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.

Archive for the ‘Middle Eastern’ Category

rice pudding, a great start to 2011

First post of 2011. Here it goes:

On the first day of the new year my aunt and I were invited to her brother’s house for a traditional Aleppan New Years lunch, Kibbeh b’Labaniyeh (كبة بلبنية): kibbeh balls slowly cooked in a creamy yogurt sauce finished with a saute of minced garlic; the garnish: fragrant flecks of dried mint and a sprinkle of spicy paprika; the taste: heavenly. This is the mac-and-cheese of Middle Eastern food — comfort snuggled in a bowl. Its character is similar to that of a stew, hearty and satisfying. Kibbeh b’Labaniyeh is popular across Syria and Lebanon in the cold winter months, however, Christian families across Aleppo serve this dish as a traditional lunch on New Years to symbolize a clean, pure start to the year ahead. I blogged about it before and included a recipe. You must try it while the weather is still cold.

kibbeh blabaniyeh (كبة بلبنية)
kibbeh blabaniyeh

The festivities in Aleppo, however, continue well past New Years day. This is something I thought was interesting and worth exploring. It makes sense that not everyone gets to spend the holidays with their extended network on the day of the actual celebration. That’s why in Aleppo families usually host small, relatively informal gatherings days after the holidays, in this case Christmas and New Years, where they invite friends and extended family they didn’t have the opportunity to be with. I went to a few of these gatherings with my aunt. Regardless of how informal these gatherings are, you can rest assured food is involved; in Aleppo, it always is.

Coffee, assorted nuts, chocolates, cake, tea, and spreads like hummus are usually the common denominator; these are things that are almost expected at these gatherings. My aunt’s sister-in-law, for example, presented the usual spread of starters, and also offered her guests a variety of her homemade fruit preserves, which included preserved walnuts, a preserve that takes over a month to prepare. Very few people still know how to make it properly (I’m working on a recipe).

I became inspired by these gatherings; a wonderful way to celebrate with everyone you love, regardless of the day. Since my aunt has five children, two who live abroad, and each with their own families, I proposed hosting a gathering at her place, and insisted I would help setup. My aunt, actually my grandmother’s sister, usually gets invited by her kids to spend time at their homes; I had a feeling she missed having them over at her house. Like a typical Halabiye (Aleppan), the first question she asked was, what should we make?

We decided that the star of the occasion should be rice pudding (رز بالحليب) to go along with the white theme.

My first job for this gathering was to buy the milk for the rice pudding. My aunt sent me to a dukan, or “small shop” in Arabic. Think of a dukan like a convenience store minus the slurpees and abundance of junk food. The dukan I visited sells olives, shankleesh (type of Middle Eastern cheese–see picture below), yogurt, milk, eggs, and other pantry staples.

milk, cheeses and pantry items

When I asked for milk, the first question I got was “how many kilos?”. I have never bought milk in kilogram before, only liters and gallons.

I first asked for three kilos of milk, unsure of how many kilos my aunt needed for the recipe. The milkman opened a large stainless steel cooler against the back wall of the dukan and with a big ladle, began to pour milk into a plastic bag. It didn’t look like a lot, so I asked if he could fill me up another bag with three additional kilos. This is fresh, unpasturized milk, which, the milkman told me, had to be boiled before use. I paid 120 Syrian pounds, approximately $2.50, for what turned out to be a gallon and a half of unpasturized milk (1 kilo of milk is approximately equivalent to 1 Liter).

mise en place
mise en place

The debate between short grain vs long grain when it comes to rice pudding is endless. A shorter grain has more starch and will yield a thicker, almost risotto-like, rice pudding, while the longer grain rice will retain its texture more and not give off as must starch into the milk. My aunt uses short grain or what they refer to in Aleppo as riz musry (رز مصري), or Egyptian rice.

short grain rice
short grain rice
give it a good rinse
rinse rice

Once the milk comes to a simmer, you add the rice into the milk, along with about 1 cup of water. The extra cup of water helps cook the rice better, according to my aunt, who says that it is meant to replace the water that evaporates during the cooking process. I feel that the extra cup of water also helps cut the richness of the milk.

in goes the rice
add rice
one for everyone
individual bowls
rice pudding (رز بالحليب)
rice pudding

Rice Pudding

yields approximately 8-10 servings


  • 1 cup short grain rice
  • 3 liters milk
  • 1 cup water, room temperature
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 Tbsp orange blossom water
  • ground cinnamon, garnish

Putting them all together

  1. Rinse rice in water 3-5 times or until water doesn’t turn completely a deep white from the starch.
  2. Bring milk to a simmer in a large pot over medium heat.
  3. Add rice, along with 1 cup of water, and lower heat to medium low.
  4. Stir occasionally in the beginning and more often as the rice cooks to avoid rice sticking or burning to the bottom of the pot.
  5. Cook for about an hour to an hour and 15 minutes, or until pudding reaches a consistency slightly thinner than desired — remember it will continue to thicken in the refrigerator.
  6. Add sugar and continue to cook for 5-10 more minutes.
  7. Remove from heat and add orange blossom water.
  8. Scoop into individual serving bowls, garnish with ground cinnamon and refrigerate for at least a few hours or until ready to eat.


eating rice pudding
Happy 2011*
shiny objects

*Photo Credit: Zaki Khanji

Sujuk, Armenian sausage, from scratch

There is something about making a dish completely from scratch that is wonderfully satisfying — a feeling of merited accomplishment. A mixture of happiness and relief. I’m sure this is true of most things, really, not just food. It comes with any craft you can pour your soul into. With food, you appreciate individual ingredients; you savor every ounce of effort that goes into preparing a dish. Something magical happens in the cooking process; a part of you, your essence, probably while you’re mixing ingredients and not particularly paying attention, dives into the bowl and adds that special something to the dish: warmth, brightness, love, something you can’t really put your finger on, but everyone knows it’s there.

In Syria, particularly Aleppo, wintertime means it’s time for sujuk, an Armenian sausage made with beef, lots of garlic and a mix of aromatic spices. Sujuk is bold; it’s a stick-to-your-ribs kind of sausage. And when it gets cold out, it’s what my heart and stomach crave. Yes, sujuk is pretty fantastic.

In Aleppo you can find sujuk all over the place. This is one of the culinary gems the Armenian community brought with them when they moved to Syria. One of my favorite places to eat sujuk outside of home is Shtoura. Shtoura, named after the Lebanese town, is a 24-hour fatayer place famous for their heavenly dough creations. I’m a regular there.

shtoura (شتورة) at 11:11pm

Nothing is better late at night than a couple Shtoura palm-sized pizzas topped with classic tomato sauce, liberal amounts of shredded mozzarella, and dotted with nuggets of spicy sujuk.

sujuk pizza
pizza suju

My aunt, luckily for me, makes her own sujuk at home. And to my surprise, it’s pretty simple, and actually borders on effortless. It’s a matter of combining a blend of spices with meat and allowing the mixture to air-dry in a cool place, away from any sunlight. Prep-time is no more than 15 minutes, tops. No sausage casings or fancy equipment necessary; my aunt stitches her own bags from scraps of cloth that are clean and have not been treated with scented detergent.

mise en place
mise en place
lots of garlic
spices: fenugreek, allspice, cumin, Aleppo pepper, salt

After asking a few of my Armenian friends in Aleppo, I’ve discovered that it is not common to add ground fenugreek to sujuk. If you can’t find fenugreek, you can certainly leave it out, however, I like the taste it adds to the sausage.

mix well
bags of sujuk

My aunt uses her balcony to air-dry her sujuk. She moves the rack of sujuk bags depending on the time of day to keep them away from any sunlight. Once the bags feel firm and dry to the touch, the sujuk is ready. This usually takes 3-5 days depending on the weather and the thickness of your sujuk bags.

Once they’re done drying, my aunt and I keep all the bags, except one, in the freezer and bring them down to the fridge as we go through them.

sujuk sandwiches

Sujuk is an extremely versatile sausage that you can eat any number of ways. It’s great over pizza or mixed into pasta sauce. It’s delicious with eggs for breakfast — a different take on the classic sausage and eggs. In Syria and Lebanon, however, it’s popular to make sujuk sandwiches with pita bread. The grease from the sausage melts over the heat and toasts the bread to a pleasant crisp. No extra butter or fat necessary; just good, homemade sujuk.

old school sandwich press
sandwich press

Sujuk Sausage

yields approx 1kg


  • 1kg ground beef, freshly ground
  • 2 Tbsp cumin, ground
  • 2 Tbsp allspice, ground
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp fenugreek (optional), ground
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp Aleppo pepper
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp salt
  • 1/4 cup garlic, minced

Putting them all together

  1. Mix all the ingredients together and refrigerate overnight.
  2. Stuff meat mixture into clean, porous stockings and let hang for 3-5 days in a cool, dry place away from any sunlight.
  3. Once pouches are dry and firm to the touch, remove from the hanging rod and store in the refrigerator — leftover pouches keep great in the freezer.

Notes:Make sure whatever you use to encase the meat is clean, but more importantly make sure it does not have any detergent scent. Sujok keeps great in the freezer. I bring down a pouch at a time from the freezer to the refrigerator as I go through it.


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!