The Aro­mas of Aleppo

Poopa Dweck
  • Review
By – November 10, 2011
The vibrant pages of Aro­mas of Alep­po will make your mouth water for laham b’ajeen (minia­ture minced meat pies), yebra (grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice), and home­made hum­mus, but its appeal goes beyond just the food. Whether you’re Syr­i­an or not, the fam­i­ly pho­tographs found along­side the recipes will trig­ger mem­o­ries that bring you back to your own hol­i­day din­ner table (per­haps with a few vari­a­tions). His­to­ry, fam­i­ly, and tra­di­tion — all of these com­bine to cre­ate a cook­book that gives the read­er a taste of the cul­ture, and of course the cui­sine, of Aleppo. 

Ask any mem­ber of the Syr­i­an com­mu­ni­ty— when it comes to Shab­bat and hol­i­days, food dom­i­nates. The book, with recipes for sal­ads, meats, desserts, and every­thing in between, reflects that pret­ty accu­rate­ly. It is extreme­ly com­pre­hen­sive; it includes the sta­ples of Syr­i­an-Jew­ish cui­sine like rice and kibbeh (stuffed meat­balls) as well as less­er-known recipes. And since food is so tight­ly woven into the fab­ric of Alep­pi­an cul­ture, the author pro­vides a brief his­to­ry of the Alep­pi­an-Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, a descrip­tion of dif­fer­ent Jew­ish and Syr­i­an tra­di­tions through­out the cal­en­dar year, and exten­sive hol­i­day and Shab­bat menus. 

The cook­book, com­plete with an index and glos­sary of terms, is easy to use and a plea­sure to read. It is a valu­able ref­er­ence for the Syr­i­an kitchen and a rich guide­book to Aleppo’s unique her­itage for the non-Syr­i­an, both in and out­side of the kitchen.

Recipe: Bam­bia b’Mishmosh Okra With Prunes and Apri­cots in Tamarind Sauce

In the Mid­dle East, okra is also known as ladies’ fin­gers because of its dain­ty shape. Okra is extreme­ly pop­u­lar in the East­ern Mediter­ranean and Mid­dle East, where it is much small­er and more fla­vor­ful than okra grown in the West. It has a lot of small seeds and a very gluti­nous tex­ture, which can be less­ened con­sid­er­ably by soak­ing it in a salt­wa­ter-lemon juice solu­tion before cook­ing. Small okras have small seeds and are not as tough and stringy as the larg­er vari­ety. There­fore, try to buy the small­est fresh okra you can find, or buy frozen Egypt­ian baby okra from a Mid­dle East­ern gro­cery. Before sautée­ing, rinse the okra quick­ly, so that it does not absorb too much water.

Yield: 8 to 10 serv­ings.

1 pound fresh small okra, stems or trimmed, or frozen Egypt­ian baby okra (about 2 cups)
2 table­spoons veg­etable oil
4 gar­lic cloves, chopped (about 2 tea­spoons)
1 table­spoon toma­to paste
3 table­spoons ou’ (tamarind con­cen­trate), home­made or store-bought
Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 table­spoons)
1 tea­spoon kosher salt
1/2 cup dried apri­cots
1/2 cup pit­ted prunes

1. In a medi­um sauce pan, gen­tly sauté the okra in the veg­etable oil over medi­um heat for 2 to 3 min­utes 

2. Add gar­lic and sauté until the okra is light­ly browned, 1 to 2 min­utes. To pre­vent the okra from emit­ting its char­ac­ter­is­tic starchy, mucilagi­nous liq­uid, do not stir with a spoon, shake the pot occa­sion­al­ly as it cooks. 

3. Dol­lop the toma­to paste and ou’ over the okra. Add 1 cup of water, the lemon juice, and salt. Cov­er and sim­mer over low heat for 30 min­utes, then add the apri­cots and prunes. Cook for 30 min­utes more until okra is crsip­ten­der, not mushy.

From The Aro­mas of Alep­po by Poopa Dweck (Harper­Collins; 2007; $49.95)

Ray Katz used to intern at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She cur­rent­ly lives in Man­hat­tan, works on prod­uct devel­op­ment for a small com­pa­ny that makes inter­ac­tive dig­i­tal prod­ucts for kids, and writes free­lance when she gets the chance.

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