I’ve been spending time with a Syrian cook named Mayada Anjari. Not face to face, regrettably. Instead, I’ve come to know Mayada through reading her splendid cookbook, The Bread and Salt Between Us.
I cooked one dish, then another, and soon I’d made eight of Mayada’s beguiling recipes. Not that I’m through.
My favorite so far is an eggplant and potato stew that reminds me uncannily of the Southern Italian approach to vegetables: cooking them until they are soft and their flavors melt deliciously into one another.
Before sharing that recipe, I’ll say a little more about Mayada. Her story begins with growing up in Homs, Syria. She tells of learning to cook big Friday night dinners with her mother and sisters and of the first dish she made for her husband-to-be: a rice pudding that he still raves about. By the time civil war broke out, they had four children. The family fled and now lives in New Jersey.
Baked chicken redolent of kabsa spice–a mixture including coriander, cardamom, sumac and turmeric–was the first dish I tried. With it I served Mayada’s bulgur and vermicelli pilaf, a lovely side that lightens the earthiness of the whole grain with airy pasta strands, toasted before simmering with the bulgur. Mayada advises buying fideos from Latin or Middle Eastern stores, but I used Italian vermicelli from my cupboard and it worked fine.
Mayada prides herself on her kibbeh and I can see why. The bulgur “dough” is held together with ground chicken and molded around a ground beef filling. Thanks to Mayada’s detailed instructions, I acquired a new culinary skill.
One of our family’s favorites was fatteh, a kind of flatbread casserole. In the version here, chickpeas are spooned over fried pita pieces, then sauced with homemade hummus and yogurt. The components were familiar, but the dish itself? Not at all.
Back to that eggplant and potato stew I love so much. The genius of the dish is the placement of ingredients in a saucepan: onions, potatoes, eggplant, spices, tomatoes. Each layer is cooked for a precise amount of time before the next goes in. We don’t stir until Mayada gives permission. And, if you do it her way, the alchemy happens!
I will say that I cut the vegetable cubes smaller than Mayada does. And I admit to substituting olive oil for vegetable oil.
This is a recipe I’m pretty sure I’ll be making for the rest of my life.
Before I read this cookbook, the mention of Syria evoked only headlines of war and humaritarian crisis. Now I also know that olive and almond trees grow in Syria, that rich food traditions pass from one generation to the next, that we have many things in common. One point of connection is how Mayada cooks to please her children–I do the same, always looking for ways to coax my grandchildren into enjoying new dishes.
I could go on about Mayada’s story and her recipes. But a better idea would be to buy yourself a copy of The Bread and Salt Between Us: Recipes and Stories from a Syrian Refugee’s Kitchen. It’s a beautifully photographed and produced cookbook, and I was impressed to learn that all the professionals who worked on it, including publisher Hiroko Kiiffner and co-writer Jennifer Sit, donated their time. The profits go to help Mayada’s family and to a Syrian refugee relief fund.
This is a slightly modified version of Mayada Anjari's recipe in The Bread and Salt Between Us.
- ½ cup vegetable oil or olive oil
- 1 medium onion coarsely grated
- 4 russet potatoes about 2½ pounds, peeled and cut in 1-inch pieces
- 2 large globe eggplants about 2 pounds, peeled and cut in 1½-inch pieces
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 3 teaspoons salt
- ½ cup coarsely chopped parsley leaves and tender stems
- 3 medium tomatoes about 1½ pounds, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
- Parsley leaves for garnish
Heat the oil in a large saucepan on medium-high. Cook the onion for 1 minute, or until fragrant. Layer potatoes on top, followed by a layer of eggplant. Sprinkle with paprika, pepper and 2 teaspoons of the salt, then the chopped parsley. Do not stir. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.
Place the tomatoes on top and sprinkle with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Cover and cook for 5 minutes more, until tomatoes begin to soften.
Stir contents of pan, cover and cook for 15 minutes, until slightly softened. Give everything another good stir, cover again and cook for 15 to 20 minutes more, until the vegetables are tender, the tomatoes have broken down and the sauce has thickened.
Top with parsley and serve.