Tony is all about food. His ongoing food events and special projects have been featured in the press. To learn more, you can view his gallery, read his blog, or simply contact him directly.

Welcome to Olive Juice!

Olive Juice

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
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

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


yields approx 4-6 servings


  • 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.


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).

The Syrian Hospitality Waltz

Note: I wrote this post for the IIE Fulbright Blog about my Fulbright experience in Syria.

Lost, I strolled up to a middle-aged gentleman standing a few feet beside me who was leisurely munching on a bag of peanuts. I cleared my throat as I approached him. “Marhaba,” “hello,” I said in my peculiar Arabic accent. As the man turned to me, I asked if he could point me in the direction of the market.

There was no rush because there was never really a need to rush; everything in Aleppo happens in its own time. The man offered me some of his peanuts. I declined politely as he extended the snack-sized bag. I made sure to say “shokran,” “thank you,” so as to not offend, but he insisted. Having already lived here for a few months, I understood this was part of the intricate, Syrian hospitality waltz. It’s a well-established, figurative dance based on a set of unspoken rules. If you watch it take place between two locals, it can be quite beautiful — I was still learning. I explained how I had just eaten lunch and was absolutely stuffed. I followed with a comment about how delicious my meal had been, and he smiled and instructed me to follow him.

We exchanged stories as we walked down the busy street. I mentioned that I was a Fulbright student studying food in Aleppo; he chuckled and assured me I had come to the right place. In fact, most Arabs and food scholars consider Aleppo to be the culinary capital of the Middle East. Historically situated along the Silk Road, Aleppo has served as the home for a myriad of cultures — Armenian, Circassian, Greek, Jewish, Kurdish, and Turkish. They have all played a role in shaping what Aleppan food is today.

The conversation with the older gentleman went smoothly, as if I were chatting with an old friend. Once he knew I was there to study lunch, he began to tell me of all the dishes I needed to taste. As we passed prominent landmarks, he interjected to explain how I could find my way in case I ever got lost again. He insisted on walking with me until he felt confident I could find the market. As we arrived to the point where we were to part ways, he extended his bag of peanuts another time. I couldn’t say no, not after all this, that would be considered, “Aaeeb,” or “shameful.”

I politely grabbed a couple peanuts from the small bag and tossed them in my mouth. They were dry-roasted and salted, and actually very tasty. I thanked him again, “shokran,” and repeated it a couple more times. He responded by extending his open hand across his chest, over his heart, saying, “ya meet ahlan w sahlan,” which roughly translates into “oh, you are most welcome, a hundred times over.

In Syria and across much of the Middle East, symbolic gestures, however small, can have significant social implications. These gestures are equivalent to the imperceptible signals exchanged between two dance partners on a dance floor. Placing your hand over your heart is understood to be a gesture of openness and sincerity. Numbers also play an important role in social exchange. Many Arabic phrases can be reinforced by a quantitative amount. For instance, if you want to congratulate someone, you can say “mabrook.” But for emphasis, you would say, “alf mabrook,” which literally means, “a thousand congratulations.” Even ordinary exchanges can sometimes trigger the waltz. The expression for “good morning,” is “sabah al kher,” literally “morning of goodness.” A standard response would be, “sabah al noor,” or, “morning of light” but you might also hear, “ya meet sabah,” which translates into, “one hundred beautiful mornings.”

During my stay in Syria I met many people like the middle-aged man who were interested in getting to know me, and vice versa. Conversations that started about eggplants and parsley unraveled into stories of love and companionship, culture and politics.

These exchanges, however imperceptible, are indicators of a larger dance meant to teach us about one another. They are ways in which we can participate in each other’s cultures and form relationships based on mutual understanding. I consider these interactions to be the highlights of my Fulbright in Syria. These are the interactions I carry in my heart and continue to share on my blog in an effort to continue the waltz I started almost one year and one month ago.

Assorted photos from my Fulbright:

hospitality begins with coffee or tea
you can’t tell, but we were stuffed from a huge barbecue/feastfriends
Abu Jack — the sandwich king
pomegranate farmer
our desert hosts
desert hosts
desert garb
desert garb
desert hospitality
desert tea
always offering guests
pomegranate offer
friendships that will last forever
with friends at park

Note: For more photos from my Fulbright in Syira, please visit my Flickr account.

Seasonal Pumpkin Kibbeh

I’m in Miami visiting my family — we’re getting ready to go on a cruise, literally in a couple of hours, but first, I need to tell you about this delicious Pumpkin Kibbeh. It would be incredibly cruel if I kept this recipe to myself any longer. It’s amazing, and I don’t take that claim lightly.

mise en placemise_en_place

I actually packed some of the kibbeh I made for this blog post into my carry-on. I felt like my grandmother, who is incapable of visiting anyone without packing a feast into her luggage. I’m not exaggerating: she will show up with more food than clothes sometimes. She also refuses to rest; as soon as she settles in, she will find her way into the kitchen and begin to work her magic. I get my passion for cooking from her. I wrapped pieces of my Pumpkin Kibbeh in aluminum foil and bundled each parcel inside two plastic bags. I used my clothes for padding and made my way to the airport. This kibbeh merits a blog post.

pumpkinroasting pumpkin

Kibbeh is a classic Levantine dish that can be prepared several ways. The traditional kibbeh is prepared with extremely lean ground lamb kneaded with bulgur wheat (cracked wheat) until a dough is formed. The dough is stuffed with a fragrant filling of pine nuts and minced lamb seasoned with allspice, salt, pepper, and a tiny pinch of cinnamon. This is only one kind of kibbeh.

roasted vegetablesroasted vegetables

Legend has it that you can find 100 different kinds of kibbeh in Aleppo. That is why this ancient city in northern Syria is known as “the home of stuffed vegetables and kibab” (plural of kibbeh) — حلب أم المحاشي و الكبب. I’ve written a few blog posts on stuffed vegetables — swiss chard, eggplant, and grape leaves. Today, I want to focus on kibbeh, specifically the pumpkin kibbeh that I discovered at the beginning of my Fulbright. I arrived to Aleppo in early autumn of 2010. The blazing heat still carried over from the hot summer days, but nighttime brought with it a crisp, autumn breeze that swooped through the entire city. It was a beautiful time to be in Syria.

the dough: simple and colorfuldough ingredients

At that time I was living with my host mom, Tant Kiki, who prepared simple, but delicious meals. When she prepared this pumpkin kibbeh I am ashamed to say that I was not enthusiastic about eating it for lunch. When I asked what we were having, she said they were leftovers. Little did I know she had the powers to turn scrap vegetables into gold. You will never catch Tant Kiki letting any food go to waste; she gathered her unused vegetables and made this delicious kibbeh out of them. I ate my words. I thought it was the most delicious thing I had ever had.

beautiful colorthe dough

I made my kibbeh with eleven vegetables (I didn’t end up using the parsley). The beauty of this dish is that you can make it with almost any vegetables you can think of. Whatever you have in your fridge will work, just like Tant Kiki makes it. This is also a great way to use any leftover pumpkin from Halloween or Thanksgiving. I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as I did — I will see you when I get back from my cruise! Bon appetit and Happy (early) Halloween!

the bottom layerbaking dish
forming the kibbehforming kibbeh
butter, the finishing touchbutter on top
pumpkin kibbehpumpkin_kibbeh1
classic diamond shapekibbeh top

Pumpkin Kibbeh

yields 2 trays


  • 3 cups fine ground bulgur wheat (#1)
  • 3 cups fine semolina
  • 2 1/2 cups pumpkin puree
  • 2 red bell peppers, one diced, one chopped
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 2 large leeks
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 1 small pumpkin, peeled and diced
  • 4-5 carrots, peeled and grated
  • 1 lb crimini mushrooms
  • 1/2 head of cabbage, finely shredded
  • 1 eggplant, diced
  • 2 zucchini, diced
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
  • 1 stick of butter
  • Pine nuts, garnish
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Rinse and dry all the vegetables. Slice, dice, or grate the vegetables depending on the instructions on the ingredient list.
  2. Toss the peeled and diced pumpkin with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
  3. Begin by roasting the pumpkin in a 400 degree F oven because it takes the longest. Roast for 30-40 minutes or until a knife easily pierces the flesh. Set aside.
  4. Toss the eggplant, zucchini, carrots, and the minced garlic together with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast for 30 minutes in 400 degree F oven or until a knife easily pierces the flesh of the eggplant.
  5. In a large skillet, sauté the leeks, mushrooms, cabbage, green pepper, and the diced red pepper in olive oil over medium high heat until leeks and cabbage are soft, approximately 20-25 minutes.
  6. Deglaze the pan with some water, reduce heat to medium low, and add mix in the pomegranate molasses. Cook until the water evaporates and the sauce develops a syrup consistency.
  7. Set all the cooked vegetables aside and allow to cool to room temperature. You can also refrigerate them at this point and continue preparing the kibbeh tomorrow.
  8. Blend the chopped red pepper and onion in a food processor or blender until completely liquid. Combine the semolina, bulgur wheat, pumpkin purée, and liquified pepper and onion and knead until a dough is formed. You may need to add a couple tablespoons of water if the dough is still dry to the touch.
  9. Grease a large baking dish with butter.
  10. Flatten golf size pieces of dough on the bottom of the baking dish (1/4″) until the entire bottom is covered.
  11. Scatter the cooled vegetables over the bottom layer of dough.
  12. Repeat the process of flattening golf size balls of dough to cover the vegetables and create a top layer for the kibbeh. Don’t worry if there are seams.
  13. Once the top layer is covered, dip your hands in water and run your hand across the top of the kibbeh to flatten out any imperfections.
  14. Slice the kibbeh in the design that you prefer. Add a pine nut to the center of each piece for garnish.
  15. Melt the butter and seal the top of the kibbeh with a thin layer of butter. I used about a third to a half of stick per baking dish.
  16. At this point you can either freeze the baking dish or bake it immediately in a 400 degree oven for 20-30 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

Notes: If you don’t have pomegranate molasses you can season the vegetables with soy sauce to develop a deep flavor (it is not the same, but it is a nice variation). The filling for this dish is also versatile; feel free to use completely different vegetables for your kibbeh. Some people make the same pumpkin kibbeh dough, but fill it with the classic meat, onion, and pine nuts.


pumpkin kibbehpumpkin_kibbeh1

World Peace, a step in the right direction

It is difficult to write about my experiences in Syria knowing that the country is on the brink of civil war and chaos. It breaks my heart. I also realize that not writing anything won’t necessarily make things better, either. And giving up on my blog — the thing that used to bring me so much happiness — is the last thing I want to do.

mise en placemise_en_place

I want to keep today’s post short with the promise that I’ll be back again soon. I won’t disappear like I did before, you have my word. Thank you to all those who nudged me (physically and electronically) and encouraged me to continue writing. It may have taken me a while, but I’m here.

creaming processmixing

Today’s recipe is not one that I learned on my Fulbright in Syria, although I still have plenty of those to share with you, too. This is a recipe that I’ve come across many times on some of my favorite food blogs: World Peace Cookies. It even made it to Saveur’s list, Recipes that Rocked the Internet. Given all that is going on, I thought this was the perfect time to try such an alluring cookie.

sift for clumpssifting

Pastry Chef Pierre Hermé originally developed these cookies for a restaurant in Paris, and Dorie Greenspan introduced them to the world in her book, Paris Sweets . The original name for the cookies was Sables Korova, or Korova Cookies, named after the restaurant off Champs Élysées that Pierre Hermé created the recipe for. It was not until Dorie’s neighbor tasted these these ultra decadent, chocolate-intense cookies that the name changed to what we know today. Dorie’s neighbor was convinced that a daily dose of these is all that is needed to ensure planetary peace and happiness; thus the new name was born.

chocolate: the ‘peace’ in ‘world peace’adding_chocolate

I used Dorie’s recipe, except I took the liberty to add a pinch of orange zest to the dough; the combination of orange and chocolate makes my heart swoon. You could always leave that addition out if you’d like. The point is, these cookies are amazing any way you prepare them. They are crumbly and chocolatey and even if they don’t bring world peace immediately, I’m fully convinced, as was Dorie’s neighbor, that they are a step in the right direction.

refrigerate dough (in logs)logs
cookie doughcookie_dough
freshly bakedsheet_tray
World Peace Cookiesworld_peace_cookies1
cold milk: enabler of world peace world_peace_cookies2

World Peace Cookies

yields approx 36 cookies


  • 1 1/4 cups (175 grams) all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup (30 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 stick plus 3 tablespoons (11 tablespoons or 150 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup (120 grams) (packed) light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup (50 grams) sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 5 ounces (150 grams) bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips
  • zest of half an orange*(not in original recipe)

Putting them all together

  1. Mix together the butter and sugars in a stand mixer on medium speed until the mixture becomes pale and creamy. You can also use a hand mixer. Add the salt, vanilla extract, and orange zest and mix for a couple more minutes.
  2. Sift the flour, cocoa powder, and baking soda and add to the butter and sugar mixture. Pulse a few times at a low speed to incorporate the flour and prevent it from spilling. Add the chocolate chunks and mix on low speed for 30 seconds, or until the flour is fully incorporated. Do not overwork the dough; the dough should still look and feel crumbly. Divide the dough in two and form into logs approximately 1.5 inches in diameter. Roll each log in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours (you can refrigerate the dough for up to 3 days or freeze the dough for 2 months).
  3. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F (160 degrees C). Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  4. With a sharp thin knife, slice the logs into disks that are 1/2 inch thick. Don’t worry if the disks crack as you cut them, just squeeze the bits back together. Arrange the sliced disks on your baking sheets, making sure to leave about an inch between each cookie.
  5. Bake the cookies for 12 minutes. Note that they will still be soft and won’t look done, but that’s how they should be. Cool the cookies on a cookie rack and serve warm or at room temperature. Make sure to store leftover cookies (if there are any) in an airtight container.

Notes: Recipe adapted from Paris Sweets by Dorie Greenspan.


if not world peace, then happiness, for sureempty_glass

memories of Syria

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything on my blog — more than two months. I needed time to think. I needed time away from the place I had invested so many emotions into. I’m not sure if after all this thinking I know what to say, I just know I have to write what’s on my mind and in my heart.

I want to dedicate this post to the Syrian people. Not the anti-government or the pro-government camp. This post is not about taking sides or gaining political capital. Reports of what is happening in Syria are as conflicting as they are endless. I want to keep this post simple: this is about saying thank you to the Syrians who hosted me in their country with open arms. It’s about the friends I made and didn’t get to say goodbye to. It’s about the complete strangers who invited me into their homes to share a meal. It’s about remembering the Syria that is beautiful, kind, and loving. It’s about the Syria that gives endlessly without receiving.

I want to give special thanks to everyone in Aleppo, my home for seven months, and undoubtedly, Syria’s food capital. I will always keep memories of you in my heart, until forever.

لقد مرت فترة من الوقت منذ أن دونت شيئا، أكثر من شهرين.. احتجت الى الوقت لأفكر، وقتاً بعيداً
عن المكان الذي بذلت فيه الكثير من المشاعر، و لست متأكدا بعد كل هذا التفكير ماذا سأقول تحديدا، لكني اعلم أنني يجب ان أكتب ما يدور في قلبي و عقلي.
أريد أن أهدي هذه التدوينه للشعب السوري، ليس للموالاة او المعارضه -فقط الشعب- .. هذه التدوينه ليست للانحياز الى جانب ما، او نيل الرأسمال السياسي، التقارير التي تصلنا من سوريا متضاربه للغايه، لذلك أريد أن أُبقي الهدف من هذه التدوينة بسيطاً، هو القول شكرًا لجميع السوريين الذين استضافوني في بلدهم بأذرع مفتوحة، هو عن الأصدقاء الذين كسبتهم و لم يتسن لي فرصة وداعهم، هو عن الغرباء الذين دعوني الى منازلهم لمشاركتهم وجبة طعام، هو عن تذكر سوريا الجميلة، المعطائه و المحبه، عن سوريا التي أعطتني بلا حدود دون مقابل..
  أريد ان أوجه شكرًا خاصا لحلب، التي احتضتنتي لسبعة اشهر، المدينة التي بلا شك عاصمة الطعام السوري..
سأُبقي ذكرياتك في قلبي الى الأبد..
daily bread
proud mom
proud mom
hide & seek
campfire with friends
Aleppo at night
group shot
hiking in Syria
heart of gold
Syrian desert
fellow photographers
farmers market
farmers market
shopping in the souk
my favorite smoothie place
my *amazing* students
Syrian Jasmine (ياسمين سوري)