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.”
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.
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).
You’ll want thick slices of eggplant because of all the water they’ll lose. This will help the eggplant maintain their shape.
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.
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.
Enjoy what’s left of the summer — صحة و هنا (saha w hana) bon appetit!
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
- If you’re using wooden skewers, start by soaking them in water as directed by package.
- Rinse and dry the eggplants.
- Remove the tip of the eggplants, then slice into thick, even slices (approx 1.5in. thick).
- Season the eggplant with salt and a drizzle of olive oil.
- Season the ground beef with salt and allspice (freshly ground, if possible).
- Divide the meat into even patties, approximately the same diameter as the slices of eggplant.
- Alternate between eggplant and meat patties on the skewers. If there is any leftover meat or eggplant, you can skewer it by itself.
- Skewer whole roma tomatoes.
- Cook the eggplant-kabab skewers over a hot grill until you get an even char on all sides.
- Roast all the tomato skewers until they are evenly charred as well.
- 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.
- Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake in a 350 degree oven for 20-30 minutes.
- 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.