Food Is Where The Heart Is
For my great-grandmother: Even when things change, memories remain
Kibbeh Nabelsieh (Golden Ground Meat-Filled Bulgur Shells) & Zeitoon (Assorted Syrian Olives)
There’s a nook on the couch; a nook that everyone desires in the den in the house on East 5th Street with the Spanish-style roof. That block is the heart of the Syrian Jewish Community and five minutes from our apartment building on Ocean Parkway.
We visit, as others often do, my great-grandmother on Saturday afternoons. Planned or impromptu drop-bys. She squeezes us, pinches our skin — her way of saying I love you — and immediately offers us food.
Are you hungry?
After the first bite of kibbeh nabelsieh, I sprinkle the meat with lemon juice, savoring the blend of flavors; cumin and paprika and red pepper and kosher salt and a tinge of sour, all embedded within its bulgar wheat shell.
Zeitoon is placed before us as well, oozing with salt and oil and traces of lemon and spice. I like to let its bold taste linger on my tongue before discarding the pits.
She sits down and asks us what we are up to, sometimes in awe of our age. (After all, she does have several great-grandchildren to keep track of.)
I try to squirm my way into that nook on the couch at some point during our stay. When holidays ensue and all the cousins are here, it quintessentially becomes one cozy nest.
You’re so ugly, my great-grandmother says as we say our goodbyes. She echoes the same sentiment to my brother, too, and we can’t help but giggle because if you know her, you know what she really means. That we are nothing short of gorgeous.
Djaj Mishwi (Roast Chicken And Potatoes)
Every year, Passover seders are conducted in the dining room, which can seat approximately 30 dinner guests. White curtains majestically drape over the cushioned benches in the back; a portrait of my great-grandmother’s father-in-law hangs on the mahogany wood paneling. He was a highly-respected man in the community; he was a cantor in the synagogue and wrote celebratory religious songs.
In between reading each passage, spirited banter fills the room; a testament to the company we keep.
My great-grandmother is deeply rooted in tradition, in sephardic customs, and she ensures that the holiday rituals are followed. I glance over at her from time to time, noting her composed elegance, her delicate stoicism. I see her smile at the natural exuberance that ebbs and flows throughout the seder’s duration.
Once the haroset (Syrian-style haroset is comprised of dates instead of apples and is spread over matzah) is placed on the table, we know we are a step closer to the ‘festive meal.’
Djaj mishwi is a featured entree and Poopa Dweck, author of Aromas of Aleppo, The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, writes: “The potatoes in this dish are fried before they are added to the chicken. After absorbing the pan drippings, they become absolutely addictive. When the chicken is done roasting, one tradition is to cut it into eighths and serve it layered among the potatoes.”
Deal, New Jersey
Spanekh b’Jibn (Spinach-Cheese Frittata) & Sambousak (Buttery Cheese-Filled Sesame Pastries):
I smell the ocean as we drive up to the entrance of the condominium and unload our bags; my great-grandmother has a summer apartment along Jersey’s shore. She waits for us downstairs in the lavish lobby where the sun emits a golden glow across the white marble floor. And when we go upstairs to her apartment on the second floor, our feet walk across a soft, floral-patterned carpet.
We ooh and ahh over the exquisite lunch she prepares for us at the small kitchen table, and we catch up on our lives, on family and community and condominium updates, near the window that overlooks a quiet street near the water and a quaint church on the corner.
Spanekh b’jibn — a lightly browned quiche without the pie crust —melts in my mouth with its melted muenster cheese intertwined with spinach and chopped onion and egg. Sambousak — buttery sesame pastries filled with melted muenster cheese — is another Syrian delight that’s typically served during a midday meal or snack.
After we finish whatever’s left on our plates, we make our way to the guest room. Out comes the Banana Boat Lotion, the bathing suits, the noodles.
I’ll meet you downstairs and sit at the pool, she tells us. Let me get ready.
My great-grandmother is a social butterfly, admired in the community, adored and beloved by friends.
Laham b’ajeen (Miniature Tamarind Minced Meat Pies) & Rice with Keftes (Tamarind-Stewed Meatballs) & Yebra (Stuffed Grape Leaves with Apricots and Prunes):
I persistently comb through the tangles in my wet, curly hair after I shower, after I wash off the chlorine from my body. I stare at my reflection in the mirror, tan lines and a little sunburned, refreshed from an afternoon of swimming, floating, and walking the beach, the hot sand burning the bottoms of my feet.
I can already smell the Friday night meal that’s to come; my great-uncle and cousin arrive for Shabbat Dinner, too, and we sit in the living room as we wait.
Some kibbeh is ready to hold you over, my mom tells me.
My great-grandmother stands with us for the blessings; we tear off bits of challah bread and pass them down so everyone gets a piece. And then, we eat.
Grandma, are you going to sit down? my mom asks.
And she will. But for now, she still retreats to and from the kitchen, checking on the meat, on the various courses.
Laham b’ajeen — mini Syrian meat pies with a strong, tangy flavor, cooked with lemons, tamarind concentrate, ground allspice, kosher salt, and tomato paste — were served before the meal but are still part of the dinner spread, along with djaj mishwi, her famous white rice and keftes (a delectable tomato and tamarind meatball sauce), yebra, grape leaves stuffed with ground meat and rice, and a salad with crisp lettuce, ripe tomatoes, and a light vinaigrette.
“Yebra is the distinctively Aleppian version of the popular Mediterranean stuffed grape leaves,” Dweck writes. “Instead of using the lemon and garlic that accents the common Mediterranean version, Aleppian Jews flavor yebra with dried apricots and tamarind concentrate. The Aleppian Jews’ penchant for tangy and fruity dishes betrays the Persian influence on their cuisine. Unlike lemon-garlic stuffed grape leaves, which are almost always cooked on the stove top and are often served cold, yebra is served hot and may be cooked slowly in the oven to allow the apricots to melt and the ou (tamarind concentrate) to absorb into the hashu (the meat and rice filling).”
Baklawa (Pistachio Filla Wedges in Rose Water Syrup):
After dinner, we lounge in the living room; a room where sophistication is juxtaposed with comfort; a room with serene, salmon-colored walls. A small statue of Buddha is situated on the black coffee table — my great-grandfather traveled to China on business. My great-grandmother tells us stories about their life together, about her past. She’s seen a lot, endured a lot, survived a lot. Her voice could be likened to a lullaby, melodic and familiar.
With a lengthy scrabble game ahead of us and a Mets baseball game muted on television, she serves dessert, even though our stomachs are still quite full.
Eat, she insists.
I nibble on (parve) cake, fruit, and baklawa, a pistachio, syrup-filled pastry, that’s cut into little diamond shapes. The delicate filla is quick to crumble; this isn’t the neatest dessert to eat, but sometimes, the messier, the better.
I peer at my grandmother, renowned for her sweet tooth, as she compiles her own small plate of treats, patiently awaiting her turn in our scrabble game. She’s in it for the long haul.
Jibneh Shelal (Twisted White String Cheese with Nigella Seeds) & Ka’ak (Savory Anise-Seed Rings):
When the guest room is occupied, I sleep in my great-grandmother’s bed, though she turns in before me. The master bedroom captures her essence — graceful, polished, tranquil.
She drifts off to sleep with the television on low volume. I lie in bed listening to the hushed tones of news anchors, of The Cosby Show; sometimes, she wakes up and changes the channel.
When the sunlight pierces through the window, I know her side of the bed will be empty. It’s still early, but she’s up to start breakfast, to drink her coffee in solitude.
I make my way to the kitchen after everyone else; my cousin is already downstairs by the pool, perhaps indulging in an early swim, perhaps delving into one of her books.
And though I typically don’t have a hearty appetite for breakfast, it’s hard to resist smoked salmon (lox), jibneh shelal, twisted white string cheese with black nigella seeds, also known as “black cumin,” and ka’ak, seeded-crackers that can be dipped in coffee.
“Ka’ak has the texture and crunch of a breadstick, but it is ring-shaped with a crimped edge,” Dweck notes. “A staple of the Aleppian pantry, ka’ak is usually offered to guests when Aleppian Jews serve coffee or tea.”
How did you sleep? my grandmother asks as I pick apart string after string of Syrian cheese.
I tell her I slept well, and before we know it, she’s discussing what she’ll put out for lunch.
You really don’t need to worry about lunch, my mom chimes in. Maybe we can go to the coffee shop today?
Okay, she replies. You can see she’s itching to say more, though, and then out it adamantly comes: I’ll give you spanekh to take home.