting, hidden in the shadows of the frame. Those were legs and hands of people sitting together around a dinner table. In the middle of a war. I sent @HumanGraces a Direct Message (DM) on Twitter to ask what the meal was like. Was it quiet? Did politics dominate the conversation? Any resentment or anger? @HumanGraces described the emotions surrounding the meal as a blend of helplessness and joy. They laughed and, she confessed, one of her aunts even ululated. If you only follow the politics and conflicts of the Middle East, or any region, you can easily glance over moments like this; the story of a family that gathers for lunch, clinging to any sense of normalcy in a world that seems to be falling apart.

There is a popular saying across the Middle East that says, يوم عسل ويوم بصل (yom a’asal w yom basal), which means, “one day is like honey, another is like an onion.” This is the expression Annia used as part of the title to her memoir. It’s a saying that captures perfectly the blend of emotions: helplessness and joy; an optimism for a better tomorrow. An expression that swallows pain and allows life to continue. In conflicts like the one in Syria, a better tomorrow is usually the most any family can pray for. When I speak with friends and relatives in Aleppo, a lot of them will use the expression, “الله يستر” (Allah yestor) or “may God forbid/protect us.” This means, forbid the bad from happening to us, and thereby protect us from evil. As the conflict in Syria progresses and the country continues to crumble, I understand how this is the best any person, on either side of the conflict, can hope for.

One of the dishes @HumanGraces had at the table is a classic leafy broth called mloukhiyye (ملوخية). This dish originated in Ancient Egypt where it is said to have been a meal prepared for kings (or pharaohs?). The idea being that mloukhiyye (ملوخية) evolved from the word mloukiyye (ملوكية) (with a k instead of kh), which shares the linguistic tri-literal root ma-la-ka (ملك) — the Arabic word for king. Whether or not this etymology is accurate, I can certainly see why a king would love this meal. According to this Wikipedia article on Mloukhiyye, “the leaves are rich in betacarotene, iron, calcium, Vitamin C and more than 32 vitamin and minerals and trace elements.”

mise en place
mise en place

Mloukhiyye leaves can give off a slimy texture, particularly when they’re used fresh or frozen. The mloukhiyye I had in Syria was prepared at home from whole, dried mloukhiyye leaves. The cook explained to me that her kids, who are around my age, would not eat it any other way. This was my first time eating mloukhiyye and I loved it. There was barely any slimy texture to the leaves. In Egypt, however, traditional mloukhiyye recipes call for the fresh leaves to be finely chopped, which tends to release more of the mucilaginous texture, resembling that of okra.

simple seasoning: cumin & garlic
cumin and garlic

Once you are able to find mloukhiyye leaves, the dish comes together fairly easily. Start off by heating up some ground coriander and garlic in a medium pot. This will remove some of the edge from the garlic and it will also bring out the essential oils in the ground coriander. You’ll know when it’s ready; the scent of coriander and garlic will perfume your kitchen. If your nose is stuffy that day, set your timer for 5 minutes, making sure to stir regularly so the garlic does not brown.

A splash of lemon
A splash of lemon

Once you add the broth and the mloukhiyye leaves to the pot, bring the mixture to a boil and finish it off with a splash of lemon juice. This is supposed to help cut down on the slimy texture. How much this actually helps, I’m not sure, but it does add a wonderful bright burst of flavor to the dish.

Minced onions
Minced onions

In the Levant it is traditional to serve mloukhiyye with minced onions in vinegar — like a quick pickle. The acid notes in the vinegar, like the lemon juice, help highlight the flavors of the dish.

A quick onion pickle
A quick onion pickle

At this point you’re ready to eat. Serve the mloukhiyye and rice in separate bowls alongside the pickled onions for guests to add as much as they would like.

Serve separately: mloukhiyye & rice
mloukhiyye and rice

Mloukhiyye

yields approx 4-6 servings

Components

  • 3 cups of chicken broth
  • 1 package of frozen mloukhiyye leaves (400g)
  • poached chicken
  • 1 Tbsp coriander, ground
  • 6-8 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 small onion
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon

Putting them all together

  1. In a medium pot over medium heat stir ground coriander and minced garlic in some butter or olive oil until fragrant.
  2. Add the frozen mloukhiyye leaves and boiling chicken stock.
  3. Taste for seasoning. Add poached chicken meat and remove from heat.
  4. Add diced onion to vinegar and set aside until needed.
  5. Serve mloukhiyye over a bed of rice with a side of quick-pickled onions.

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Mloukhiyye with rice (ملوخية بالرز)
mloukhiyye with rice

Thank you for everyone who wrote in with comments and emails asking about the situation in Syria. It has meant a lot. I continue to hope for a speedy resolution — الله يستر (Allah yestor).