Today, I’m going to cook traditional Syrian dishes with Poopa Dweck, author of Aromas of Aleppo. Most of the dishes we’re going to make I have prepared before—one even weekly. As a Syrian Jew, it’s the food I grew up with as well. Yet, I still hope to unlock secrets of the Syrian kitchen, and bring access to this distinctive and tantalizing cuisine to Joy of Kosher readers. For all of you—we’re going to make maza (small delights) first, two types. Bastel, delightful small semolina pastries, filled with ground meat, and laham b’ajeen, mini meat pies, a favorite of all types of Jews everywhere. And for the main course—we’re preparing mehshi kusa, squash filled with ground meat and rice—with a surprisingly delicious side.
Poopa chopped a generous amount of onions for the meat filling of our bastel. The trick of the meat filling is to stand over the stove, constantly pressing the meat with a fork so it is not clumpy at all. “You need to keep breaking up the meat, so it’s small, and the spices and pine nuts will integrate well later.”
The dough for the bastel is about the same as its dairy counterpart—the beloved sambousak. There is margarine instead of butter, flour, and smead, also known as semolina. “The margarine needs to be at room temperature to incorporate into the flour nicely. The difference between this dough and sambousak dough is that it takes one teaspoon of oil. Since butter is naturally moister than margarine, it needs to compensate.”
Poopa begins kneading the dough by hand. “People ask, ‘Poopa, why is my dough too crumbly?’ They are not giving a chance for the margarine or butter to do its job. You really need to let the oils open up when kneading—and it’s very important for the margarine or butter to be at room temperature.”
Poopa then shows me the kneaded dough. “This might be the time when people ruin the dough, because they panic and put in more water—just keep kneading.” The amount of water is affected by humidity, so a cook really needs intuition.
The meat is still cooking, and it will continue to cook, Poopa says, until there is no more moisture. “Can we drain it?”
“No—then you will lose all the beautiful flavors.” Poopa advises to wait until the meat is finished cooking before we season it—the spices should not get cooked. “Cook it until the moisture is almost gone, because the meat will soak up the rest of the water while it cools.”
To make the bastel, we take a walnut-sized ball of dough. Poopa shows me how she pokes an indentation, then presses the walls of the cavity down to make room for the meat. Though I make sambousak all the time, I’ve never made bastel. The shape is very different, “sambousak are crescent shaped, while bastel were made round—that’s for kashrut reasons, so we know which are milk or meat.”
A teaspoon of meat goes in, and Poopa closes the ball on the bottom. Then pinch pinch pinch—dip in sesame and we're done.
“In Aleppo, Syria, the laham b’ajeen were originally the size of a wrap. It was street food. Then, in America, they got smaller, and smaller, and smaller—until they became bite size. The old-timers laugh when they see the little dots of laham b’ajeen today!” I’m guilty. I too make mine teensy.
The main ingredient the laham b’ajeen’s sauce is tamarind concentrate, or temerhindi (also called oot in Arabic), which came to Aleppo via India and Persia in the 7th century. Despite its travels, the entire Middle East uses pomegranate concentrate instead. “The exclusive use of tamarind is by the Aleppians. The Syrian women used to make 40 pounds before Pesach to use through the holiday and the entire year,” Poopa says.
She adds the ingredients, including onions which have been pulverized in the food processor and Aleppo pepper, which heats food in a milder way than crushed red pepper. Allspice goes in abundance.
“Mehshi is any stuffed vegetable. In Aleppo, stuffed vegetables were extremely popular. Aleppo was part of the Fertile Crescent. The veggies were abundant, and meat was very expensive. Mixes with rice, though, a little meat could be stretched to feed families by stuffing them into vegetables. They stuffed anything possible—zucchini, eggplant, carrots, onions, potatoes, tomatoes.” The zucchini that we’re stuffing today are bigger than usual. “These big ones are actually easier to stuff—but the talented cook shows off by scooping really thin ones.”
First, Poopa uses a mav’beh, which looks like a long, thin corer, and is sold in Middle Eastern shops (a very thin corer will work as well). She cuts off the top, and a little piece at the bottom, then goes in to take out the inside. “One of the best parts of mehshi kusa is the lib kusa, the byproduct. Cook it with onion, light olive oil, salt, and a little sugar. Not an orange rind in Aleppo was wasted—even the insides of the vegetables were eaten.”
Poopa then shows us one of her favorite scooping tools, a grapefruit spoon, which has serrated edges. “I really go to town with this one,” she says. “Keep the zucchini in your palm so you don’t puncture through.”
The filling for the mehshi is called hashu, and it includes rice that has been soaked—not parboiled (“Parboiled rice doesn’t have the same bite to it”)—and of course, more allspice. “When I mix my meat, I don’t like to overmix it. It takes out the oxygen. Even when preparing hamburgers or anything with ground meat, always have a light hand. It’s not dough.”
The stuffed mehshi are piled in a pot—with no water. It cooks in its own liquids, temerhindi, and a little lemon juice. “When my mother was teaching me how to cook, she would tell me, ‘No water!’ But I didn’t have the confidence that it would cook like that, so she’d repeat it, ‘Poopa, no water!’ The water will come from the squash. Poopa adds the apricots, and temerhindi on top. She lets the mehshi steam a little bit before adding the lemon juice—and then places a plate on top. “The pressure on top of the mechshe keeps the rice from escaping. But in Aleppo, there was more rice proportionate to the meat, so a century ago, they didn’t only put a plate, but also a glass of water on top of the plate.”
A note about Temerhindi (tamarind sauce): If you live in the New York or New Jersey area, it is worth a trip to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn or Deal, New Jersey to nab a few jars. And if you don’t—have a relative ship some to you! Others use the very accessible (though inauthentic) prune butter (Ssshh….just don’t tell Poopa).
We also made this wonderful vegetable side - Lib Kusa.
This article was originally published in the Rosh Hashanah 2011 issue of Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller.