A Purim Feast Filled With the Amazing Aromas of Aleppo

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imageWhen the Syrian-Jewish community migrated from the ancient city of Aleppo in historic Syria to the United States in the early twentieth century, they carried with them their unique and beloved culinary traditions. Poopa Dweck, a first generation Syrian-Jewish American, realized that the culinary legacy of her community was not written down. Knowing that the recipes only existed in the minds of the older cooks, and realizing the risk of having no culinary record and having to rely upon older generations for culinary counsel, she decided to document the beloved cuisine of her community. The result of her work is Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews (Ecco/Harper Collins). This intriguing, spectacular cookbook, along with its magnificent photographs, focuses on both the culinary treasures and the unique customs of the Aleppian Jewish community.

In Aromas of Aleppo, there is an informative chapter entitled The Holidays, in which Poopa Dweck outlines the major Jewish holidays, providing the reader with an account of the customs and recipes unique to the Aleppian Jewish community. Purim, the Festival of Lots, is included in this section. Purim celebrates the miracle that happened in 356 BCE in the ancient city of Shushan (located in modern-day Iraq) on the 13th of Adar. On this historic day, Esther, a clandestine Jewess in King Achashvero’s royal harem, took it upon herself to foil a decree made by the king’s evil minister Haman to destroy all of the Jews in the kingdom. Haman drew lots, and decided that the 13th of Adar would be the date on which his decree would be enforced.

Esther took it upon herself to save her people from a tragic end, and revealed her true identity to the king while he was at a wine banquet. Enamored with her purity, King Achashvero listened to Esther’s plea and decided to issue a counter-decree that protected all the Jews of his kingdom from harm. What was supposed to be a day of destruction and mourning turned into a joyous and momentous festival. This historic event is still observed today, and the Jews celebrate this holiday by fulfilling four positive commandments:

  1. Hear a complete reading of the Book of Esther (Megillah) on both the eve and the morning of the festival,
  2. Give charity to at least two poor people (matanot l’evyonim),
  3. Send at least two parcels containing ready-to-eat food (mishloah manot) to friends and family,
  4. Eat a sumptuous feast!

Each mishloah manot must include at least two ready-to-eat foods. Aleppian Jews arrange numerous baskets filled with candies, chocolates, fruits, nuts and wine. Some traditional Aleppian treats that can be found in Aromas of Aleppo are Simsemiyeh (Sesame Candy), Baklawa (Pistachio Filled Wedges in Rose Water Syrup) and Halweh/Halvah (Sesame Sweetmeat). I’ve chosen the recipe below for Eras B’Ajweh (Date-Filled Crescents) a delicious dairy cookie, for your enjoyment.

While the daylight hours are dedicated to the sending of mishloah manot via festively costumed children, the afternoon is dedicated to an elaborate feast, which is not complete without large amounts of wine. Interestingly enough, the consuming of wine is encouraged, because it was while under the influence of alcohol that King Achashvero granted Esther’s request to save the Jews of his kingdom. There is a saying that on Purim one should drink enough wine until one can no longer distinguish between the wickedness of Haman and the righteousness of Mordechai (Esther’s encouraging uncle), but whether or not this belief is practiced is up to the individual and interpretation.

Regardless, it is the food that is important, and the sample menu that Poopa Dweck provides for the perfect Purim feast in her cookbook is very inspiring, offering flavorful, exotic dishes to create a fabulous meal of rich Aleppian dishes. Below is a selection of some of the delicious recipes that she suggests for Purim. I’ve chosen several dishes which have hidden fillings rather than hamentaschen (stuffed pastries), which are a usual Purim treat. Enjoy this culinary feast flavored with the Aromas of Aleppo!

Fawleh – Braised String Beans with Allspice and Garlic

10 servings

This dish is different and delicious! What makes it interesting is how the dish is prepared. It is traditionally cooked on a stove top, as are most of the hot dishes prepared in the Syrian repertoire. Aleppian Jewish home cooking evolved without the benefits of ovens, and even though the modern kitchen offers the Syrian chef with modern appliances, many Syrian women refuse to cook in ovens. Preparing dishes on gas-burning stovetops gives the chef more control over the heat, especially for dishes like this one which simmer for a long time.

Ingredients:

Instructions:

  1. In a medium saucepan, sauté the garlic in the vegetable oil over medium heat for 2 minutes, or until soft
  2. Add the string beans, allspice, salt, 2 cups water, and, if desired, cinnamon and white pepper
  3. Dollop the tomato paste by the heaping Tablespoon over the surface of the cooking liquid. Do not stir. By letting the tomato paste remain undistributed, its thick consistency allows for maximum adherence to the string beans as the cooking liquid reduces.
  4. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Note: some people braise the beans in a 350°F oven for 2 hours after simmering so that the beans are exquisitely tender.


Djaj Mehshi – Stuffed Chicken

8 to 10 servings

This is an elaborate roast chicken dish reserved for special holiday meals. The stuffing, studded with almonds, pistachios, and pine nuts, adds a rich and extravagant note to this dish.

Ingredients:

Marinade:

Stuffing:

Ingredients:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. To make the marinade, combine the vegetable oil, garlic, cardamom, paprika, salt, and if desired, nutmeg in a large baking dish. Mix thoroughly
  3. Put the chicken in the dish and let it marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
  4. Meanwhile, prepare the stuffing. In a small saucepan, bring ¾ cup water to a boil. Add rice and ½ teaspoon of the salt, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Place nuts on parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake until slightly golden, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Cool.
  6. Combine the nuts with the beef, parboiled rice, allspice, cinnamon and the remaining 1 teaspoon salt in a medium mixing bowl. Mix thoroughly.
  7. Loosely stuff the chicken cavity. Extra stuffing should be placed into parchment paper and folded into an envelope.
  8. Add 1 cup water to a roaster, add the chicken, and place the packet of stuffing alongside it. Cover and roast in the oven for 1 hour.
  9. Remove the stuffing from the parchment envelope and fluff with fork in pan.
  10. Spoon juices onto the stuffing and roast for 1 more hour, or until the chicken is fork-tender and the stuffing is moist and fluffy.

Notes: Pistachios (Fistou Halabi): Aleppian pistachios aren’t available for export. However pistachios from Central Asia and the Middle East are almost as good. Dweck says that pistachios from California lack flavor, but remain popular because of their saturated green hue. The thin, edible skin can easily be removed from the nut meat by blanching it. Cover shelled pistachios with boiling water and let them stand for 2 minutes, then peel off the skins.

Almonds (Loz) should be bought with their skins on, rather than blanched, because the peel acts as a protective coating that keeps them fresh. Blanch almonds right before using them. Cover them with boiling water and let them stand for 2 minutes. Drain and cool the nuts a bit before slipping off their skins.


Medias Shawki – Artichoke Halves Stuffed with Ground Meat and Rice

8 to 10 servings

The Medias Shawki first appeared in the Aleppian culinary repertoire thanks to the Spanish Jews. Interestingly enough, the word media is Spanish for “half,” which is evidence of their influence on the creation of this delicious dish.

Ingredients:

Filling:

Sauce:

Ingredients:

  1. Cut the artichokes in half lengthwise, remove the hairy choke, and trim 1 inch of bracts (leaves) from the top.
  2. To make the filling, combine the beef, 1 egg, allspice, and salt in a medium mixing bowl and mix well. Fill the cavity of each artichoke with the filling.
  3. Put the remaining egg in a shallow dish and beat it; put the matzah meal in another. Dip each artichoke in egg and then dredge in the matzah meal.
  4. Heat the vegetable oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Fry the artichokes, filling-side down, for 2 minutes, or until the breading is golden brown. Place the artichokes in a large skillet in a single layer. Do not stack.
  5. To make the sauce, combine the tomato sauce, lemon, juice, sugar, salt, and 1 cup water. Mix well.
  6. Drizzle the olive oil into a medium ovenproof saucepan. Place the fried artichokes in the saucepan, filling-side up. Sprinkle the artichokes with salt. Cook over medium heat for 3 minutes, or until the artichokes begin to sweat. Pour the sauce over the artichokes. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the artichoke hearts are fork-tender.

Eras B’ajweh – Date-Filled Crescents (Dairy)

Sweets are a big part of Purim, and these Date-Filled Crescents make a great addition to any special parcel (mishloah manot). These treats are also a perfect pairing with tea or coffee, or even as a light dessert. Be sure to use Medjool dates as much of the flavor of this sweet depends on the quality of the dates. Avoid those with rigid meat or thick, tasteless skins. These sweets should melt in your mouth to reveal a soft, almost pudding-like consistency.

Ingredients:

Yields 48 cookies

Dough:

Filling:

Instructions:

  1. To make the dough, combine the flour, smead, butter, salt, and rose water (if desired) in a large mixing bowl. Add ½ cup warm water, ¼ cup at a time, mixing until well blended after each addition. Cover and set aside.
  2. To make the filling, in a medium saucepan, place the dates in enough water to cover them. Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook for 15 minutes, or until the dates are soft.
  3. Remove the dates from the heat and transfer them to a medium mixing bowl. Mash the dates with a fork until a smooth, jam-like consistency is achieved. Stir in the walnuts and zest. Let cool.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  5. Pinch off walnut-size pieces of the dough and flatten them into 2-inch rounds on a work surface. Place 1 teaspoon of the date filling in the center of each round. Then, with your hands, roll the pastry into a fluted shape with open ends. Turn the ends of the fluted pastry toward one another to form a crescent shape. Continue in this way with the remaining dough and filling. Transfer the finished pastries to an ungreased cookie sheet.
  6. Bake the pastries for about 15 minutes, or until only the bottoms are light brown. Make sure that the tops of the pastries remain pale. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar just before serving.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.