Monday, March 10, 2014

2013/2014 Cookbook Choices - Lest We Forget Aleppo

The missing plane from Malaysia only cements our concerns about possible terrorism and the troubled areas of this world.  From as far back as I can remember, the Middle East has always been a hotbed of conflict.
Recently, a friend told me about his relatives who chose to remain behind in Aleppo, Syria.  It was the only way of life they knew and they could not imagine abandoning everything, thus signaling that they had given in to the rebels.  When the matriarch died, she was buried in a rebel-controlled cemetery and had to be transported early in the morning, accompanied by only one son.  Such is the courage and the struggle to survive.

Aleppo is an ancient city and was a crossroad for the many conquerors who came to that region.  Abraham is said to have stopped there on his way to Canaan.  The conquerors included the biblical Amorites and Hittites, the Mameluks, Ottomans, Mongols, Venetians, Romans and French.    Inevitably, the Aleppians created a great culinary capital, utilizing the spices, herbs, grains, meats and vegetables influenced by these various groups.

There are two amazing books.  One, "Aromas of Aleppo" (Poopa Dweck) elaborates on the legendary Syrian Jewish cuisine and the other, "Flavours of Aleppo" (Elie Badra) documents the Syrian Arab food.  Compare and contrast and one realizes the similarities that both groups share with each other.  Kibbeh, candied orange peel, phyllo pastry.  "Aromas" is an ode to the tight-knit Syrian Jewish community, since dispersed to various parts of the world but predominantly in Brooklyn and Deal, New Jersey. Written by a mother grieving after her young son's passing, her comprehensive book alone symbolizes the Syrian Jewish woman's qualities as a wife and mother.  "Flavours"was written by a woman who now lives in Canada, about memories from her mother's kitchen.  A subject close to my heart.  As Badra wrote, "Memories of the aromas wafting from my mother's kitchen are ingrained in always held the central position, like a vital organ in our home.... she always prepared larger amounts of food than necessary for our immediate family".

The recipes in both books are simple.  It will interest Nonyas to know that Aleppian Jewish cooking uses tamarind juice - a fundamental ingredient for many of their dishes. Along with cilantro, semolina and even coconut, suddenly the world seems small enough.

And while we're zeroing in on the Middle East, there are two other books not to be missed.  "Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies" (Najieh Batmanglij) is a comprehensive study of a rich culture.  The book is one of those epic documents, complete with ancient paintings, history, customs and folklore.  The recipes span almost the entire culinary repertoire.  Additionally, there is a useful section on 'How to make and store kitchen ingredients' which includes how to make Persian noodles, caramelize raw nuts, remove bitterness from orange peel amidst other tips.  I have collected a few other Persian cookbooks but this is by far, the most impressive one yet.

In case, anyone feels like Middle Eastern food is too traditional, there is the "Modern Flavors of Arabia" (Suzanne Husseini) which would appeal to the modern Arab woman.  Some of the most stylish and sophisticated women I've met are Arab and they remind me of who the book would connect with.  Husseini hosts a successful cooking show in the Middle East.  Gladly, her existence comes to show the rest of the world that the Middle East should not be portrayed as simply a war- torn region stagnating in ancient history but one of a progressive society striving to move with the times.


Trees Poepchinees said...

Aromas of Aleppo was on my wishlist, then I saw ther's also Flavours of Aleppo. Thanks to this review bth ge books are on my wishlist. I'm completely into Lebanese food, so I think it's an enrichment also to cook Syrian food. Both jewish and arab. The Syrian Ottolenghi combination.

Sharon Wee said...

Thanks for your comment! They are both amazing books and I hope that you will get them at some point. All the best!

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