Learning Who You Are Through What You Eat

"You know what I like about church?" my daughter said one Sunday, her patent leather shoes clicking down the flagstones.

Ummm ... God? Praying? Understanding that you must never, ever, ever have sex?

"What?" I asked.

"The bread."

The bread. This is a kid who grabbed my chopsticks as a toddler to decimate a plate of pad thai, so it wasn't strange that she would hone in on the food aspect of church. But while "bread" wasn't the answer I was expecting, I realized it was the answer I had been hoping for.

My daughter is ethnically Indian, as is my husband, and our frequent trips to Mumbai keep that part of the family's culture alive. But how to communicate to my child the other half of her story, from the Syrian section of Brooklyn, where every Sunday after endless "Ahhhh-meeens" my grandfather and I would walk to the bakery, a steamy basement off Atlantic Avenue where I would punch down the puffy loaves of khoubiz — pita bread — as he and the baker drank sweet, cardamom-scented coffee and spoke a rolling, guttural Arabic? How to pass on the fruity tang of pomegranate-stewed eggplant as it fills your grandmother's foyer, or the embattled cadence of a half-dozen aunties shouting about the best way to shell pistachios?

Church — a Middle Eastern Catholic church like the one my grandfather used to take me to — was the only way. Bread, of course, is at the center of the church, the godly meal dipped in wine and offered by wrinkled old men with accents exactly like my grandfather's. But there is also coffee hour, where the same old men drink that strong, sweet ah'weh arabe, where children devour bowls of anise-flavored wheat berries called slee'ah, where during Lent we share spinach pies, hummus and other meatless dishes. And where every Labor Day we celebrate our heritage the only way we know how: with a massive food festival.

The hands of Michele Kayal's daughter manipulate a meat pie i i

Michele Kayal's daughter "pinches the edges of meat pies, her tiny fingers joyfully sealing the corners like Play-Doh. She learns the word lahem'ajeen, 'meat pie.' " Michele Kayal for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Michele Kayal for NPR
The hands of Michele Kayal's daughter manipulate a meat pie

Michele Kayal's daughter "pinches the edges of meat pies, her tiny fingers joyfully sealing the corners like Play-Doh. She learns the word lahem'ajeen, 'meat pie.' "

Michele Kayal for NPR

This weekend, ethnic churches from Belmont, Calif., to Boston will showcase their Polish pierogi and Portuguese caldo verde, their Italian pizzelle and Greek souvlakia. For uninitiated Americans, these precious cultural icons offer a window into the culinary foundation of our country. For third generations like myself and for our children, the festivals — and the preparation for them — open a magic passage to the vanished kitchens of our grandmothers.

"Kifak!" the ladies at my church greet each other as they enter the banquet hall early on a Saturday morning.

My daughter runs to hug a few of her favorites. "So sweet," they say in Arabic, pinching her cheeks — hard — the way my grandmother used to pinch mine. She twists away, as I used to, then sits down at the long table set with big bowls of ground lamb and rice. We work from cookie trays of freshly boiled grape leaves, picking the tenderest, most perfectly formed ones first, in our quest to make more than 2,500 yebrat, stuffed grape leaves in lemony tomato sauce.

I flatten a leaf and attempt to show my daughter how to fill it with meat, then roll it up like a cigar, but she waves me off. "Mommy," she says with 6-year-old disdain, "I can do it by myself."

About The Author

Michele Kayal is a food writer specializing in the intersection of food, culture and identity. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the late great Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Conde Nast Traveler, and many other national outlets. She writes regularly for The Associated Press and on her blog, The Hyphenated Chef.

I retreat to another station and watch as she rolls a few, badly, and places them proudly on the tray with the perfectly formed specimens of the grannies. She chats with them, telling them about kindergarten, and listening as they speak their unfamiliar language. "What a good job," they say in accented English. "Such a big girl," they flatter. "Can you say 'yebrat?' " they teach.

When she's not looking, I do surreptitious quality control, re-rolling her grape leaves the way my grandmother used to re-roll mine, until my fingers became so deft, so full of memory that I could no longer recall ever learning it. She rolls, I re-roll, the Arabic weaves in and out of the accented English. We do this through the first pan of grape leaves, five layers deep, 300 in all. Then one of the grannies puts her arm around my girl's narrow shoulders.

"Habibi" — sweetie pie — "do it this way," the granny says, tucking the corners of a leaf just so. My daughter watches, then rolls her leaf with fingers half the width of the cigar she's making, doing exactly what I had tried to show her, but this time without protest.

She rolls and rolls, like I used to at my grandmother's sunny dining room table in Brooklyn, the one covered with plastic. The next week, she pinches the edges of meat pies, her tiny fingers joyfully sealing the corners like Play-Doh. She learns the word lahem'ajeen, "meat pie," and carries a whole tray — 50 pies, an hour's work — into the kitchen as the ladies hold their breath, but say nothing, patting her on the back when she returns.

Like me, my daughter will likely never speak Arabic. She may never visit the Middle East. But if my prayers are answered, our visits to church will give her more than daily bread. They will give her grape leaves and meat pies and baklava and the Arabic words that go with them, our enduring — and at this point — only link to the heritage that necessarily grows fainter with each generation.

Hummus

Talk to six Syrian grannies and you'll get six answers about how to make the best hummus. I have developed this recipe to be smooth and somewhat light. Feel free to substitute canned chickpeas, but do not skip the sieve. It's what creates the smooth texture. If using dried chickpeas, advance preparation is required.

Hummus i i
Michele Kayal for NPR
Hummus
Michele Kayal for NPR

Makes 6 servings

1 cup dried chickpeas

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (or more to taste)

2 to 3 medium-sized cloves garlic, peeled and mashed until smooth with a pinch of salt in mortar and pestle

1/2 cup tahini

1 tablespoon cumin powder

1 tablespoon coriander powder

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

If using dried chickpeas, place them in a pot and cover with 4 cups cold water. Add baking soda and stir. Cover pot and place in refrigerator. Let soak at least 12 hours.

Drain the chickpeas and rinse well. Cover the chickpeas with 4 cups fresh water, cover pot, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat immediately, letting covered pot simmer gently for about 45 minutes. The chickpeas are done when the inside is a uniform yellow, with no white nodes of starch.

Drain the chickpeas, retaining about 2 cups cooking water. Let chickpeas cool to room temperature. Place chickpeas and cooking water in the refrigerator until well chilled, about two hours. Do not put hot chickpeas in refrigerator — they'll get pasty.

Place chilled chickpeas in food processor. Add salt and lemon juice. Process about 1 minute, until mixture is very smooth and lighter in color. If the mixture is too thick or the blade is straining, add cooking water 1 tablespoon at a time.

Place puree in a fine mesh sieve over a bowl. With rubber spatula, force puree through the sieve. The skins of the chickpeas will be left behind in the sieve. Discard skins.

Rinse food processor and blade, and return the puree to the processor. Add garlic, tahini and spices, and process just until mixed.

With processor running, drizzle the olive oil into the hummus. Scrape down the sides, and adjust salt and lemon. If mixture is not light and creamy, add cooking water 1 tablespoon at a time until it is.

Serve topped with olive oil and a sprinkle of cumin. Use pita bread or fresh raw vegetables for dipping.

Stuffed Grape Leaves (Yebrat)

Grape leaves stuffed with rice and served cold as appetizers have long been popular. But when meat and heat are added, they become a savory and satisfying meal. This recipe is adapted from my family's cookbook, A Taste of Syria by Virginia Jerro Gerbino and Philip M. Kayal (Hippocrene Press 2003/Second edition 2009). Grape leaves are available from Middle Eastern groceries.

Stuffed Grape Leaves (Yebrat) i i
Michele Kayal for NPR
Stuffed Grape Leaves (Yebrat)
Michele Kayal for NPR

Makes 8 servings (60 yebrat)

2 pounds coarsely ground lamb

1 1/4 cups long-grain white rice, like basmati

Two 8-ounce cans tomato sauce, divided

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons allspice

1 1/4 cup cold water, divided

1/2 pound grape leaves*

10 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole

3 cups fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1 cup tomato sauce

*Available in jars from Middle Eastern stores

In a large bowl, mix the meat, rice, tomato sauce, salt, allspice and 1/4 cup cold water.

Place a grape leaf vein side up on a flat surface. Place 1 or 2 tablespoons of stuffing across the widest part of the leaf and shape into a log. Fold the bottom of the leaf over the log, tuck the sides over the ends of the log, and roll toward the top of the leaf to produce what looks like a small cigar. Do not overstuff the leaf or it will rip when the rice expands during cooking.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, stack the cigars seam side down. Sprinkle garlic cloves between each layer. Try to limit stack to three layers, otherwise cooking can become uneven. Mix the remaining 1 cup of cold water, lemon juice and tomato sauce, and pour over the cigars. Cover the pot and gently simmer until rice is fully cooked, about 35 minutes.

Transfer cooked yebrat to a serving platter. Pour the sauce into a bowl or gravy boat and serve with warm pita bread and yogurt.

Middle Eastern Meat Pies (Lahem'ajeen)

Sometimes called Middle Eastern pizzas, these pies can be made flat, folded into triangles or squares (as pictured at left), or served as puffs, as in this recipe. I especially love the punch they get from the pomegranate molasses, available in Middle Eastern groceries. This recipe is adapted from The Arab Table by May S. Bsisu (William Morrow 2005). You can use 2 pounds of store-bought pizza dough if you don't want to make your own.

Middle Eastern Meat Pies (Lahem'ajeen) i i
Michele Kayal for NPR
Middle Eastern Meat Pies (Lahem'ajeen)
Michele Kayal for NPR

Makes 50 pies

Dough

2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1 cup warm water (110 degrees)

1/2 teaspoon sugar

5 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

2 tablespoons powdered whole milk or buttermilk

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 large eggs

1 cup canola oil

2 tablespoons plain whole milk or low-fat yogurt

Olive oil

Filling

1/2 pound yellow onions, finely chopped

2 tablespoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 pound lean ground lamb or beef

1 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped, or one 15-ounce can diced tomatoes

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 cup pine nuts

1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses

For the dough, combine the yeast, warm water and sugar in a small bowl and stir to dissolve. Set the bowl aside until the mixture is foamy and has doubled in size, about 10 minutes.

Sift the flour, powdered milk, baking powder and salt together into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the dough hook . Stir in the eggs and canola oil. Add the yeast mixture, yogurt and 1/2 cup water. Give the mixture a good stir with a wooden spoon. Then mix the dough on medium speed until it pulls away from the sides of the bowl, about 3 minutes. (If the dough sticks, add 1 tablespoon flour.) Raise the speed to high and mix until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 2 minutes.

If you don't have a mixer, sift the flour, salt and baking powder together and dump it in a mound on your work surface. Make a well in the top of the mound. Mix the canola oil and 1/2 cup water into the yeast mixture. Pour a small amount of this mixture into the well, then begin gently mixing, using a fork. Stir the flour into the liquid until it is absorbed. Continue adding liquid and mixing the flour into it until all of the liquid is absorbed. Then knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, about 7 minutes.

Shape the dough into a ball. Coat your hands and a large glass or ceramic bowl with olive oil, and place the dough in it. Turn the dough so that it is coated all over with oil. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free place until the dough has doubled in size, about 1 hour.

While the dough rises, prepare the filling. Combine the onions, coriander, allspice, black pepper and salt in a large bowl and mix together with your hands until the onions have absorbed the spices. Add the butter, lamb, tomatoes, cayenne, pine nuts and pomegranate molasses and mix well.

When the dough is ready, pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place one rack in the lower third of the oven, and one in the upper third. Grease two baking sheets generously with olive oil.

Punch down the dough. Pinch off a piece the size of a walnut. Set the ball on a prepared baking sheet and repeat, placing the pieces of dough 1 inch apart until all of the dough is used. Let the balls rest for 10 minutes.

Flatten the balls slightly. Scoop 1 tablespoon of filling into each tartlet, allowing a rim of dough to form around the meat.

When you finish filling one baking sheet, place it on the lower rack in the oven and bake until puffy and brown, about 15 minutes. The next sheet should be ready to go. Place it on the lower rack, and transfer the first sheet to the top rack. Bake until the meat pies on the top are deep golden brown, another 15 minutes. (Each batch should bake 30 minutes total).

Serve immediately on a platter.

Phyllo And Nut Pastries (Baklava)

It wouldn't be a food festival without baklava. Some recipes call for a mixture of walnuts, pistachios and almonds, so feel free to experiment. This recipe is adapted from Healthy Syrian and Lebanese Cooking by Helen Corey (CharLyn Publishing House 2004).

Phyllo And Nut Pastries (Baklava) i i
Michele Kayal for NPR
Phyllo And Nut Pastries (Baklava)
Michele Kayal for NPR

Makes 2 dozen pastries

Pastry

2 pounds chopped walnuts

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cloves

2 pounds frozen phyllo dough

1 1/2 pounds rendered butter, melted

Syrup

3 cups sugar

2 cups water

1 teaspoon orange blossom water*

Juice of 1 lemon

*Available at Middle Eastern markets

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Combine walnuts, cinnamon and cloves.

Defrost the dough according to the package directions. Brush a baking tray with butter. Place the phyllo, one sheet at a time, on the buttered baking tray, brushing each sheet with butter. Stack the sheets until they number 15.

Sprinkle the nut mixture over the sheets, about half-inch thick. Lay phyllo atop the nut mixture one sheet at a time, buttering each sheet. Stack another 15 sheets in all. Make sure to butter the top sheet. With a sharp knife, cut the nut stack into diamonds. Bake for 2 hours until the top turns light golden brown.

While the pastry is baking, prepare the syrup.

Mix the sugar, water and orange blossom water. Boil until slightly thick, then add lemon juice. When syrup is cool, pour very slowly over the cooled baklava in the pan. Garnish with ground nuts, if desired, and serve.

Arabic Coffee (Ah'weh Arabe)

Arabic Coffee (Ah'weh Arabe)
Michele Kayal for NPR

A great pick-me-up in the afternoon, this coffee is also a must with baklava and other Middle Eastern pastries. The addition of spices and the very fine grind makes it "Arabic" coffee. The recipe is adapted from my family's cookbook A Taste of Syria by Virginia Jerro Gerbino and Philip M. Kayal (Hippocrene Press 2003/Second edition 2009).

Makes 8 espresso-sized cups

4 level teaspoons Arabic coffee, available in Middle Eastern stores

2 teaspoons sugar

10 ounces cold water

Boil the coffee, sugar and water in a pot on high heat, stirring constantly. When foam appears, remove the pot from the heat and spoon the foam into espresso cups. Return the pot to the heat for another one to two minutes, stirring constantly. Pour the coffee into the cups.

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