Sunday, May 21, 2017

Syrian Cooking Lesson

Phyllo spinach triangles
One of my great joys is learning about the different cuisines and related food cultures in this world. I do this reading lots of cookbooks and by taking lessons at good cooking schools in Paris and New York. I enjoy getting to know different cultures by studying (and eating and cooking) their amazingly varied cuisines.

Last week I went with my friend Cochonette to an excellent cooking lesson on Syrian cooking at ICE Institute for Culinary Education, now located way downtown just across the street from the Freedom Tower. The teacher was Jennifer Abadi, who introduced me to Persian cooking at a lesson four years ago and kind of got me started on Middle Eastern Food. Jennifer is of Syrian Jewish heritage, and has written a wonderful book, A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie's Kitchen, and maintains a very interesting blog on related culinary matters, Too Good to Passover. I have used many recipes from both, and correspond with Jennifer from time to time.

The title of the lesson was "A Fistful of Lentils," and all the dishes we made were from recipes in the book. All were delicious and none was technically difficult, although we had to rush to make the many dishes covered by the lesson.

Jennifer started with an interesting explanation of Syrian (particularly Jewish) food culture and history, placing it into geographical context, and including the migration of Syrian Jews to America in the early 20th century. Then we cooked seven dishes, which I will describe in the order of a meal. We started with a series of maaze (small plates) (this and all references will use the Syrian spelling, although there are many variations in the region). First up was baba ganush:

Baba ganush
Next was im'warah b'sbanech (phyllo spinach triangles), made with no cheese or meat, and smaller and more delicate than the Turkish and Greek varieties. See picture above.

And cheeyar b'bandoorah sa'lata (chopped cucumber and tomato salad with dried mint) (no photo) that was pretty much what you'd find in a Turkish restaurant.

There followed two main courses. The first, kibbeh fil seeniyah b'lah'meh (meat-filled pie), is the cake-shaped version of kibbeh, balls of meat stuffed into a thin meat crust, that are ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cuisine. It has the bonus of being much much easier to prepare than kibbeh balls, which are notoriously difficult. (For a wonderful digression on the mystique surrounding great kibbeh, see Claudia Roden's encyclopedic The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.)

Meat-filled bulgur pie
The other main dish was kibbeh m'geraz (meatballs and sour cherries), which showcased the Syrians' love for tart and sweet, very different from the Italians' agrodolce or the sweet and sour cabbage cooked by the Eastern European Jews . . .

Meatballs and cherries - my photo doesn't do it justice
. . .  accompanied by m'jedrah (rice with lentils) with yogurt-mint dressing: simple but delicious.

Rice with lentils
Finally, the pièce de résistance: knaffeh (shredded phyllo-ricotta pie), a  light, heavenly rose water-infused filling in a two-crust pie made with kataifi, shredded phyllo and covered with rose water syrup and chopped pistachios. I can't wait to have people to dinner to share this fabulous dessert, which has the subtle sweetness of an Italian cheesecake with a taste straight out of the Arabian Nights. In the word(s) of a late friend, FA-BU-LOUS!

Shredded phyllo-ricotta- pie
Get A Fistful of Lentils and try Syrian Jewish cuisine. Now.

Bobby Jay

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