Learning Syrian Jewish Kitchen Classics
All good Jewish kids know that nothing beats your bubbe’s brisket.
That heartwarming philosophy is basically the premise of Mo Rocca’s cooking show, “My Grandmother’s Ravioli, ” which pays tribute to the culinary wizards behind each family’s recipes.
Sherryl Betesh’s Kibbe Nabelsieh // Courtesy of The Cooking Channel.
It all started, he says, with guilt. “I had this fantastic grandmother and I was very close to her but I never spent much time with her in the kitchen. She worked 40 hours a week until she was 87 and still insisted on making these gargantuan meals.”
Fast-forward to his mid-40s, Rocca still didn’t know how to cook. So, he thought, “I’ll do the next best thing and learn from everybody else’s grandmothers and grandfathers.”
This week, Rocca will explore a new kind of nosh. Wednesday’s episode features Sherryl Betesh, a 52-year-old grandmother from New Jersey, who teaches Rocca how to cook a proper Syrian Jewish meal.
On the menu: Kibbe Garaz (sweet cherry stewed meatballs), s’fiha (stuffed baby eggplants with ground meat and rice), kibbe nabelsieh (meat-filled bulgur shell, see recipe below), meat sambousak (meat-filled sesame pastry) and laham b’ajeen (minced meat pies).
In an interview with the Forward, Betesh explained that Syrian Jewish food differs from traditional Syrian cuisine, mainly because of the laws of kashrut. “They get to mix dairy [with meat] and use yogurt sauce, butter, etc. It’s not so different, but they have more variety of accompaniments.”
Essential ingredients for the signature “sweet and sour” taste are cinnamon, allspice, rice, beef and tamarind sauce (or “oot”). Betesh’s great uncle was one of the first Sephardic caterers in their community. “My grandmother would say, ‘Go across the street to Uncle Salim and get such and such,’” she remembered. “She would cook for a family of like 30. We would go to the basement and make giant pots of food. More than anything, I remember her stuffing vegetables.”
Though born into an Italian-Catholic family, Rocca is no stranger to Jewish food; it’s no coincidence that the kickoff episode of “My Grandmother’s Ravioli” in 2012 focused around a Jewish grandmother named Ruth Teig .
“I’ve always felt there’s a reciprocity between Italians and Jews — like James Caan [being nominated] for an Oscar for playing Sonny Corleone in the ‘Godfather.’ Kreplach is to old testament what ravioli is to new testament.”
Mo Rocca and Sherryl Betesh// Courtesy of The Cooking Channel.
But the food is only one small part of the “My Grandmother’s Ravioli” experience. While cooking, guests discuss their family histories, often intricately connected with the food they cook.
Betesh’s family left their hometown of Aleppo for New York in the early 1900s, finally settling down in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where Betesh and her sisters grew up. As family lore has it, Betesh’s grandfather, homesick for a taste of Syria, built a still in the basement of his house during Prohibition to make traditional arrak liquor.
“My mom told us recently that the FBI came,” Betesh said. “Needless to say we have one lonely bottle of the arrak saved.”
After dishing (literally and figuratively) with Betesh, her sisters, and her mother, “a great-grandmother [who] looks like Anne Bancroft,” Rocca suggested that he become a more permanent fixture at family dinners — in other words, a Shabbos goy.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of being a Shabbos goy,” he told the Forward. “Someone told me that Elvis was a Shabbos goy. You know that’s a movie that would win an Oscar.”
Or maybe an Emmy — What started as a passing joke turned into a mock sitcom trailer called — you guessed it — “Shabbos Goy!”
For more one-liners, mouthwatering dishes, and a lively debate about Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic cooking, tune in to the Cooking Channel on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.
Sherryl Betesh’s Kibbe Nabelsieh: Meat-Filled Bulgur Shells Recipe courtesy of Sherryl Betesh
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 1/2 pounds ground beef
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups fine bulgur wheat
11/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus more for frying
Lemon wedges, for serving
For the filling: Combine the onion and oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook until the onion is softened, about 3 minutes. Add the beef and cook, breaking up large clumps with a fork, until well browned, about 10 minutes. Add the cinnamon, allspice and salt, stirring to combine. Set aside to cool.
For the dough: Combine the bulgur, flour, cumin, paprika, salt, oil and 1/4 cup water in a large bowl. Work the dough with your hand, adding more water as necessary (up to 1/4 cup) to make a moist but firm dough. Shape the dough into balls about 1 inch in diameter.
Using your thumb, make an indentation in the center of a dough ball, forming it into an oblong hollow. Stuff with 1 tablespoon of the beef mixture, gently tamping it down with your finger to fill the hole. Pinch the rim to seal. Stuff the remaining balls the same way.
Heat 2 to 3 inches of oil in a deep fryer or saucepan to 350 degrees F. Fry the kibbe in batches of 5 or 6 until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels. Serve the kibbe hot with lemon wedges.
[disclaimer] A viewer or guest of My Grandmother’s Ravioli, who may not be a professional cook, provided this recipe. The Food Network Kitchens have not tested it for home use and therefore cannot make any representation as to the results.
Yield: 40 to 60 kibbe
Active Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 45 minutes