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Archive for the ‘Middle Eastern’ Category

Mujaddara, my first post from Aleppo

I’ve had an incredible start to my Fulbright in Syria. It’s been almost two weeks since I arrived — a perfect time for a quick update.

My flight landed in Aleppo on Saturday night, around midnight. After 28 hours of traveling, door to door, I arrived at my grandmother’s sister’s house in Aleppo. Like a true Halabiye (Aleppan) she had a delicious spread of mezze laid out as soon as I walked through the door: muhammara (محمّرة), olives, pickles, homemade mortadella, hummus (حمص), labne (لبنة), zeit w za’atar (زيت و زعتر); I slept like a baby that night.

meet my grandmother’s sister
my grandmother's sister

I spent my first few days doing administrative things: I got a cell phone, registered at the University of Aleppo, exchanged currency. I took a bus down to Damascus to meet with the other Fulbrighters as well as the Fulbright committee here in Syria. We were all invited to dinner at a restaurant called Marmara where we got to meet the Syrian Fulbright students who are getting ready to study abroad in the US.

University of Aleppo, College of Literature and Humanities
University of Aleppo

I think I’ve already gained five pounds since I’ve arrived. It’s hard not to. Everyday I come across new recipes that I want to blog about. I walk as much as I could and take the stairs whenever possible. My grandmother’s sister, bless her heart, pulled me aside the other day and asked whether I had a phobia of riding the elevator. I told her I take the stairs so that I can eat more of her delicious food. I’m sure she will hold me up to this for the next nine months that I’m here.

why I walk and take the stairs
la7me el 3ajeen

The picture above is from a lunch I recently had at a friend’s house. The star of the meal was the traditional meat pizzas called lahm bil ajin (لحمة بالعجي). I will have to dedicate a complete blog post to these pizzas. They’re incredibly delicious and are an important part of Aleppo’s cuisine. There are small bakeries in Aleppo where you can prepare your own meat mixture, and the bakery will make dough and form all the pizzas for you. My friend’s mom prepared her meat mixture in the morning and sent my friend and I later that afternoon to pick up the prepared pizzas from the bakery. I posted a few photos from the bakery to my flickr.

Last Friday my grandmother’s sister prepared mujaddara for lunch. Mujaddara is a simple, but traditional Middle Eastern dish of rice and lentils. Some families make it with bulgur wheat, and in Egypt they add noodles to the rice and lentils, and serve it with a spicy tomato-based sauce. Egyptians call this dish Kosheri (كشري).

The same day I had mujaddara at my grandmother’s sister’s house, I visited two friends, and both their families had also made mujaddara for lunch. For families that abstain from eating meat on Friday’s, mujaddara is a quick and healthy vegetarian meal for the family.

I had photographed mujaddara before I left the States, but never got around to posting the photos on my blog. These photos are from then.

mise en place
mise en place
cover lentils with water
cover lentils with water
the more onions, the better
onion slices
fried onions
fried onions

Usually people will not fry the onions in extra virgin olive oil because it has a low smoking point. I prefer the taste of olive oil, so I take extra time to cook the onions over low heat for a long time until they become crisp. If you’re in a rush you can use canola oil or any relatively flavorless oil that has a higher smoking point.

cooked lentils
cooked lentils
Mujaddara (مجدّرة)

Pickles are traditionally served with the mujaddara. Saha w hana — bon appetit!


yields approx 4-6 servings


  • 1 cup lentils
  • 1 cups rice (or bulgur wheat*)
  • 6-8 onions, sliced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • water
  • salt, to taste
  • pickles, optional

Putting them all together

  1. Add sliced onions and olive oil in a large skillet. Cook over medium-low heat for an hour and a half, stirring occasionally. If you like them very crispy you can fry them in canola oil over high heat — this method takes considerably less time. Season onions with salt to taste.
  2. Wash lentils under cold water and remove any pebbles.
  3. Add lentils to a medium sized pot, and cover with water by 1 inch (approx 3 cm). Place lid on the pot and cook over medium heat for approximately 15 minutes, or until lentils are al dente. Important: do not add salt while the lentils are cooking. Adding salt at this stage will make the lentils grainy.
  4. After cooking the lentils, discard any leftover water (if there is any). Add 2 cups of water to the pot and bring to a boil.
  5. Add the rice (or bulgur wheat), season with salt, stir once, and cover the pot. Lower the heat to low, and cook for 15-20 minutes, the same way you always cook your rice.
  6. Continue cooking your onions until they are crispy to your liking (the crispiesr the better, in my opinion).
  7. Serve the mujaddara on a platter and top with the crispy onions. Serve with pickles.

Note: If you are in a rush, you can fry the onions at a higher temperature using canola oil. Thanks Samir for the tip to discard any leftover the lentil water before adding the rice.

Update (02/09/2013): Ever since I returned from Aleppo, I’ve been making my mujaddara with coarse bulgur wheat. I enjoy the flavor and texture more than the mujaddara with rice. You can find coarse bulgur wheat (often called Bulgur Wheat #3) at some Whole Foods or certainly in any Mediterranean market.


Disclaimer: The opinions I express in this blog are my own and do not reflect those of the Fulbright program.

My latest, favorite granola

Thank you for all the wonderful emails and congratulatory comments on my Fulbright post. I have a feeling this is going to be an incredible culinary journey that I hope we can take together — you and me, traveling through Syria. It’s going to be awesome. Just be sure to bring a hearty appetite (and definitely a pair of loose-fitted pants).

A few readers asked whether I will keep this blog or start a new one. My plan is to continue blogging here and tag my upcoming posts with a Fulbright tag for easy reference. Before I go abroad, however, since I can’t cook a huge dinner to thank everyone for their amazing support, although this is what my grandmother would insist on, I decided to give away my mamoul mold instead; my small way of saying thank you. This is the same mold I used for these mini mamoul cookies a while back.

To enter in the drawing, simply leave a comment about your latest, favorite recipe. This is the theme of today’s post. On September 15, before I fly to Syria, I will randomly select one commenter from this post and ship the mold to them, anywhere around the world.

traditional mamoul mold giveaway
mamoul mold

Even though I should probably be packing right now, I would feel terrible if I didn’t tell you about this delicious granola I’ve been making. I’ve tweeted about it a few times, and last night I made my third batch in less than a week. It’s so good, it makes me happy just writing about it.

I got this idea from Molly (via Twitter) after I posted a tweet about how much I love snacking on dates and almonds. She suggested I make a date and almond granola. I thought it was brilliant, so here I am, ready to pass on this gem of a recipe.

mise en place
mise en place

The original recipe comes from Epicurious, but I added my own Middle Eastern spin to it. I replaced the cashews with Aleppo pistachios (فستق حلبي) that I have in my freezer from a previous trip to Syria, and added a splash of orange blossom water to the mix. For my friends who are fasting during Ramadan right now, I think this would be a great recipe to prepare ahead of time for Suhoor (سحور). Suhoor is the meal that is consumed by Muslims at dawn, before fasting in daylight hours during the month of Ramadan. It is traditional to start Suhoor by eating dates as they are incredibly rich sources of energy and vitamins that help keep the body nourished throughout the day.

dates + almonds
dates and almonds

Chopping the dates and almonds is the only prep work necessary to make this granola. The rest is mixing ingredients together and baking them in the oven. This is part the recipe’s appeal.

dry ingredients
dry ingredients, except dates

The dates get added later, half-way into the baking process.

honey, butter, orange blossom water
honey and butter
ready to bake
granola goes into oven
date and almond granola
almond and date granola

Date and Almond Granola

yields approx 6 cups


  • 2 cups old-fashioned oats
  • 3/4 cup whole almonds, halved
  • 1/2 cup sweetened flaked coconut
  • 1/2 cup unsalted pistachios
  • 1/3 cup (packed) brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp orange blossom water
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 cup (packed) pitted dates, each cut crosswise into thirds

Putting them all together

  1. Preheat oven to 300°F.
  2. Mix first 7 ingredients in large bowl.
  3. Melt butter in the microwave and mix in the honey and orange blossom water, to combine.
  4. Pour the honey and butter mixture over granola mixture and toss well.
  5. Spread out mixture on baking sheet and bake 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  6. Add dates. Mix the granola to separate any large clumps.
  7. Continue to bake until granola is golden brown, stirring frequently, about 20 minutes longer. Let cool.

Notes: Recipe adapted from Epicurious. You can make this ahead and store in an airtight at room temperature for two weeks.


Although the granola is good on its own, my favorite way to enjoy it is sprinkled over a bowl of vanilla yogurt. The combination is heavenly. Enjoy!

best with yogurt
granola and yogurt

My Fulbright to Syria served with Eggplant Kababs

Today I want to share with you the beginning of a new stage in my life.

It started last year when I decided to apply for a Fulbright research scholarship. My proposal: to conduct an anthropological study of Syrian cuisine; specifically, lunch. My perspective is slightly biased since both sides of my family are originally Syrian, but I believe Syrian food is among the best in the region. This is particularly true in Aleppo — Syria’s second largest city and headquarters for the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy.

The title of my proposal was “Between Us, Bread and Salt.” This is a literal translation of an old Arabic proverb, بيناتنا خبز و ملح (baynaatna khobz w milah). I like what this proverb stands for and thought it made sense in the context of my research. Food brings people together. I chose to focus on lunch because it’s usually the biggest and most important meal of the day in Syria and most Mediterranean countries. Lunch is when friends and family get together to eat, laugh, and share everyday stories. I proposed to study lunch from three different perspectives: restaurant meals, home cooked meals, and street foods.

Now, fast forward about ten months. Ten very long months. In my mailbox one afternoon, I found a yellow, letter-sized envelope from the Institute of International Education. I knew what was inside. I immediately grabbed the phone to call my grandmother. I knew that regardless of the outcome, my sito would know the right things to say; she always does. I called her house and let her know I had the envelope in my hands. I was both nervous and eager; this was the moment I had been waiting for. I carefully ripped the corner of the envelope and slid my index finger along the seal, making sure not to tear the letter. That’s when I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I remember hearing my grandmother whisper a short prayer under her breath. I pinched the paper, and slowly pulled it out from the envelope. With my eyes barely open, I squinted and caught a glimpse of the phrase, “I am pleased to congratulate you.”

Fulbright Letter of Acceptance
Fulbright Letter of Acceptance

Even as I write this post today, it hasn’t sunken in yet. In a little over four weeks I need to be packed and ready to move to Syria for nine months to study food. I will be working with renowned Syrian food expert, Samir Tahhan (no relation) as well as members from the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy. I’m humbled. I owe a huge part of this amazing feeling to you, all the readers, who have encouraged me to continue blogging and pursue my dreams. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

I will try and write a couple more posts with more details before I start my Fulbright, but for now, I need to tell you about this pretty fantastic kabab recipe before summer slips away. It’s an Aleppan specialty. It’s called kabab banjan, or eggplant kababs.

mise en place
mise en place

I love recipes like this because they cannot get any simpler. Only three main ingredients. Before summer is over please promise me you’ll try this recipe, only because I promise you will fall in love with it (if you like eggplants, that is).

thick slices
thick eggplan slices

You’ll want thick slices of eggplant because of all the water they’ll lose. This will help the eggplant maintain their shape.

season your meat
season the meat
fire up your grill
grilling outdoors
beautiful char
charred eggplant

This is precisely the reason you want to be doing this outside, over an open flame. You just can’t develop a crust like this on a skillet. You can get a sear, sure, but the best flavor comes from the scorching flames directly underneath the kababs. That’s how the magic happens. You’ll start to hear a soft crackling sound while fat from the meat melts into the fire — that’s a good thing. The juices from the meat will also start to seep into the eggplants and your entire grilling area will start to smell like a huge plate of baba ganoush. It’s a wonderful experience.

the secret
add water to kabab

Aha! The secret. This dish, like most good dishes, comes with a secret. The original idea to make this dish came from a reader who wrote me an email asking why her recipe for kabab banjan does not have a pronounced eggplant flavor. I consulted with my grandmother, of course, and wrote back. After you’ve developed a good crust on the eggplant and meat skewers, you want to place the kababs in an oven-safe receptacle, pour a thin layer of water, cover with aluminum foil, and bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes. This gives time for the eggplant to finish cooking all the way through, and at the same time allows the meat to soak up more of the roasted eggplant flavor. This is also the perfect time to prepare a side of rice and set the table.

kabab banjan (كباب بنجان)
eggplant kabab

Enjoy what’s left of the summer — صحة و هنا (saha w hana) bon appetit!

Kabab Banjan

yields 6 servings


  • 1/2 kg 80-85% ground beef or lamb
  • 4 medium eggplants
  • salt, to taste
  • allspice, to taste
  • 8-10 skewers, preferably metal
  • roma tomatoes
  • pita bread

Putting them all together

  1. If you’re using wooden skewers, start by soaking them in water as directed by package.
  2. Rinse and dry the eggplants.
  3. Remove the tip of the eggplants, then slice into thick, even slices (approx 1.5in. thick).
  4. Season the eggplant with salt and a drizzle of olive oil.
  5. Season the ground beef with salt and allspice (freshly ground, if possible).
  6. Divide the meat into even patties, approximately the same diameter as the slices of eggplant.
  7. Alternate between eggplant and meat patties on the skewers. If there is any leftover meat or eggplant, you can skewer it by itself.
  8. Skewer whole roma tomatoes.
  9. Cook the eggplant-kabab skewers over a hot grill until you get an even char on all sides.
  10. Roast all the tomato skewers until they are evenly charred as well.
  11. In a large oven-proof container, pile all the eggplant-kababs and top with the roasted tomatoes. Add between a 1/4 and 1/3 cup of water to the pan — you want to make sure there is a thin layer of water covering the bottom of the pan.
  12. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake in a 350 degree oven for 20-30 minutes.
  13. Serve with rice or pita bread and enjoy.


I want to dedicate this post to everyone who helped and guided me throughout the Fulbright application process. I could not have received this prestigious award without your generous support. Thank you:
Dr. Stefan Senders, Fulbright advisor, for your inspiration and for being a wonderful mentor. Mrs. Elizabeth Edmondson, coordinator of the Fulbright program at Cornell University, for your support, kindness, and delicious recipe for Jamaican Cock Soup. Dr. Jane Fajans, for exposing me to the field of food anthropology and advising me on my research. Dean Maria Davidis, for always encouraging me as an undergraduate and being there to talk food. Dr. June Nasrallah, faculty advisor for the Lebanese Club at Cornell, for supporting my culinary endeavors. Dr. Feryal Hijazi, professor of Arabic at Harvard University, for helping me improve my Arabic. I want to thank the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy for setting me up with a terrific mentor, Mr. Samir Tahhan, and offering me the resources to explore the best of Syrian cuisine. I also want to thank everyone at the Institute of International Education for making the Fulbright possible.
Thank you!

The Arabic PB&J: Tahini and Grape Molasses

This is how quickly May flew by:

Boston Lights
boston lights

One of the exciting things I did last month was go hiking. It was my first time (ever), so my excitement was also met with equal part anxiety. My friend and I drove out to Shenandoah despite the scattered thunderstorm warnings and started hiking around 4pm. By sunset we were hours away from the trail head with nothing but our camera gear, granola, flashlights, a snake kit and a can of bear spray. By the time I realized how deep we were in the woods, I was pretty sure we were going to be eaten by a family of hungry bears. I should also state, for the record, that my friend wasn’t as worried. He’s an experienced hiker from Colorado who got a kick out of hearing me shriek every time I heard a branch fall in the distance or spotted deer eyes staring at us from deep inside the forest. It was creepy, but I had a great time — particularly since we didn’t die.

poor bunny probably thought I was going to eat it
shenandoah bunny

In the spirit of summer and quick snacks that don’t require turning on a hot oven, I decided to blog about the Middle Eastern version of the ubiquitous peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If you are a fan of the pb&j, you must try this version made with tahini (طحينة) and grape molasses (دبس عنب). It’s fantastic. Same concept, sweet and savory, but the flavors are more intense and delicious!

mise en place
mise en place
grape molasses
grape molasses

Regular molasses is a sweet syrup that’s a byproduct from processing sugar cane into sugar. That’s not the molasses you want to use for this dish. In the Middle East they make different flavored molasses made from carob (خرنوب), grapes (عنب), pomegranates (رمان) and dates (تمر). Some people use carob molasses for this dish, but I find that it has a bit of a bitter taste to it. In Iraq they make this dish with date molasses. My preference is grape molasses, which is sweet and has just the right amount of tartness without being too sour.

Food Art: Tahini and Molasses (دبس و طحينة)
Tahini and Molasses

If you want to be fancy, you can drizzle a nice pattern over the tahini with the grape molasses. Guests can then use their a piece of pita bread to mix the tahini and molasses together before eating.

swish, swoosh, eat!
dunk bread

Tahini and Molasses

yields 1 serving


  • 2 tbsp tahini
  • 2 tbsp grape molasses*
  • warm pita bread

Putting them all together

  1. Mix tahini and grape molasses together and server with warm pita bread.

Notes:Do not use regular molasses because it is too bitter. The ratio of tahini to molasses is usually 1 to 1, but if you want a sweeter mix add more molasses and if you find it too sweet add more tahini.


Saha w Hana (صحة و هنا) — bon appetit!
the last bit

Middle Eastern Dumplings

Two weeks ago my immune system decided, all on its own (bless its heart), to wage war against pollen. Me against a militia of relentless yellow, practically invisible, warriors on a mission to spread and procreate. It was like a cheesy action movie. The kind where the one good guy goes up against hundreds of bad guys and kicks all their butts, blindfolded and with one hand tied behind his back; except my butt was handed to me. I was a miserable mess — puffy eyes, congested, endless sneezing, light headed, the works.

While I was out with allergies, this post took a back seat. It shouldn’t have, because this dish is pretty fantastic, healthy and delicious. It’s a post dedicated to Middle Eastern dumplings called Kbeibat (pronounced: k’beh-baat — كبيبات). This was the first time I made them without my grandmother, but she was there the entire time, over the phone, walking me through every step.

mise en place
mise en place

The dough for the dumplings is fairly basic: bulgur wheat, semolina and water. My first attempt at making the dough, however, was a complete disaster. Not only did my camera run out of batteries mid-shoot, but the dough was a nightmare as far as doughs go: a big sticky mess. According to my grandmother, I over-soaked the bulgur and added more water when I clearly didn’t need to. What was I thinking? I blame the allergies.

the dough starts with bulgur wheat
bulgur wheat

As long as you don’t over-soak your bulger, you’ll be fine. You want the water to cover the bulger wheat by about an inch. After about 15-20 minutes, discard any remaining water from the bulgur and mix with the semolina flour to make the dough. Usually, there will be little, if no water left to drain. My mistake was I kept adding more and more water, which is what ended up saturating the bulgur wheat in the first place.

meat filling
filling for dumplings

If you remember when I blogged about kefta kabobs, the filling for these dumplings is the same: ground beef, onions, parsley, ground allspice and salt. Since we’re not adding any extra fat and we’re boiling these dumplings, you’ll want to make sure to buy a fairly fatty selection of ground beef. 85% works great for this dish.

dumpling workflow
dumpling workflow

Things to do while forming dumplings: watch a movie, listen to a podcast/audiobook, or invite friends who enjoy cooking and have them help. It makes the entire process go by a lot quicker.

step by step
step by step

Tip: Use ice-cold water to help keep the dough from sticking to your hands.

cook in simmering water
cook in simmering water

Dumplings cook in 4-6 minutes. Enjoy!

Kbeibat (كبيبات)


yields approx 36 dumplings


  • 1 cup bulgur wheat, #1 grind (fine)
  • 2 cups fine semolina flour
  • water, for dough
  • 1 lb ground beed, 85%
  • 2 medium onions
  • 1 cup flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp allspice, ground
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. Soak the bulgur wheat in enough water to cover the surface by a couple of centimeters to an inch, no more.
  2. Let bulgur wheat sit for at least 15-20 minutes.
  3. In the meantime, prepare the meat mixture by mixing together the grated onion, parsley, allspice and salt* with the ground beef.
  4. Mix the bulgur wheat with the semolina and start to add 1-2 tablespoons of water at a time until the dough comes together. The consistency should be a little sticky and moist, but neither wet nor dry.
  5. Season the dough with salt.
  6. Cover dough in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator until ready to use.
  7. Fill a bowl with ice-cold water before you start making the dumplings*.
  8. Rub a little water on your palm where you plan to form the dumpling.
  9. Press an even disk of dough, about 2 inches wide, on your palm.
  10. Carefully transfer the disk onto the cup of your hand, fill with meat, and crimp along the edges.
  11. Keep the formed dumplings separate on a large sheet tray lined with parchment paper (or lightly coated with oil) to prevent them from sticking.
  12. Bring a medium sized pot of water to a simmer and sprinkle with salt (as you would when you’re making pasta).
  13. Boil the dumplings for 4-6 minutes in batches.

Notes: You can check the raw meat for seasoning by searing a tiny piece on a skillet. By keeping your hands moist while working with the dumplings it will help keep the dough from sticking to your fingers.


صحة و هنا — Bon Appétit
bon appetit