26 November 2007

Book: Aromas of Aleppo - Syrian Jewish cuisine

There are many aspects to family history research; food is only one, but it is certainly a major focus. The traditions of our ancestors continue today, whether as everyday comfort food or holiday specialties.

I've just received the beautifully photographed volume, "Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews," by Poopa Dweck, a first generation Syrian-American who lives in Deal, New Jersey, home to a large Syrian Jewish community.

She realized that these recipes were not being written down, were in danger of being lost, and set out to document them for future generations. In addition to history and recipes, the book is generously filled with photographs.

The large-format book is written with love by an author who cares deeply about her community's unique customs and cuisine, and invites others to learn the history and partake of these delicacies. The photographs - many from the Sephardic Community Center Archives - include family documents and Quentin Bacon's amazing culinary photography.

Some 180 recipes make up what is billed as "an extraordinary collection of the culinary treasures and intriguing customs" of this ancient community.

I'm devouring every page.

A detailed community history documents its ancient roots from King David, the Byzantine Empire, Mongol invasions, arrival of Sephardim from Spain, the Inquisition, the Ottoman Empire and after, and the contemporary community in the US, Israel and throughout Latin America (Caracas, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires and Panama City).

Dweck writes:

"The Aleppian Jews have remained a close-knit people, emigrating from Syria and forming strong communities in Israel and the Americas. Even more remarkable, the third and fourth generations born in these lands have defied assimilation. Their ties transcend national boundaries: A New York Aleppian could walk into the home of his Panamanian cousin and breathe in the same enchanting aromas that he knows well from his mother's Brooklyn kitchen."

Before she even gets to the recipes, Dweck describes the market aspect of the cuisine. In this, as in Iranian cooking, meals revolve around what is in season and the best quality ingredients. Not surprisingly, the Jewish Aleppo cuisine benefited from the trade and immigration between Persia and Syria.

There's a very interesting section on the reputation of the Aleppian women and their reputation for organization and presentation. In Yiddish, we'd use the term balebusta. In this community, this quality is known as suffa, the highest of compliments.

As in most Mediterranean cuisines, appetizers are maza, small dishes served in variety, and Dweck includes breads, spreads, stuffed bites and pickles. Each recipe throughout the book is accompanied by explanatory and very interesting text, technique illustrations and notes. Recipes are well written and easy to follow.

My favorites are too many to list, but in the unique appetizer category, there are kuaisat, pistachio, egg or garlic-mint filled rolls of ground beef that are cooked, sliced, drizzled with the juices and served up. Beautiful to the eyes and the tastebuds.

As far as grain, vegetable and soup recipes, I learned a new variation on my Italian beans sauteed in tomato with garlic, and will try the Aleppian braised beans with allspice and garlic, called fawleh. Syrian meatballs are really kibbeh, meat-stuffed shells eaten (fried) on their own or added raw to soup where they simmer to perfection.

The rice is similar to Persian (with high marks given to fluffy and separate long grains in both cuisines), except that the Aleppian version requires the rice to be fried lightly before liquid is added, and I also learned that - like the Persian crispy golden rice delicacy tahdig - the same Syrian treat is a'hata.

One rice dish begging to be tried is white rice mixed with brown lentils and lots of frizzled caramelized onions.

The meat section includes stuffed vegetables, meatballs stewed with tamarind or sweet cherry, stews, kabobs and sausages, as well as the Middle Eastern penchant for brains, tongue and sweetbreads.

The cherry-stewed meatballs, made with canned sour or sweet cherries, look delicious: kebab garaz was served over flatbread; today it is served with rice.

I could go on for the book's 388 pages, but wanted to mention the roast chicken stuffed with almond, pistachio and pine nuts, ground beef, allspice and cinnamon. The fragrance seemed to float off the printed page.

The three-page recipe list for sweets and desserts gives readers some hint at how important this is in Syrian Jewish social life: Fila delights in rose syrup, deep-fried cheese-stuffed pancakes, wedding cookies, pastries and puddings abound, along with candied vegetables and fruits, pastes and special drinks.

The last section is an insider's guidebook to holidays and life-cycle events explaining community customs. Dweck has done a great service for her community.

While I didn't need the comments of major cookbook writers (Claudia Roden, Mario Batali, Phyllis Glazer and Ana Sortun) to tell me this is a great book, their words wee most complimentary. Roden says the cuisine of the Jews of Aleppo was considered the "pearl of the Arab kitchen," while the Italian Batali, who had no frame of reference for this cuisine, writes about the "magnificent food in this spectacular tome" and that he loves "every single dish and photo in this book." Glazer comments that "Dweck's book will help this legacy live on," while Sortun remarks that Dweck's "heartfelt stories unveil a layer of Middle Eastern cutlure that is largely unknown."

Kol hakavod to Poopa Dweck!

Put this on your holiday wish list

"Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews," by Poopa Dweck
(New York, Ecco/HarperCollins, 2007; 388pgs); $49.95.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:17 PM

    I can't wait to get your book!!! We are Syrian-Jews living in America!!! What a family history!! Glad you are preserving this!!!