When Sarine and Murad Kattan left Aleppo, Syria, in 1947 for their honeymoon in Italy, their thoughts were of love and their future in their beloved homeland, where their family and the larger Jewish community had lived and flourished for centuries.
Back in Aleppo the announcement of the United Nations partition of Palestine fueled the already smoldering atmosphere of anti-Semitism, setting off pogroms that virtually extinguished all Jewish life, erasing centuries of this rich, thriving culture. Those Jews that survived fled by the thousands, and the honeymooners were forced to remain in Italy, never to see Aleppo again.
By all accounts, the culture and cuisine of the Jews of Aleppo should have perished. They did not. The Syrian-Jewish community, extremely tight-knit despite its scattering across many continents, continues to thrive.
Sarine and Murad’s daughter, Poopa Dweck, has documented the rich culinary legacy of her parents’ homeland in “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews” (Ecco/Harper Collins, $50). Illustrated with magnificent photos, “Aromas of Aleppo” documents the sumptuous cuisine and unique customs of this vibrant culture.
Aleppian-Jewish cuisine is a combination of Mediterranean and Levantine cooking. “Compared to other Arab cuisines, it is elaborate, very opulent, because Aleppo itself was a flourishing commercial center, and the ingredients came from all over the world and were of the best quality,” Dweck explained by phone from her home in Deal, New Jersey. “Through Turkish, Persian and Spanish influences that came to Aleppo, it was brought up to a high level. Our cuisine was known as the pearl of the Arab world.”
One factor that distinguishes Aleppian cooking is the use of tamarind. “Whereas the rest of the Arab world uses pomegranate concentrate, we use tamarind,” she said. Her book tour took her to Beijing, where fresh tamarind grows in pods in the countryside. “I taught the Jewish community there how to make tamarind concentrate. It’s so plentiful there.” And through Persian influence, Aleppian cooking makes much use of dried fruit, especially apricots, in everything from meat dishes to desserts.
Another common ingredient is Aleppo pepper. “These red peppers are grown on the border between Turkey and Aleppo,” Dweck noted. “It is half as hot as fresh red pepper flakes and twice as expensive, but very refined, giving the dish a more sophisticated, subtle flavor.”
“Aromas of Aleppo” is so much more than a collection of recipes, however. It is the documentation of a once flourishing community with its unique customs and traditions.
“When the Jews left Aleppo, they dispersed throughout the world to Mexico, South America, Israel, Panama, Colombia and Switzerland,” noted Dweck. “The largest Syrian Jewish community is in Brooklyn. We stay connected—the community is like one. At weddings and bar mitzvahs, we all know each other.”
Alienated by the Eastern European Jews when they arrived in America, the Aleppian community has defied assimilation. “When we came to Brooklyn, to the Lower East Side of New York, other Jews didn’t even think we were Jewish. We were dark skinned. We looked different. We didn’t eat matzo ball soup and challah. We made our own Syrian flat bread.
“The reason we’re so closely knit, I think, is that we have paid strict adherence to our customs and religious observances. We didn’t go to meatloaf. Through its food, holidays and life cycle events we’ve kept it intact.”
Today despite the destruction of their homeland, the Syrian-Jewish community is stronger than ever, said Dweck. “Without a homeland to define who we are, now more than ever do we understand that a community is organic. It is not established necessarily by demographics or geography. We feel an even stronger pressure not to lose our identity now that our country isn’t standing, to strengthen our history through our culture, our food, our traditions, our religion and to remember to stay strong and not give up who we are because our country is destroyed.
“I want my great grandchildren to have this beautiful legacy, and my dream is coming true. I’m seeing it coming to be now with the holidays being celebrated with more fervor, everything adhered to with great excitement. I’ve received emails, even from non-Jews, telling me they are inspired, they know the value of family and are revisiting their roots and their religious backgrounds because of my book.”
Rice with Brown Lentils and Frizzled Caramelized Onions (Mujedrah)
Mujedrah is still a Thursday night staple for Aleppian Jewish families, just as it was back in Aleppo, served with laban (yogurt), mint and chopped cucumber.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
3/4 cup brown lentils
2 cups thinly sliced onions (3 to 4 onions)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup long-grain rice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons butter
1 Combine lentils with 1 cup water in large saucepan over medium heat. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, 10 to 15 minutes, or until lentils are al dente, or slightly firm.
2 Meanwhile, in large skillet, sauté onions in oil over medium heat 30 minutes, or until thoroughly caramelized.
3 When lentils are al dente, drain liquid into measuring cup and add enough water to bring total liquid to 1 1/2 cups. Return to saucepan; add rice, salt and a third of the onions. Bring to boil over high heat; reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 30 minutes.
4 Add butter to rice; simmer 10 more minutes. Before serving, top with remaining fried onions and their cooking oil.
Pistachio Filla Wedges in Rose Water syrup (Baklawa)
The sheen on the surface of baklawa comes from the shira (Fragrant Aleppian Dessert Syrup)
Yield: 30 wedges
1 1/2 pounds pistachios, shelled, blanched, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
1 1/4 pounds (5 sticks) unsalted butter or margarine, melted
24 sheets filla (about 1 pound)
1 cup cod shira (Fragrant Aleppian Dessert Syrup, recipe follows)
1 Combine pistachios, sugar, and 1/4 cup of the melted butter in medium mixing bowl.
2 Working with half the filla, brush each sheet, one at a time, using slightly less than half the remaining melted butter. Stack them evenly, one on top of the other. (Keep untended sheets covered with wax paper and towel to prevent drying out.) Fit buttered filla sheets into 14-inch round or 10×12-inch baking pan, folding sides over to create a round or straight edge.
3 Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
4 Spread nut mixture over filla. Repeat step 3 for remaining filla, covering nut layer and brushing top sheet with butter generously. Refrigerate, covered, 20 minutes. Cut pastry into diamond, square or rectangular pieces.
5 Bake 1 hour or until puffy and golden. Remove from oven; pour cold shira over it. Let cool.
Shira (Fragrant Aleppian Dessert Syrup)
Yield: 2 cups
3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon orange blossom water or rose water
1 Combine sugar, lemon juice, orange blossom water and 1 cup water in medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly with wooden spoon until mixture boils. Reduce heat to low and simmer 15 minutes, or until syrup slides slowly down back of spoon.
2 Allow syrup to cool. Use immediately or pour into glass jar and refrigerate. It will keep up to two months.
Source: “Aromas of Aleppo”
by Poopa Dweck
Jlife food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.