Nena’s Iraqi Tashreeb Istanbuli (& The Art of Sharing Family Recipes)

A few months ago I was sitting at a family breakfast at my cousin's house in Philadelphia. My cousin Zainab had prepared this beautiful Iraqi breakfast spread for us that morning. At the center, Tashreeb Baghilla, broth-soaked bread topped with fava beans, a wild mint we call budhnij, piping hot oil, and scrambled eggs. A mountain of bureg, perfectly crisp meat-filled pastries rolled into cigar shapes and deep-fried; with each bite a softening, melting crunch. A platter of mini lahama b’ajeen (literally, meat with dough), discs of dough topped evenly with a meat, tomato, onion, parsley mixture, best served, in my opinion, with generous amounts of lemon juice. On the same large platter, Lebanese style fatayar, a savory pastry with a delicious density in the dough, shaped like starfish and stuffed with spinach and feta. There were bowls of dried, black olives; labneh with za’atar; lemon wedges; slices of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers with sprigs of fresh mint and wedges of sweet onions; various cheeses; hard boiled eggs; ‘umba, an Indian pickled mango that Iraqis are absolutely obsessed with and put on most anything.

Near the center was a dish I had never seen before. It was clearly a tashreeb, but it was unclear as to what kind of tashreeb. It tasted like sumac but looked like diced mushrooms! The texture was wonderfully chewy, but felt like it had to be more than just bread. I asked my aunt how she made it, and just before she could answer my uncle shouts, “Don’t tell her! She’ll post it on her blog and give away all our secrets!” 

I mean, he has a point.

And, the thing is, I completely understand where he’s coming from. After posting our family recipes on my blog and Instagram for years now, I know the feeling that comes with each post: the strong fear of revealing our family secrets. I feel it each time I post a recipe. I’m feeling it right now. And then I think of my father, who has often told me that he thinks it’s wonderful that I share our recipes. Capitalism makes us forget that sharing is a good thing.

And that got me thinking... and what I found was: 

Part of what makes Iraqi cuisine so special is that a family recipe can never fully be replicated. 

Iraqi recipes are always verbal sketches, mere attempts at defining a dish; but Iraqis don’t cook that way. Iraqis don’t cook with measurements, they cook with their senses.

I can tell you to add a tablespoon of cumin, but I don’t really know how much cumin I’ve added. As I cook, I taste along the way, adding a bit of this here and a bit of that there, and I only know it’s right when it tastes right. The essence of my mother’s tastes and textures were passed to me because I grew up eating her food and watching her cook. There is no way to pigeonhole taste; there is no way to reveal the secrets of your mother’s taste.

And Iraqi food is just that; it is the food of your mother’s taste. And her taste is deeply rooted in Mesopotamian history. 

It's a certain truth that Iraqis will argue all night about the 'correct' way to make dolma; and the answer always, always is: the way their mother makes it. 

There is something deeply poetic about that, about Iraqi recipes. My grandmother’s dolma belongs with my grandmother, Allah yarhama. She passed her taste to her children, who grew into their own tastes given their unique set of experiences. And although everyone says Abla Nadia makes it closest to Nena, there is also an understanding that my grandmother’s dolma went with her. And there is something glorious in that.

So the Iraqi dishes no longer become “Dolma Recipe,” they become “Nena’s Dolma” or “My Mother’s Dolma." 

And in order to have the real thing you have to go to the source and ask them to make it for you.

Isn’t that poetry?

In that way, even when I share them with you, these recipes forever remain secret to our family. 

Nena’s Tashreeb Istanbuli


(as passed down to me by my father)

Tashreeb is the name for a type of dish with broth-soaked bread as the base. It can be soaked with meat or bean broth, depending on the dish. This particular tashreeb is very uncommon. Iraqis do not know this tashreeb if you ask them. Only the Iraqi Turkoman in Kirkuk made this tashreeb, and even then it was uncommon.

This may be the only place in the entire internet where this recipe exists. Behold. 

The story goes that some Iraqi Turkoman traveled to Istanbul and had a dish, probably something like Patlicanli Kebap, and when he came home attempted to recreate the dish but made it all wrong. This dish became Tashreeb Istanbuli.

Nena says you can only call it Tashreeb Istanbuli if you also add a kebab on top of the dish. I didn’t do that here, so I often call this Tashreeb Kirkuk to keep the roots of the dish safe even though I'm doing it wrong. I’ve added a medium boiled egg to replace the kebab, for good measure. (I know Iraqis love meat, but boiled meat and kebab? -- that's just too much meat for my life).

My baba says he used to request this dish from his mother and then he’d invite all his friends over. In fact, my baba is the one who gave me this recipe. He told it to me off hand and then got worried and said, “Double check with your mom.” As she was walking by we asked her to sit down with us and she repeated the exact same recipe, almost word for word. My baba’s eyes lit up, “See! I was right!” And then, “Nawal, why don’t you make this anymore?”

serves 6-8

Notes:
You’ll need a large serving dish for this one.
And please read the directions before attempting. 

Ingredients:

  • Cubes of meat, your choice of beef or lamb, enough for one layer on the serving dish; to be salted, seared, then boiled until it falls apart.
  • Keep the warm beef or lamb broth.
  • Iraqi Tanoor bread (or pita, or tandoori, or flat bread – I used Iranian sangak here because I live near many local Iranian bakeries), cut into pieces, about 2” squares
  • 2-3 medium aubergines, sliced into rounds
  • 8-10 medium sized tomatoes, cut in half only once
  • 3-4 bell peppers, cut into strips
  • 1 medium container of plain yogurt
  • 1 cup grapeseed oil
  • 1 T turmeric
  • 4-5 scallions, chopped, to top
  • 1 bunch of parsley, finely chopped, to top
  • lemons wedges, to serve
  • olive oil | salt | black pepper to taste along the way
  • 6-8 medium boiled eggs (or more, depending on your preference)

Directions:

1.     Earlier in the morning, you’ll want to quickly sear and then boil your meat. This takes time, so you should do it first thing if you plan on making this dish. It was standard to always start the day boiling meat to be used in most dishes, the term for it translates to “hanging the meat.” [Options: A.) you can quickly boil the meat in a pressure cooker; OR B.) you can leave it in a slow cooker over night.]
2.     Begin by taking out your tashreeb serving dish, as everything piles on.
3.     In a skillet, add a little bit of olive oil and fry the tomatoes face down, covered, on low/medium heat until soft, about 20 min. Top with some salt midway.
4.     Toss the bell peppers in olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast in the oven at 400 degrees until soft, about 20 min.
5.     Toss the aubergines in olive oil, salt, and pepper and fry them in a pan. [
Option: roast in a separate tray with the bell peppers. It tastes better when you fry it, but it is easier when you roast it.]
6. When most of the vegetables are done, boil your eggs, cool, set aside. Peel before serving. 

Assembly:

1.     Cover your serving dish with the pieces of bread. There is need to pile it high, just cover it. 2.     Pour the warm meat broth all over the bread. You want to soak the bread but you don’t want to create a soup bowl! Be careful.
3.     Layer the eggplant
4.     Layer the bell peppers.
5.     Layer the meat.
6.     Layer the tomatoes.
7.     Add the yogurt to thinly cover, but let some of the tomatoes peak out because presentation is also important.
8.     Quickly heat the grape seed oil in a small pot, and when it’s piping hot toss in the turmeric!
9.     Pour the hot oil over the entire dish – this is fun to watch, so always do this around your guests (carefully).
10.  Top with scallions and parsley. I use scallions, my grandmother uses thinly sliced onions. Your choice.
11. Serve it with a medium boiled egg!

Bil ‘Afya! | Bon Appetit!


 

An Iraqi Quozi in Honor of Al-Amiriyah

Today marks the 25 year anniversary of the Al-Amiriyah shelter massacre in Baghdad. Two 2,000 ton bombs were dropped on a civilian shelter during the first Gulf War, during the U.S. air raid. 408 people were killed. Mostly women, children, and the elderly. They thought they would be safe in a designated safe zone. They weren’t. As for many of the people of Iraq, safety does not exist. And it definitely did not exist that night in Al-Amiriyah.

When I look at the list of victim names and their birth years, I am overwhelmed. A few were born in my year, my brothers’ years, my parents’ years. I was five years old that day, almost six.

And yet,
this event,
this tragedy, that is so cruelly intertwined with American militaristic history,
goes completely unnoticed each year.

I heard that when Thom Yorke of Radiohead found out about the Al-Amiriyah massacre, he was uneasy, in a dark place. That’s why he wrote “I Will” on the Hail to the Thief album. It was about this event. And at the time, he described it as the angriest piece he had ever written.

There is this musical piece, Happened at Al-Amiriyah, by Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma, that just breaks my heart. Promise you’ll listen to it tonight? He wrote it in 1992, one year after the massacre. He wrote it and performed it inside the shelter.

And there is also Kadhem al Saher’s song Ay ya ‘Arab, where he keeps wailing “The blood of Iraqi children is in the Amiriyah shrine.”

Iraq has suffered and still suffers.

It's unfair. 

I’ve been working with my friends in the Iraqi Transnational Collective to commemorate this tragedy, to not let it go unnoticed on this, the 25th, year. We have been tweeting the names and birth years of all the victims lost. We made this toolkit for those who don’t know about the massacre. And did interviews and wrote articles.

And I did what I know best.

I cooked. 

I made an elaborate Iraqi Quozi and sweet Cardamom Date Halawa, the way they do at funerals, and then opened my doors to whomever would come eat.

Quozi is a stuffed lamb on a bed of spiced rice and traditionally served for significant events from weddings to funerals. I didn’t stuff a whole lamb. Instead, I roasted a leg of lamb, stuffed with garlic, a Fukhudh Ghanam Mashwi.

The offering of a lamb in Islam is incredibly symbolic. Abraham on the mountain, proving his faith, nearly sacrificing his son in faith. Sacrifice. Surrender. Sacrifice. Surrender.

“We don’t need sugar, flour or rice or anything else. We just want to see our dear ones.” – Hafiz

When my bibi passed away less than two years ago, Allah yarhamha, now buried in Najaf, my mother made Tammar Halawa to honor her. To give sweets to the soul of those who passed, may they forever taste sweetness. Tammar is the Arabic word for dates. Tamarind in Arabic, for example, is tammar-Hind, the dates of India. Halawa (or halva) means sweets. This halawa is fried dates with cardamom and walnuts. When it’s on the stove, the scent of cardamom fills the air.  

The Iraqi Leg of Lamb Quozi

Serves 10

Ingredients:

Lamb:

  • About 5 lb leg of lamb, preferably New Zealand
  • 2 heads of garlic, peeled
  • Bundle of Rosemary
  • Bundle of Thyme
  • Baharat, 7 spice mix (Allspice, Black Pepper, Coriander, Cumin, Cloves, Cinnamon, & Nutmeg)
  • 2 Cinnamon Sticks
  • a few whole Cardamom pods
  • Sea Salt
  • Deep, heavy cooking pan
  • Foil

Rice:

  • 3 cups long grain white basmati rice
  • 1 cup Vermicelli noodles
  • Baharat, 7 spice mix
  • Turmeric
  • Sea Salt
  • evoo
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced half moons
  • 1 cup diced carrots
  • 1 cup peas
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 1 cup shaved or slivered almonds
  • 5 eggs

Directions:

The lamb. Do that first, because it takes 4 hours to cook. This is my mother’s recipe, and it is perfect every time, don’t make too many adjustments.

1.  Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
2. Wash the lamb.
3. Rub it down with 1 -2 T baharat and 1 T sea salt
4. In a deep, heavy baking pan: arrange half the garlic on the bottom, along with a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme, a couple cinnamon sticks, and a few whole cardamom pods slightly cracked. 
5. Place the lamb on top of this.
6. Proceed to stuff various parts of the lamb with garlic cloves. Top it with garlic. Garlic everywhere.
7. Top it with a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme.
8. Wrap the whole thing in foil. In fact, double wrap it. Tightly.
9. Place it in the oven, then immediately turn down the temp to 315 degrees.
10. Set a cooking timer to 4 hours. No more, no less.
11. Let it cool on the stove, uncovered.
12. Find a way to save the fat juices to make into a gravy. 

The rice. Do this while the lamb is cooking. And towards the end, maybe the last hour and a half.

1. Wash and scrub that rice, don’t be lazy, tembal.
2. Soak in water for at least 20 minutes. Dump the water at the end.
3. Sautee the Vermicelli noodles with some baharat, turmeric, and salt for a few minutes. I like to add a lot of the spices. (It’s awkward for me to call them Vermicelli noodles, as I can really only call them by their Arabic name, shahariyya, which means hair because the noodles look like hair).
4. Add the rice. Sautee a few more minutes. Then add enough water to cover the rice by only 1 cm! Only one centimeter. My mama will repeat it twice because you are stubborn.
5. Let it sit, uncovered, on medium heat. It will boil enough, and since you soaked the rice for 20 minutes it’s already pretty done. This shouldn’t take too long. When the water is absorbed, fluff it with a fork. My mama will repeat it twice. Fluff it. Don’t forget.
6. Add the peas. Mix in a fluffing sort of way.
7. Sautee onions and carrots in baharat.
8. Then add the onions and carrots to the rice. Mix. Fluff.
9. Keep on low heat, covered, until you serve.
10. While you’re waiting on the lamb, sauté the golden raisins in olive oil in a frying pan. Careful not to burn it. Keep stirring. This should only take a few minutes. Set aside in bowl.
11. Then sauté the almonds in olive oil. Same. Burns very fast. Then add to the raisins bowl. Mix it when it cools down a bit. This will be the topping to your rice once it’s served.

The eggs. Medium soft boil. Wait until serving time. I know you can boil an egg. Here’s how I do it.
1. Place the eggs in a pan, covered with water.
2. Add baking powder. This helps with the peeling later. Especially if you have fresh eggs, which I am told are more difficult to peel.
3. Bring to a boil. 
4. Once it’s boiling immediately bring heat to low. Let sit for 4 minutes.
5. Immediately run under cold water to stop the cooking.
6. Peel. Don't slice them until it's on the serving plate. 

The platter. 
1. Put the rice on the platter first. Make it pretty.
2. Top it with the lamb.
3. Pour the lamb gravy and the rest of the garlic over the lamb and rice.
4. Add the sautéed golden raisins and almonds.
5. Then arrange the eggs on the platter. Make it pretty. Then slice them so that the yolk may run a little.

Enjoy. Fiimanallah.

from The Iraqi Nights
by Dunya Mikhail

In Iraq,

after a thousand and one nights,

someone will talk to someone else.

Markets will open

for regular customers.

Small feet will tickle

the giant feet of the Tigris.

Gulls will spread their wings

and no one will fire at them.

Women will walk the streets

without looking back in fear.

Men will give their real names

without putting their lives at risk.

Children will go to school

and come home again.

Chickens in the villages

won’t peck at human flesh

on the grass.

Disputes will take place

without any explosives.

A cloud will pass over cars

heading to work as usual.

A hand will wave

to someone leaving

or returning.

The sunrise will be the same

for those who wake

and those who never will.

And every moment

something ordinary

will happen

under the sun.


We remember. #AlAmiriyah25 #RememberingAlAmiriyah



 

Childhood Nostalgia and the Beet & Pea Salad of Your Life

Nena came to visit in the early to mid-nineties, around the time Kurt Cobain died. We grew up in the Valley, not just the Valley but deep in the Valley where they used to shoot John Wayne films, in a house built in the fifties. The three of us and our parents. I was the only girl, sandwiched between two brothers by almost exactly a year and a half each. We were all practically the same age anyway. The house was built on a fault, so when the earthquake hit in ’94 we needed a new house. Or to remodel, which is what we eventually did. This is when Nena, my father’s mother, was visiting from Iraq. The only time she ever visited us. We called her Nena because my dad did, even though we should have called her Bibi. My dad was working in New York at the time, so Mama was taking care of us all when the earthquake hit.

My mother was in charge of Earthquake Preparedness at our school, so we had all the things in case of an emergency down to the NASA-designed insulating mylar blankets that looked like tin foil. She seemed to know just how to handle everything. Nena, of course, was stubborn, Allah yarhamha, and she kept yelling something about this not being a big deal, that she’s been through worse! I think this was some kind of dig at my mother but I’m not sure for what exactly. It took a lot to move her to safety because she kept saying it wasn’t a big deal. My mother kept trying to convince her that there would be a series of aftershocks and Nena would remind her that she’s been through war! 

I shared my room with Nena during those months she visited. Once, she asked me to clip her bra for her, and being too shy to help she yelled at me. My brothers shared the other room, down the hall. We each had our own waterbeds that were, naturally, the coolest things that could happen to children of the nineties; and, quite possibly the coolest thing to happen during an earthquake. Hasen, of course, stayed sound asleep during the entirety of the ordeal. Alowie, on the other hand, went through an entire lifetime in those moments. His bed was by the window, and he had got it into his head that the window would shatter on top of him and that, in order to save his very life, he needed to flee the scene. In simultaneous fight and flight mode, he both struggled and managed to escape the waterbed trap, unsteadily attempting to stand on the bed, wobbling around, tripping over himself in a panic. When he got to the floor, the drawers started shooting out at him, or so he says, and he had to dodge those in order to get to the door. That’s when he kept getting caught in laundry baskets and stepping on Ninja Turtles and other things that were almost exaggeratedly in his way. When the shaking and rocking stopped, he looked over at my brother, who was, of course, sound asleep; and then over at his bed, that was, actually, a perfectly safe spot, the windows having stayed entirely intact.

My mother was really irritated that her jars of pickled garlic, the ones that had been a part of the house itself, pickled for possibly decades, black from the pickling, and always present since she believed pickled garlic cured all things, all crashed down in a messy pile of glass and vinegar on the kitchen floor. Maybe my memory is an exaggeration, but it almost completely covered the entire kitchen floor. Instead of cleaning it up, she packed us all in the car and drove us to Dana Point, to the beach, where we had the keys to a friend’s summer townhouse. We all met there, Bill and his kids, too, and had this really fun week, like our Fourth of July summers, not having to go to school because the schools were badly damaged.

Of that whole time, I can’t remember much about Nena, and it was my only time with her, really.

I do remember her laughter, though. One time, my younger brother, Ali, we call him Alowie, and I were making our then ritual birthday cake for my mother. Mama’s birthday is the day after Halloween, so Alowie and I would squish all our chocolate trick-or-treat candy bars together in a giant mass of goo and then microwave it all to make one giant disaster. It was completely inedible, and, if I remember correctly, hardened by the over-microwaving. It was the Snickers bars that would burn instead of melt and I still remember that smell of trouble. And Nena would just watch us, through the whole process, calmly sitting in her chair, not saying a word, and just laughing and laughing.

Beet and Pea Salad 

ingredients: 

  • beets, cubed 
  • green peas, boiled or thawed 
  • pea shoots, coarsely chopped
  • arugula, coarsely chopped
  • red onions, sliced in half moons
  • avocado, cubed 
  • shaved almonds
  • goat cheese
  • fresh lemon juice
  • red wine vinegar
  • evoo | Maldon salt | black pepper

directions:

1. Toss beets with evoo and salt. Roast at 410 degrees for about 45 minutes. Set aside and cool. 
2. While beets are roasting, prep the rest of the ingredients. This is a cold salad, so make sure to cool everything. When I'm impatient I sometimes put the roasted beets in the freezer to speed the cooling process. 
3. First slice the red onion and chop the pea shoots. Let them sit in a little red wine vinegar in a large salad bowl while you're waiting. 
4. Toss everything together in with the red onions/pea shoots/red wine vinegar! Adjust ingredients to taste. Don't use too much lemon juice or vinegar! 

 

Bil Afya | Bon Appetit


Mama's Iraqi Kubba't Hallab

Hallab is the Arabic name for the Syrian city Aleppo, and traditionally this city makes the absolute best kubba. So Iraqis named this particular kubba in homage to Hallab because it is THAT good. And it really is. 

Mama recently made her famous Kubba’t Hallab, which not every Iraqi makes due to the care, labor, and time involved, and the preparation of it all made me nostalgic for a life I never lived. Maybe the one my parents lived before I was born? I am certain we not only inherit genes and language, but memories and feelings, too.

Kubba is a type of dish usually made of a bulgur or potato dough, or in this case long-grain white rice dough, that is stuffed with a ground meat mixture, often hand-shaped like an egg, sometimes flattened like a croquette, then either boiled or baked or deep fried. Some people shape them into balls, but the far superior kubba maker will shape them like eggs. My mama, of course, is one of the world's best kubba makers. The shape changes the texture and ratio of each bite and makes everything in the world just right. 

You can also bake your kubba into a casserole and call it a tabsi or kubba bil firin (literally "kubba in the oven"), layering the same ingredients the way you would a lasagna -- or more like a shepard's pie -- with the grain or potato dough forming the top and bottom layers, and the ground meat in the middle. This is also very, very good. When I was a vegetarian, mama invented a special meat-free kubba bil firin for me and it's now one of my favorite dishes. 

The ground meat mixture is called qeema, and this simple qeema is mixed with finely chopped parsley and onion. Parsley, crrefis, is an important flavor in Iraqi food. And quality crrefis is important to me. Other qeemas include almonds and golden raisins. I personally prefer the simple one.

There are many kinds of kubba: Kubba't Hamuuth, Kubba't Mosul, Kubba't Burghul, Kubba't Jareesh, Kubba't Puteta, Kubba't Bil Sayneah, and so on and on. 

Yes, there are many kinds of kubba, but ask anyone who knows anything at all: Iraqi Kubba't Hallab is the mother of all kubbas. 

My mama has altered the recipe to her liking, of course, mixing flavors from both Baghdadi and Turkmenli style Kubba't Hallab. And I can't help but be proud that my mama's Kubba't Hallab is perhaps the best of all Kubba't Hallabs. And if Kubba't Hallab, itself, is the best of all kubbas, then that must mean my mama is the best kubbachiyya of all time! 

Traditionally, Kubba't Hallab does not call for onion in the qeema, but my mom adds it, which says a lot about how my family likes to eat. And traditionally Kubba't Hallab has saffron or turmeric in the rice dough, but not my mom's! Ya'ni, she fries it longer than traditional recipes call for because she prefers it crispier on the outside -- as do I! -- so that it turns golden without added coloring! She doesn't want to hide the natural flavors with spices other than black pepper. As it turns out, I, too, cook in this simple way, always running out of black pepper in my pantry while the turmeric lasts forever. I never consciously mimicked my mama's style, it just sort of happened naturally. 

Mama’s Kubba’t Hallab

Makes about 25-30

Ingredients:

2 cups long-grain white rice (don’t listen to anyone else, use only this rice!)
2 lbs ground meat (beef or lamb, Mama says only 1x ground!) 
1 bunch parsley (cruffis
1 large onion
1 egg
salt/pepper
oil for frying


Directions: 
RICE DOUGH for SHELL:

1. Soak rice in cold water for an hour.
2. Wash the rice with your hands, like laundry, to get the starch out of it. 
3. Then rinse it to clean.
4. Put in a pot on the stove. Cover it with water, about ¾ inch. Add salt. Medium/high heat. You don’t want a rapid boil. You want to cook it slow and absorb the water. Don’t shake the rice. No oil. It’s not like cooking regular rice.
5. When it starts simmering, takes about 10 min, put it on medium heat for about 15-20 min or until it looks absorbed.
6. Don’t shake the rice ever, don’t mix it, it needs to stay leveled. But you need to dig little holes for the remaining water at the bottom to steam up. My mom uses the handle end of her wooden spoon to carefully make about 5 holes at the bottom. Wait another 15 minutes on low after making holes. So it’ll be very soft.
7. Once done, turn off, leave covered, let cool. All the steps of the rice are covered! This way it’s a little warm when you need to handle it.
8. Notes: If it’s too hot to handle wear rubber gloves. Machine mixers make it too mushy, so you have to use your hands to knead it into a rice dough.
9. When it cools off enough, crack one egg in it. Egg whites alone are fine, but mama uses the whole egg.
10. Knead it in with your hands. Dip your hands in water to handle the dough. That’s it, just knead the dough. Done. Set aside.

QEEMA for STUFFING: 

1. Start with sautéing the finely diced onion on high head/ 
2.Then add the meat, salt/pepper, and let it cook about 5 minutes 
3.Chop the parsley, lower the heat to medium, then add the parsley. 4.Sautee until the liquid of the meat is absorbed. This doesn’t take very long. Qeema takes only about 20-30 min of cooking on medium. If there is excess fat, just tip the pan, move the qeema aside, and pat dry with a napkin. But that’s up to you. Don’t let it burn, so fold it a bit until it feels cooked. The clear liquid comes out of the meat first then absorbs it, and browns the meat.

NOW, THE PROCESS:

Assembly line of the following:
(1.) bowl of rice dough, (2.) pot of qeema, (3.) bowl of water (for hands).

 1. Dip your hands in some water, take some dough, work it with your hands, make a ball about the size of a small egg. You got this.
2. Make a hole with your index finger to make a well, while working the dough. Then flatten out the sides of the well. See picture. Try to imagine you're making an espresso cup size. 
3. Add about a Tablespoon or less of qeema with one hand, then close the ball with the other hand. 
4. Then cup the ball with your hands to make it into an egg shape. Keep using slightly wet hands. Make as many as you want before you start frying. Mama usually makes about 5 at a time, because we, her children, always need to eat them right away.
5.  Deep fry. When you fry them they need to be covered in oil. See image below. Fry as many as you want at a time, without crowding the pot. Fry until golden. 
6. Let them dry on a cooling rack.

 If you’re like me, you will eat them with labneh. Enjoy!

Bil Afya | Bon Appetit


Mezze Party / The Middle East, Too, Is Made Up of People

P R O L O G U E : It’s a strange and interesting thing to be a first generation American. It’s a sad and lonely and bittersweet thing at times, too. You may find yourself born and raised in, say, Los Angeles, and, naturally, very, very American; but let’s say you don’t have an accent in public but maybe you have a bit of one at home, speaking in the same rhythmic tones of your parents’ language, say, Arabic, and sometimes even bits of Turkman, and cursing always in their language, but not even the cool hip words kids use these days, but the softer words your parents used because, after all, you’re only children and it was a different time then. You may have unconsciously or consciously developed your own ways to fit in at school or work or parties, maybe omitting your last name or Muslim identity from conversation, or maybe secretly spending years diligently working on your enunciation, you know, those years reading aloud to yourself in your room to hear the words come out as Hollywood as possible. And, you see, you grew up in a house with parents from, in my case, the Middle East, specifically Iraq -- the Iraq that people always have an opinion about at dinners, the Iraq we’ve been intermittently at war with since I was in first grade -- with a different language, different foods, different rules than the rest of your friends. And even if you mainly answered back in English, you still inherited all the sounds and rhythm and feeling of the language, the pain and beauty of the language, too. It’s as if you have two feet firmly planted in American soil, because, hey, that’s what you know, and yet there is one emotional ghost-leg dangling, reaching, searching for some distant place you may never see in your own lifetime but contributes so heavily to your makeup. My dad always says “Don’t visit Iraq -- you’ll think me and your mother are liars.” And you know, Iraq has unfortunately been put through so much destruction, haramat, as it is, of course, a country that has the inherent misfortune of rich soil. For now, it seems it is no longer allowed to be the prosperous country of my parents’ youth; and it is this Iraq, their Iraq, the Iraq of the fifties, sixties, even seventies, where my heart searches for belonging. It’s a sad and lonely and bittersweet thing at times, too, this business of being first generation. [END PROLOGUE.]

It was a Thursday morning, and a very early morning, at that. It was a five o’clock in the morning kind of early morning when Mousa Kraish found me via Instagram, of all places, and sent me that enthusiastic and confusing but lovely email. We met up hours later for coffee at the Intelligentsia on Sunset to have our first conversation about Bedouin, his soon-to-be Mid East inspired cafe. It all happened in a blur, and it took about twenty minutes before I could make out something about my possible role in it all, a mezze dinner, and complete creative control. Wait what? The next minute we are in front of the building that in months will be Bedouin.

Mousa is Palestinian American. This comes as a relief in a way that’s hard to explain; maybe because I don’t have an Arab community in Los Angeles and am thirsty for that kind of understanding, a secret comfort in an unspoken familiarity. At least, finally, someone to consider the important questions: Palestinian Kadayif is nothing like Iraqi Kadayif, and why, exactly, is that? Why do we call it the same thing if the only thing it has in common is that it’s a dessert? Okay maybe the sugar and walnut filling. But sometimes Iraqi Kadyif has cream. Does the Palestinian one ever have cream? And sometimes it has cheese, but why, then, don’t Iraqis call the cheese one kanafeh like everyone else? These are the thoughts that keep me up at night.

A little over a week later I find myself hosting a small mezze and wine gathering at Mousa’s place in Angelino Heights. More specifically his beautiful backyard, on the deck that he built. Most everything for this mezze is made from scratch and with so much care. Some might say unnecessarily so, but when most of the guests are not entirely familiar with the complexities of the region, heart matters. In Los Angeles, there is limited exposure to Middle Eastern food, especially from Arab countries. Just hummus and kebabs. Sometimes falafel and tabouleh. Oh and the misrepresentative grape leaf dolmas, slimy and from a can. And pretty exclusively Armenian, Lebanese, or Iranian style dishes. There are no, say, Iraqi or Palestinian or Syrian restaurants in Los Angeles, at least not to my knowledge, each with its own unique styles and flavors and textures. What ends up happening in this city is that, in order to expose those who are maybe unfamiliar or even afraid, everything sits comfortably and romantically under the umbrella of “Middle Eastern” or “Mediterranean,” generalizing the region, which is problematic because we already politically generalize the region. Many people don’t think of the Middle East as vast and complex, with varying ethnicities, languages, dialects, religions, cultures, histories, cuisines; they think of the Middle East as one big blob of hummus and falafel and camels and war. It’s a little annoying, actually. With that said, my Iraqi mother’s hummus is going to have a different taste and texture and secret – of course there are always secrets! -- than what most Angelinos are familiar with, especially on the Eastside.

Mezze means something to the effect of “tastings.” It’s the tapas of the Middle East. For this mezze I wanted to focus primarily on ingredients and flavors and textures from Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey; and yet, without being too unfamiliar, while also being representative of the farmers-market-part-time-vegetarian-health-conscious culture of Los Angeles. 

Cardamom, saffron, za’atar, sumac, nigella seeds, olive oil, pomegranate, dates, cumin, garlic, garlic, garlic, mint, dill, lebneh, lemon, lemon, lemon, sea salt, tahini, parsley.

Many of the mezze dishes of the evening are meant to be dipped with warm pita. The hummus was prepared with the utmost attention and care since it is usually so critically judged, even by amateurs. They were the Rancho Gordo heirloom chickpeas, soaked for hours, and cooked until the perfect texture. Time was spent pealing all the skins. All the skins. The ingredients were organic and fresh. And that heirloom garlic with the purplish hue, the spicy one I picked up from Cookbook in Echo Park, now that has to be some of the best garlic around – it ended up in almost everything that night. To test my patience I waited until the bell peppers were blackened before peeling them for the muhammara, a Syrian dip made from roasted peppers, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses. A bowl of the thick and creamy lebneh, topped with olive oil and za’atar. A smaller one of just the olive oil and za’atar with Maldon salt to dip. The jajeek dip, too: lebneh, cucumbers, garlic, mint. All the pickled things we call tourshi. The classic: beet and turnip tourshi; the thin, crispy dill cucumber tourshi; and even the garlic I pickled in apple cider vinegar two years ago. Olives, olives, olives. A feta sampler, even. Grilled halloumi cheese, my favorite. The organic, grass-fed beef koftas with parsley, onions, spices, and drizzled with a lemony tahini sauce. The filo dough boreks stuffed with diced golden and purple beets, beet greens, and Bulgarian feta, and served with lebneh. The roasted cauliflower salad made of green, yellow, and purple cauliflower, shaved almonds, golden raisins, garlic, lemon, Maldon salt, and black pepper. And an Ottolenghi-inspired spicy purple beet dip that made the table POP! with added color. All with endless pita and red wine. 

Dessert was a simple three ingredient Palestinian semolina cake called harissa, topped with shaved almonds and then soaked in a cardamom-cinnamon-infused simple syrup. Semolina cakes vary across the Middle East and Mediterranean. Iraqis, par example, bake the almond into the cake, giving it a grainier texture. This was served with Mousa’s special Palestinian fresh sage tea, pronounced in his own dialect as shai instead of chai, which I personally never heard before. Overall: a success.