Sephardic Flavors

A Cookbook Sheds Light on Syrian Foods

By Leah Hochbaum Rosner

Published October 02, 2007, issue of October 05, 2007.
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For us Ashkenazim, getting guidance in cooking the cuisine of our ancestors is easy: We just consult one of the many Ashkenazic cookbooks in our libraries. But for Syrian Jews raised in the Sephardic tradition, finding recipes that existed outside the minds of aging Syrian women has been nearly impossible. Until now, that is.

Poopa Dweck, a first-generation Syrian Jewish American, explores her roots in “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews” (Ecco), a new cookbook that aims to shed some light on Syrian foods and to ensure that cherished recipes don’t die off when the older generation passes. The book contains some 180 recipes and many vibrant photographs.

On a recent evening in a Manhattan kitchen barely larger than a phone booth, Dweck’s co-author, Michael J. Cohen, and his wife, Michelle Ishay-Cohen (who served as art director), both of whom are of Syrian ancestry, prepared a traditional Friday night Sabbath meal using recipes from the book. They invited some of their neighbors from the burgeoning young professional Syrian Jewish community that has only just sprung up in New York City’s Union Square to share in the feast.

Over maza (appetizerlike foods loosely translated as “small delights”), including assorted flatbreads, spreads such as hummus and tehineh, salads and meaty items, the couple explained why it was high time for a cookbook like this one.

“I’ve traveled the world, and so has Michael,” Ishay-Cohen said between mouthfuls of miniature minced meat pies known as laham b’ajeen and kibbeh nabelsieh (fried bulgur shells filled with spicy ground meat). “Every armpit of Sicily seems to have its own cookbook, yet we wondered why this cuisine wasn’t represented. It didn’t make sense that there were no books on this community and its food.”

In fact, books about the Syrian people and their delicacies were so scarce that when Dweck approached the then-single Ishay-Cohen about putting together the cookbook, the two decided that what “Aromas” needed — more than updating old recipes, more than presenting those recipes to a younger generation of Syrians — was to put all the information into a historical and religious context that would explain the origins of the foods they ate unquestioningly each day.

So Ishay-Cohen sought out Cohen, a Brooklyn attorney with a flair for writing and cooking — who then happened to be her ex-boyfriend — to pen a brief history of the Aleppian Jews who settled in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Deal, N.J. “He was the best person to write this,” Ishay-Cohen said. “You really have to understand the people.”

Cohen jumped at the chance to be a part of something he considers historic. “Syrians tend to be a very private people,” he said, “but why should we be private about things we should be proud of?” In addition to his account of the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Syrian Jews’ migration to America and how their traditions have endured, Cohen documented the life-cycle events that only Syrian Jews experience, including customs — such as the swanee, a formal reception for women that precedes a wedding — that Cohen believes have never been documented elsewhere.

After collaborating closely on the project, the two quickly reunited. They were married last year.

Following the maza, the couple brought out an epic spread that included djaj mishwi, a roast chicken with deep-fried potatoes that were then cooked in the chicken’s own juices; kibbeh hamdah, a garlicky lemon-mint broth with mixed veggies and meatballs that is viewed by many as an aphrodisiac; yebra, grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice with an apricot-tamarind sauce; bizeh b’kibbeh, green peas and meat-stuffed Syrian meatballs flavored with allspice, and riz halabieh, classic Aleppian rice made with vegetable oil and salt.

And when their guests felt they might have to roll themselves home, Cohen and Ishay-Cohen served an array of Syrian sweets such as graybeh, bracelet-shaped butter cookies, and eras b’ajweh, date-filled crescents, from the Brooklyn sweet shop Mansoura’s.

“You have to celebrate your culture on some level,” Cohen said before biting into one of the desserts.

Leah Hochbaum Rosner is a freelance writer living in New York.

The following recipe is from “Aromas of Aleppo” (Ecco; $49.95)

Djaj Mishwi

Friday Night Roast Chicken With Potatoes

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.

1 3- to 4-pound chicken
3 cups plus 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, minced (about 1½ teaspoons)
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 onion
3 pounds of potatoes, peeled and cut into 1½-inch wedges

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a large roaster, coat the bottom of the pan with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Rub the entire chicken with 2 tablespoons oil, the garlic, paprika and salt.
  3. Add the onion to the roaster. Place the roaster into the oven, covered, and roast the chicken for 1 hour.
  4. Meanwhile, deep-fry the potatoes, 1 to 1 ½ cups at a time, over medium heat in a deep-fryer or medium saucepan filled with the 3 cups of vegetable oil. Fry each batch for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the potatoes are golden. Drain on paper towels.
  5. Add the potatoes to the roaster. Give them a stir in the pan drippings, making sure that they are well coated. Roast the chicken for 1 more hour, or until the chicken is golden.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

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