Breaking Bread

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Paper collage © 2016 Fadia Jawdat

Exodus

With the last few decades of war and upheaval in the Middle-East, my family and friends began their exodus in the mid-nineteen seventies. Moving to different continents and various cities we searched for asylum, safety and stability. For those of us in our late teens and early twenties, the initial excuse was to further our education. But over the years with safety and lack of jobs becoming a concern, entire families and older generations followed their young and their friends, leaving homes and lives behind and starting over in lands that could offer them opportunity and safe haven. Young and old would begin new lives, acculturating themselves to their newly found environments. Dreams were broken, family ties and social structure threatened and loss was traumatic. Isolation was unbearable at times. Uncertainty over our future was the new normal.

My extended family was dispersed over a few continents. We would grow apart culturally, adopting our new environments and making new friends. When we’d meet up again, maybe once a year, we were guests in each others’ homes, politely poking and scratching the surface to help uncover and reveal our new selves. The discovery and revelation of our differences was often painful. Eventually we’d understand, forgive and accept. We had new opinions, new politics and ideologies—change is the name of the game when you are trying to survive and fit in.

Redemption in food

Throughout the years, somehow food was the only constant in a sea of variables. We all transported and exported our traditions into our kitchens. We quickly populated our pantries with staples we sought and found at specialty stores and spice shops . We called each other long-distance for “recipes” or what I should label “how to”s: “How do you make okra stew?” I would call my mother 6,000 miles away in an eight-hour difference time zone. “Do you use lemon juice or Dibs (pomegranate molasses)? …How much garlic?… Can I make it without tomato paste?”
In reality, our family dining table was fractured and scattered, but we managed a virtual reconstruction, where our mothers and grandmothers, aunts, cousins and friends would join us in our kitchens and at our tables to share every dish together in spirit and in soul.

One thing was certain though, no matter how different our lifestyles had become, we all maintained one basic passion for the food—food we had grown up with, food that was the link to our culture, to our mothers and grandmothers. When we met, we indulged in an orgy of the most delicious dishes, seasonal and unseasonal: it might have been July but Easter pastries, Christmas puddings and special occasion desserts would be made especially to welcome us “Home”.
Regardless of location, the host kitchen turned into a classroom of culinary instruction, where participation was instinctive and enthusiastic. All hands and minds were on deck, working together like clockwork. Notes and photographs were taken. Documentation was essential. We’d all contribute to coring Kusa (courgettes), or plucking the leaves off the stems of the fresh Mulukhia bundles. We meticulously stuffed and rolled grape leaves in an assembly line, piling them up in awe and admiration.  We observed, we chatted and sometimes we sipped on tea or coffee, while the room buzzed around us with frenetic energy.

Breaking bread

Food gatherings have become ceremonial. Around the table, we meet each other with warmth and acceptance. We embrace the adopted friends and newly-found neighbors. We try to replicate the lost, repair the broken and preserve the most basic part of our lives with an added openness and excitement of sharing and discovering what each of us has reaped along the way.

When we visit family, travelers haul ingredients, hosts spend weeks in preparation of dishes they’ll freeze or refrigerate. The first question asked is: “what would you like to eat? …what dish have you missed?…what can I prepare for you?” After the initial chaotic moments of emotional ebb and flow, the hugs and the tears, we settle down a little and then we all head for the kitchen!

The food we prepare is loaded with meaning and promise of soothing comfort. Old flavors that link us to our past, whisked together with new life ingredients, promise to bring resolution and healing. Whether we revive old recipes or embrace and experiment with new cuisines, our kitchens remain the meeting place where tradition is perpetuated and innovation is welcomed; a place where we form and fuse new bonds and widen our circles of food, family and friends.

I write this with love and appreciation for my family and friends (you know who you are) who have fed me, taught me, inspired me and spoiled me with their generosity over the course of my life and in memory of my mother especially, my father, my aunts and grandmothers and a few good friends who left us too soon but with whom we ate and drank insatiably.

 

First Kitchen Memories-Part 2

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Ma’amoul mold next to my mother’s old tweezers. Photo: 2016 Fadia Jawdat

 

By the time my mother was twenty-five, she had two children, ages five and two, and was to leave my father’s side to move to Beirut where we were to be schooled. She lived and shared her kitchen with her mother-in-law, a practice not uncommon to the Middle-East: elders, especially when widowed, lived with their children.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, my mother and grandmother worked around each other. The kitchen was large enough to accommodate both of them and to allow for overlap in activities, but they preferred to work on separate schedules, focusing on different tasks.

My mother was an excellent and meticulous cook and we loved her cooking, but her personal preference was to hone her baking skills. Her savory pastries were the best. With their various fillings—za’tar or cheese for the sambusek or onion, meat and pignoli for the open-faced meat pies, Lahm ba’jeen— these pastries were not only delicious but their claim to fame was in the perfection and consistency of flavor, shape and texture— the dough was crusty on the outside and spongy on the inside. She made dozens and froze them, hoarding and saving them for special occasions or to bring out at a moment’s notice to impress unexpected guests, sending them squealing with admiration and praise.

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Za’tar mini mana’eesh. Photo: Fadia Jawdat

In response to her mother-in-law’s austerity and to satisfy her own sweet tooth, my mom transferred her life’s frustrations into exuberant cake and cookie baking. When holiday season came around she’d turn the kitchen into a factory. She spent days on end doting over her Western cook books making cookies, fruitcake, stollen and lebkuchen at Christmas time. Easter called for the traditional semolina cookies (Ma’moul) filled with either dates, crushed pistachios or walnuts and delicately flavored with orange blossom and rose waters. Over the years I helped her occasionally and witnessed several friends and relatives sit with her in the kitchen for hours while she taught the art of making and decorating those specialties with a pair of serrated tweezers. Most people used wooden molds, but she preferred the personal touch of the dainty methodical patterns.

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Date & walnut Ma’amoul. Photo: Courtesy of marlenematar.com

I don’t know when and how her love for western baking began, but my father made sure she had a stand mixer and a special electric oven for cake-baking purposes alone. She made a delicious apple pie, pineapple upside-down and Dutch apple cakes: those three were her regular repertoire. Occasionally, a most elaborate Blitz Torte with lemon custard filling and meringue and slivered almond topping would make its appearance for my father’s birthday. Each of us had a favorite, and each of us got theirs for their birthday.

She gave it all up when we became aware of the ills of sugar and refused to indulge in her sugary confections. I don’t believe she minded. By then, all of her three children had moved away to England, Scotland and the U.S.. and she finally had a chance to join my dad permanently: first in Saudi Arabia then in Dubai and Cyprus, leaving behind the mixer, the oven, her baking paraphernalia and her mother-in-law!

Baking was my mother’s art and salvation for many years. She took pride in her work as though she was in some eternal competition or on a mission to impress and please. It was a creative outlet and an escape. She had many other skills and a few other talents but none that she could fully develop.

Her savory pastries and her tweezer-pinched Easter cakes would continue to be produced year-round wherever she went for her children and grandchildren to enjoy. They became the treasure and tradition that she carried with her from kitchen to kitchen all the way to Washington, D.C. where she spent the last years of her life.

And so we indulged when we came “home” to visit. We cherished the treats and she delighted in watching us bite into them slowly, carefully and thoughtfully, appreciating and savoring every ounce of love and care she had kneaded and folded into them.


Ma’amoul resources: recipes, videos and where to order.

  • To watch the process of hand making and decorating semolina cakes. on marlenematar.com under walnut and date pastries. The video is in Arabic and the photo and method are identical to my mother’s confections.
    http://www.marlenematar.com/videos/walnut_and_date_pastries_video.html
  • For instructions and recipe in English watch Chef Kamal on Youtube
  • And if you can’t be bothered making them yourself, you can order on line in the U.S. from Shatila Bakery in Detroit @shatila.com

p.s. this blog is not sponsored by any of the chefs or businesses mentioned here. Those are the result of my personal searches and choices I thought to share.

First Kitchen Memories: Part 1

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When I was five, my mother, brother and I came to live in Beirut. My grandmother Linda was to move in with us as well. My father continued working abroad and came home for every occasion, every holiday and for meetings with employer and client.

Our new home was on the third floor of a six-story building with west-facing balconies overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. A couple of blocks to the north, a black and white lighthouse loomed over our living room and bedroom windows. Our kitchen faced south. Its large central window framed a small neglected lot where a couple of palm trees watched over hedges of prickly-pear cacti. A large sunny, square room with cool terrazzo tiles and white marble counter tops, the kitchen was our first destination in the morning, at noon, and when we came home from school at the end of each day. To the left sat the sink and gas stove separated by a generous span of work-space. On the right, my mother’s electric baking oven and Kitchen Aid mixer proudly stood their ground while my grandmother’s 19th century brass alcohol burner was defiantly placed at the opposite end of the counter.

A table and chairs flanked the window. Since we all ate at different times, having all of our meals in the kitchen did not seem to be a problem except when my father came home. His presence always called for a more formal and inclusive setting in the dining room—at least for lunch which was the main meal of the day.

The kitchen seemed to run on my grandmother Linda’s a schedule. My mother worked around her mother-in-law, respecting her space. They seemed to take turns silently avoiding friction or conflict. Linda would start her day at dawn, puttering around, preparing her own breakfast and setting the table for the rest of us. I often woke up to the smell of her toasting hazelnuts, chickpeas, caraway, cumin and coriander to make her own “Duqqa“, an Egyptian version of Za’tar*. She mixed it with olive oil and spread it over bread and cheese or yogurt. The breakfast table included all of the above with an added bowl of olives and a few jars of honey or home-made jam.

Linda was the twelfth of fourteen children, born in Cairo to a Syrian father and Macedonian mother. She moved to Palestine after marrying my grandfather who was a surgeon for the British military during the Mandate. Widowed in 1938, and escaping to Lebanon with her four children in 1948, Linda was the most frugal and austere person I would ever know. She re-used matchsticks and washed Saran Wrap and plastic bags and hung them to dry on the tiled back-splash. She insisted we turn off faucets while brushing our teeth or washing our hands. She ate leftovers over and over again. She made us wipe our plates clean. She preferred to cook for herself using whatever would be discarded or left over from my mother’s ingredients. She took pride in creating something new and edible from the discarded.

Her cooking was not terribly exciting, but in her defense, it reflected her life’s hardship and the necessity to save. She used her alcohol burner because it was more economical than gas—who was to question? Occasionally she would make a dish that she would share. She made a wonderful Mulukhia** but preferred to hover over my mother’s shoulder giving stern advice and lending an occasional polite hand rather than cook a full meal. I could tell she was used up and tired, but she lit up when we asked her to make us our favorite: her savory squash pie! I would watch her roll the dough with her long slim rolling pin. Thinner than the thinnest of Pizza crusts, she would lay down the cream-colored sheet carefully inside a large round baking pan, gathering it delicately like a piece of satin fabric, and repeating the technique to cover the squash-and-onion filling. Once baked, the golden crust crackled and shattered in a thousand pieces between our teeth while the moist pale yellow-green filling smeared our tongues with a soothing texture and a burst of warm, sweet cinnamon. My grandma knew it was her piece de resistance which set her apart from all the cooks in the family, and she made sure she took the recipe with her to the grave.
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*Za’tar: a mixture of dried crushed thyme (or similar wild herb) mixed with sumac, sesame seeds, salt and sometimes olive oil.

**Mulukhia: A typical Egyptian dish made from a green plant by the same name, with long stems and large green leaves. The leaves are chopped and simmered in broth and eaten as a soup or over rice and chicken, with toasted pita chips and minced onions, flavored with lemon juice, loads of crushed garlic, dry coriander and green coriander (cilantro).

 

Favorite Mid-East Cookbooks: the link to a distant past.

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Photo © 2016 Fadia Jawdat

My family’s women were preoccupied with food and cooking.

Lebanon was the crossroads of civilization and it’s cuisine reflected it. My mother and grandmother’s culinary repertoire was mostly Levantine with hints of Greek, Egyptian, Iraqi and Armenian. There were no written recipes or records, files or cookbooks, yet there were endless conversations about the latest failures and successes in the kitchen. The spontaneous barrage of questions, detailed comparisons of methods and styles between friends and relatives would lead you to believe that this close-knit community was about to produce a thesis on comparative cookery.

The women I knew were immersed in complex relationships of subliminal competition or undisclosed complicity. Pride bordered on arrogance, admiration was only a diplomatic façade, and praise was a cover for envy. However, it would have been unthinkable not to share one’s tips and secrets. Recipes were handed down from mother to daughter and, each generation, by virtue of marriage, would gain some  hints of new culinary influences. Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian and Lebanese cuisines were similar but had nuances that only the experienced cook could decipher. As I recall, Aleppine and Armenian cuisines were highly regarded and sought after. If you were lucky enough to either marry or befriend someone with either of those backgrounds, then you had it made!

Over the last few decades of wars and revolutions, my family and friends moved to different continents seeking safety and stability. With the upheaval, we clung to memories of togetherness around the table. We longed to re-invent the experience in our own new homes and the countries we’d adopted. We were westernized, but our heritage and culture was still to be found in our kitchens, in our pantries and at the table.

By the time my generation had their own kitchens, we already had a few Middle-Eastern cookbooks for reference and a couple of decades later we witnessed an explosion of books, blogs, and an entire Food Network—who would have thought!

When I began cooking in my (so-called) “kitchen” on the Upper West side of New York City, we only had a landline (phone). The raging civil war back home made it difficult to get through to my mother, but it was still my only life line. I would call her long-distance from NYC to Beirut, Saudi Arabia, Dubai or Cyprus, to grill her on ingredients and methods. It helped that I grew up eating the stuff; I knew what it should taste like. I kept a notebook, cooked religiously and followed tradition to a T.  I had no children then and had time to impress and compete with—yes I inherited that sense of competition—  friends who, like me, were homesick, and yearned for their mama’s cooking.

Between gifts and purchases, I acquired a decent cookbook collection. And although I have embraced many new cuisines, I still seek more Middle-Eastern  books than any others—I am still perfecting variations on a theme, so to speak.
In the late seventies, Claudia Roden’s The Book of Middle Eastern Food was my favorite. Her book helped me overcome the feelings of exile and yearning I experienced at the time.  She made complex recipes accessible, and often mentioned regional spins on certain dishes. It was a relief in contrast to my mother’s long-distance vague garble of instruction that lacked precision and clarity. Ms. Roden’s introduction to the book describes the history, origins and influences of the cuisine which tells an interesting story.  The New Book of Middle Eastern Food has excellent reviews. It is a revised and improved version of her first publication. I will undoubtedly buy it on Amazon along with a newer copy of the first book to replace my stained, shredded and yellow pages held together with layers of aging tape.
An excellent comprehensive new-comer is The Lebanese Kitchen by Salma Hage. It is big, thick and probably intimidating to the novice. But it is clear and well organized. Instruction is slightly inconsistent at times—sorry Phaidon (publisher). It is, however a good addition to any library with its beautiful photographs of Lebanon.

Another impressive and thorough coverage of fine Lebanese recipes is Classic Lebanese Cuisine by Chef Kamal Al-Faqih. It has step by step instruction and photographs that could turn you into a professional, if you are so inclined. Finally, I must mention and recommend Mary Laird Hamady’s Lebanese Mountain Cooking (first published in 1987 by David R. Gordine). I find it uncomplicated, earthy and easy to grasp. It also has sparse but evocative and helpful illustrations by Jana Fothergill.

My life changed with the birth of my daughters. My cooking changed too. Time and energy were considerably compromised, especially when holding down a full-time job on top of everything else. Forever adapting my family meals to our changing lifestyle, I took shortcuts and taught myself tricks. Whether in re-adapting old recipes or experimenting with new cuisines, my kitchen remains a meeting place that upholds traditions (with a twist) while remaining open to innovation. A place where my daughters learn, experiment and practice, where new bonds are fused, wider circles of friends are formed and cookery continues to be an exciting adventure.