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Archive for the ‘meat’ Tag

In Defense of Local Butchery

The first time I visited an actual butcher — the kind not inside a grocery store — was when I lived in Aleppo. I was 24. It took traveling halfway around the world to watch a professional meticulously break down an animal. It was both horrifying and intriguing. There were meat carcasses hanging around me while I struck up a conversation with Yasser, the head butcher, over a cup of freshly brewed Turkish coffee. It was such a surreal experience that I wrote about it on my blog. The irony, of course, is that this approach to butchery is much closer to the actual source of meat than anything we’re used to finding at a grocery store.

I’m not vegetarian, but I care about meat. I care about how animals are raised. I care about their welfare. I care about what Michael Pollan describes as, their “creaturely character.” Happiness for any animal, he explains, stems from their opportunity to express their essential “pigness” or “wolfness” or “chickenness.” In his piece for New York Times Magazine, An Animal’s Place, Pollan asserts that “for domesticated species, the good life […] cannot be achieved apart from humans –- apart from our farms and, therefore, our meat eating.”

Michael Pollan is one of my favorite food writers. If you care about meat (or food in general), you should read his work. In this particular piece, Pollan interrogates his own practice of eating meat. He thoughtfully examines the moral and ethical qualms of slaughtering animals for food. This careful introspection is something most vegetarians have worked though. The meat we find in most grocery stores is processed and packaged to barely resemble the animals it came from. This disconnect is intentional. If only we knew the reality of how most of our meat is processed, more of us would probably be vegetarian.

The issue of meat production is complex. It’s tied to socio-economic issues, health, the environment, and many other facets of our lives. Access to inexpensive, low-quality meat has triggered a public health criss in the US. Why would someone buy fresh vegetables when a hamburger and fries with a soft drink is less expensive and more convenient? Meat across the Middle East, for the most part, is still relatively expensive compared to vegetables, grains, and legumes, which are plentiful and cheap.

Ever since I moved back to the US, I go out of my way to buy meat from local farms. Not only does the meat taste better, but it’s important to support local farmers who work hard to raise animals sustainably and with compassion. Parts & Labor is a local restaurant and butchery in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood that’s committed to sustainable, whole-animal butchery. This means they buy whole animals from local farms, break them down in-house, and use as much of the animal as possible. The menu development process at Parts & Labor relies heavily on use of the whole animal. Wyatt Jaster, butcher at Parts & Labor explains, “we use trotters (pig feet) to thicken a sauce used on one of our sandwiches. Another dish we are very proud of is our crispy pork rind. It took a lot of trial and error to get that just the way we wanted it.” Whole animal butchery is important because it fully honors the sacrifice of a living creature. Additionally, it reduces waste and introduces consumers to a variety of products that they might have otherwise overlooked or not known about.

Parts & Labor
Parts & Labor
Committed to local, sustainable butchery
Committed to local, sustainable butchery
curing room at P&L
curing room at P&L

Parts & Labor opened their doors in April of 2014 in a space that used to be an auto body and tire shop. From steaks to homemade sausage and cured meats, the butchers at Parts & Labor pride themselves on seam butchery, a classic French technique of breaking down animals following the natural seams of muscles. Parts & Labor is the sister restaurant to Woodberry Kitchen, both of which are owned by James Beard award-winning chef and restauranteur, Spike Gjerde. Spike and and his entire team are committed to a local, sustainable culture of cooking and eating.

tending to the smoker
tending to the smoker
smoking pit
smoking pit

A couple weeks ago, I asked the team of butchers at Parts & Labor for ground lamb without any fat so that I can prepare kibbeh nayye, the Middle Eastern version of lamb tartare. If you’re going to prepare kibbeh nayyeh, which literally translates to raw kibbeh, you want to make sure you work with a local butcher shop that sources their meat from reputable farmers. It’s incredibly important that the lamb is fresh with as little fat as possible. Parts & Labor sources their lamb from Shenandoah Valley Lamb, a local co-op composed of small farms in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

fresh lamb
fresh lamb

I was excited to go behind the scenes at Parts & Labor to recreate a similar experience I had while living in Syria. I shadowed Wyatt, who worked with his team to break down three lamb they had received that day. I also got a tour of their curing room, where they age all the salumi, which they prepare in-house.

If you’re not a vegetarian, it’s important to examine where your meat comes from. What conditions are the animals raised in? Are they treated with excessive use of antibiotics? Meat from a local butcher or a farm is more expensive, but that’s only because we live under the illusion that meat is an industrial commodity that can be produced cheaply and in large quantities. That’s simply not true. I want to thank the team at Parts & Labor for their commitment to local, sustainable practices and for allowing me shadow them for an afternoon. Stay tuned the kibbeh nayyeh recipe next week!

pulling lamb suet (hard white fat)
pulling lamb suet (hard white fat)
heavy machinery
heavy machinery
lamb cavity
lamb cavity
lamb breakdown
lamb breakdown
Manuel, 30 years of experience
Manuel, 30 years of experience
teamwork: Manuel splits the chest cavity
Wyatt debones leg of lamb
Wyatt debones leg of lamb
Parts & Labor
Parts & Labor

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


yields 6 servings


  • 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.


Mortadella, an Aleppan variation

Almost every lunch, dinner, or formal event in Aleppo begins with an endless spread of mezze. Tabletops brimmed with plates of appetizers. Hummus and Muhammara. Labne and cured olives. Roasted nuts and homemade pickles. These are some of the popular ones. There is also yalanjii, vegetarian stuffed vegetables, which I still have to blog about. Every family has their favorites, their own style of hosting, but the common theme is abundance. The food should appear endless — this is the unspoken rule of Middle Eastern hospitality. You’d be hard pressed to find a gap between the plates.

A popular mezze in Aleppo is the Mortadella Halabiye, or Aleppan Mortadella. Not to be confused with the popular Italian cured meat, Aleppan Mortadella is much smaller in size and is blanched, not cured. Also, Italian Mortadella is made from pork, whereas the Aleppan version is made with either beef or lamb. On a couple of occasions, however, I’ve seen chicken varieties, as well.

Aleppan Mortadella is usually served as a starter as part of a spread of mezze — leftovers go into sandwiches. This is how my aunt taught me. You take fresh bread — pita or baguette — add a liberal shmear of hummus, cover with slices of Aleppan Mortadella, fanned out, and voilà. It’s that simple. If you add some muhammara to the sandwich, even better; it gives it a spicy contrast, not enough to make you cry though, just smile.

Now, to make Aleppan Mortadella, you want to start out with kaak (كعك), a Middle Eastern kind of bread stick that is incredibly crunchy and usually served alongside tea. Middle Eastern or Mediterranean stores should have it. If you can’t find kaak, however, you can use breadcrumbs; ultimately, its goal is to bind the mortadella.

kaak (كعك)
Middle Eastern style breadcrumbs
middle eastern bread crumbs
mise en place
mise en place

The next ingredient is the habra, which is basically very lean meat, essentially fat-less. A good habra should have no fat. I’ve blogged about it before. Habra is the basis of all kibbeh, which makes it readily available at any butcher in the Middle East. In the States, however, I usually ask my butcher to ground for me top-round beef, with all its fat removed. My butcher even goes the extra length to ground my meat early in the morning, before they ground any other meat, so that fat inside the machine doesn’t get into my habra. Then, once I get home, I process the meat in my food processor with a few ice cubes until a paste is formed — that’s all habra is.

The rest is mixing the ingredients together.

seasoned mixing

I noticed my aunt doesn’t mix the ground kaak with the meat all at once, only handfuls at a time. The reason being you might not need it all. The best mortadella, she told me, is made with as little kaak as possible. Only mix in as much as you need. The goal is a mixture that barely comes together and holds its shape.

oh, there’s garlic, too
add the pistachios into the center

The reason for not mixing the pistachios in the beginning is so that they remain in the center of the mortadella. This is for presentation purposes.

cover and into the fridge
some apple cider vinegar
cooking mortadella
Aleppan Mortadella (مرتديلا حلبية)
Aleppan Mortadella

Aleppan Mortadella

4-5 logs


  • 500g habra
  • 1/2 cup kaak, grated*
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup unsalted pistachios
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 Tbsp allspice, ground
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 8 cups water, for blanching
  • 2 cups apple cider vinegar
  • ice water, for forming the mortadella
  1. Prepare habra, the lean meat that comes from the top-round.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the habra, ground kaak (or breadcrumbs), minced garlic, sliced garlic, and egg, until well incorporated.
  3. Divide the meat mixture into 4 to 5 equal pieces.
  4. To form the mortadella: flatten a piece of the meat mixture, sprinkle with pistachios, fold closed, and form into a smooth log. Use ice water to smooth the meat mixture if you feel that it is a bit sticky.
  5. Refrigerate until ready to blanch (can be done a day in advance).
  6. Prepare the blanching liquid by mixing 4 parts water to 1 part apple cider vinegar.
  7. Bring the blanching liquid to a simmer.
  8. Add the mortadella and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes or until the middle is no longer pink.
  9. Refrigerate until ready to eat.


hummus + muhammara + mortadella = best friends
muhammara hummus, and mortadella

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
  • 1/4 cup garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp cumin, ground
  • 2 Tbsp allspice, ground
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp fenugreek (optional), ground
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp Aleppo pepper
  • 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp kosher salt

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.


My trip to the butcher

Disclaimer: If you are squeamish about meat, this post is probably not for you.

A few weeks ago I made my first trip to an authentic butcher shop. The real deal; the kind with massive meat carcasses hanging in a cooler and a collection of knives that look like they belong in the set of a horror film. It was awesome (in the culinary sense); a-kid-in-a-candy-store experience. I had my DSLR around my neck and a grin that stretched from ear to ear.

my first visit
first visit to butcher

On my first trip to the butcher I tagged along with my grandmother’s sister (aunt, from here on out) and our neighbor. Before we left the house, my aunt made a phone call to Yasser, the butcher, to let him know we’re on our way. The phone call was short and ordinary; the kind you would have with a good friend or relative to let them know you’ll be swinging by later.

Our neighbor met us downstairs and the three of us got into a taxi and headed to the Meedan distric of Aleppo (approximately a 5-minute cab ride from where we live). On the ride there my aunt explained to me how Yasser has been the family butcher for the past ten years. Yasser, she said, used to have his shop down the street from where she lived until he relocated to the Meedan district about three years ago. She reminisced about the days when she used to walk a few steps to his shop from her apartment. Despite the number of butchers that surround her neighborhood, she told me almost all of Yasser’s customers followed him to the Meedan district and, to this day, continue to buy their meat from him.

Once we reached the center of the Meedan district, my aunt began to guide the driver through a maze of narrow roads called haras (حارة). These are roads that have been preserved from the olden days, before there were cars. Taxi drivers here are experts at swooshing through these slim passages. After a couple of these turns, my aunt signaled the driver to stop.

We made it.

As the taxi driver disappeared into the distance, I walked onto the sidewalk and followed my aunt and our neighbor into the butcher shop. The shop is small, maybe the size of a two-car garage, but not bigger. Yasser and his assistant, Ismail, looked up from their work and greeted us like family.

meet Yasser, our amazing butcher
sharp knife is key
attention to detail
attention to detail

There were two ladies sitting by the entrance as we walked in, waiting for their meat. Nothing here is pre-ground or pre-sliced, Yasser explained. All the meat is prepared to order. Yasser is not only a seasoned butcher, but also knows a lot about cooking, too. Take ground beef, for instance; depending on what you want to prepare, Yasser knows how many times to pass the meat through the meat grinder and how much fat to grind with the meat. He’s amazing.

freshly ground meat
freshly ground meat
fat cubes to skewer between kababs
here to help
here to help
nothing goes to waste

Now that I learned the way to Yasser’s shop, I’ve become a regular. Whenever I go, I am welcomed like family. Yasser and Ismail offer me coffee and tea and ask me about my research and stay in Aleppo. They’ve already invited me to their slaughterhouse, if I’m interested, but that will have to be for another blog post.

The reason I decided to write about my trip to the butcher is not to gross people out or have PETA boycott my website. Quite the opposite. This trip to Yasser’s shop shows an important, and often overlooked, aspect of cooking. It reflects the connection that locals have to their food and where it comes from. More importantly, it highlights the foundation of a rich food culture that is built on quality ingredients and positive relationships.

Note: I have a backlog of blog entries that I plan to post real, real soon. Thank you for all the wonderful emails and comments on my blog. I’m having an amazing time in Syria and I’m glad I have the opportunity to share it with everyone through my blog. If you would like to follow me through other channels, I post photos and updates regularly on my Facebook page and Twitter.