Secrets of Syria's Jewish Cuisine

Moment, September-October 2010 | Go to article overview

Secrets of Syria's Jewish Cuisine


Poopa Dweck, author of the cookbook Aromas of Aleppo, is a member of the tightly-knit Syrian Jewish community in the United States that hails from Aleppo, a city in the north of Syria near the Turkish border-Raised in Brooklyn, Dweck lives in Deal, the exclusive New Jersey town where many Syrian Jews have settled. Moment editor Nadine Epstein visits Dweck at her home, where over kaak sweetened with anise seed, they discuss how Aleppo became "the pearl of the Arab kitchen" and the symbolic foods of the Aleppian Rosh Hashanah meal.

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Why is food from Aleppo unique?

Throughout the centuries of Ottoman rule, the city was at the crossroads of key trade routes. The grandest Silk Road caravans traveled through, and it had the largest souks. Aleppo's people, therefore, had access to exotic foods such as the pistachio nuts that they used in baklava instead of walnuts. In addition, the city was known as "the queen of the meshi." Meshi means stuffed vegetables in Arabic. Because meat used to be very expensive, it was ground up and mixed with rice--that's called kashu--and stuffed into zucchini, tomatoes and grape leaves.

Does one flavor define Aleppian cuisine?

Aleppo's cuisine is known for its liberal use of spices. But the distinguishing flavor is tamarind, a fruit that grows in tropical areas. Redolent of apricots and dates, tamarind imparts a tangy-sour flavor. It's used as a base for sauces, a condiment, a soft drink flavoring, a sweetmeat and a folk remedy for ailing intestines, livers and kidneys. The word tamarind is derived from the Arabic tamr hindi, meaning "Indian date."

Were there any differences between Jewish and Arab cooking in Aleppo?

In Judaism, we don't mix meat with milk, so where Arabs would use clarified butter, we would use oil. Otherwise, it is the same. I was invited to a breakfast with Imad Moustapha, Syria's envoy to the United States, in Brooklyn in 2008, and he told me that his mother verified that all the recipes in my book were authentic. He also told me that Bashar Assad, the president of Syria, had requested a signed copy!

Why does food mean so much to you?

Food is one of the glues that holds my community together. When we light the Shabbat candles and smell the kibbeh hamdha (lemon-mint broth with mixed vegetables and Syrian meatballs) it nourishes more than our bodies; it nourishes our souls.

Why did you write a cookbook?

When I was young, I would go to my mother and say I need a recipe. Like most ethnic cooks, she couldn't give specific-amounts. She'd say a pinch of that and a pinch of this and lean forward and say "Ahhh, let's go to Loehmann's." I panicked. I didn't want to lose this tradition.

Are Syrian Shabbat foods different?

When I was growing up I never heard of challah. We don't use it. Instead we use 12 loaves of Syrian flat bread representing the 12 tribes.

What is the Rosh Hashanah "Seder?"

Its origins go back to the Talmud (Harayot 12a) where Rabbi Abaye says that people should eat foods that grow in abundance at the time of the New Year, symbolizing growth in prosperity. We use a large flat plate with smaller plates to hold the different symbolic foods. They include sugar-dipped apples, dates and lamb's head. Most of these foods are eaten by Aleppian Jews during the evening feast of Rosh Hashanah because of linguistic similarities between the names of these foods and various words that correspond to the wishes of the Jewish people for the coming year. Special blessings are said before each of these items is eaten. The full meal follows the ceremony.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Aleppian Symbolic Foods for Rosh Hashanah

Lamb's Head: Aleppian Jews traditionally eat from the meat of the lamb's head to symbolize that they will be leaders rather than followers. …

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