‘Food: a fabric of our lives’
NJ chef to bring rich flavor of Syrian-Jewish culture to Y
Cookbook author Poopa Dweck
March 2, 2011
The Jews of Syria may have scattered to many countries around the world, but Poopa Dweck is determined to keep its descendants connected — through food.
Dweck, a longtime resident of Deal, will share recipes and stories from her cookbook, Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, at the third annual Queen Esther Tea on Sunday, March 13, at 9:30 a.m. at the YM-YWHA of Union County. The program is sponsored by Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.
In an interview with NJ Jewish News, Dweck said she loves to spread the joy of cooking through lectures, classes, and demonstrations around the world.
“I really get deep into the history,” she said. “I felt it was important because the next generations were losing the understanding of where we came from and where our religious practices came from and why we adhere to everything so strongly.”
Dweck said she felt it was an “emergency” that she publish her book. “I wanted my grandchildren and, God willing, my great-grandchildren to really understand and perpetuate all our customs and our recipes, and I knew it had to be put in an enticing format.”
The book is amply illustrated with enticing depictions of the dishes; the recipes are easy to follow, Dweck said, because she wanted her readers “to not feel intimidated.”
“Food is a great vehicle because it keeps us connected and it does help us perpetuate our religious practices because any holiday — whether it’s Shabbat or Passover or a life-cycle event — there’s always food involved, so women have played a tremendous part in keeping this phenomenon.”
One of the treats Dweck will bring to the March 13 event is ma’amoul, a traditional nut-stuffed pastry that she said is a Purim staple.
“The definition of ma’amoul in Arabic is ‘filled,’” said Dweck. “It is a small and rounded pastry made with small imprinted molds called tabe’. Each mold shape indicates a different type of filling. A flat-topped mold usually means a date filling, while a pointy top usually means some kind of nut filling. When the ma’amoul are baked, the imprinted design is more prominent and very beautiful.” Dweck will bring to the Y some of the antique wooden ma’amoul molds she found during a book tour to Beijing.
Despite their geographic dispersion — to such locations as Panama, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Great Britain, and France, as well as the United States (including Dweck’s own sizable community in Deal) — the Syrian Jews maintain close ties and still prepare the traditional foods and adhere to their distinct religious practices. Dweck considers herself an ambassador for Syrian-Jewish culture and thinks it’s important for every ethnic group to study its heritage.
“My goal is to inspire others to re-visit their unique roots and celebrate the concept of family,” said Dweck. She recalled a book tour to Bogota, Colombia, where a journalist asked her why her culture of cuisine was so worthy of perpetuation. Dweck told her about the community’s ancient history and culture and “the importance of food as a fabric of our lives.”
“But then I said she should call her grandmother and ask her why the Colombian heritage and tradition was so special and to try her recipes and document their connections to their culture and events. She cried like a baby, realizing she also has a unique cuisine and legacy to bring to her family and strengthen the world with her own culture.”
Women’s Philanthropy, said organizer Shari Bloomberg of Elizabeth, “is the one central place for everybody to be united, regardless of their age or religious affiliation.” The Queen Esther Tea, she added, is being held at the Union Y in particular to draw women from the entire community, including Elizabeth/Hillside. Bloomberg, who is working with a committee of nine women from those towns, said, “We’re looking forward to an exciting morning and expecting a wonderful turnout.”
If you go
What: Third annual Queen Esther Tea
Who: Poopa Dweck, author of Aromas of Aleppo
Where: YM-YWHA of Union County, Union
When: Sunday, March 13, 9:30 a.m., breakfast
Sponsor: Jewish Federation of Central NJ Women’s Philanthropy
Cost: $18; sponsorships available for $36 and $54
Autographed copies of Aromas of Aleppo will be available for sale at a discount. Six door prizes will be offered; couvert and sponsorships include prize coupons. There will be no solicitation of funds.
‘An elaborate Purim feast’
The afternoon of Purim is dedicated to an elaborate feast, which usually includes numerous meat dishes and copious amounts of wine. The consumption of wine is encouraged on this festival because it was while under the intoxicating sway of wine that Ahasveros assented to Ester’s bold request to help the Jews of his kingdom. Ester also called for a wine banquet as a ruse to summon Haman to the king’s court to expose his treachery.
There is a saying that on Purim one should drink until one can no longer distinguish between the righteousness of Mordechai and the wickedness of Haman. Whether you choose to drink this much is up to you — but what better way to do so than with a fabulous meal of rich Aleppian dishes such as Bamia b’Mishmosh-Okra with Prunes and Apricots in Tamarind Sauce and Shish Tawuq-Chicken, Pepper, and Tomato Kabobs.
— from Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck
Okra with Prunes and Apricots in Tamarind Sauce
In the Middle East, okra is also known as ladies’ fingers because of its dainty shape. Okra is extremely popular in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, where it is much smaller and more flavorful than okra grown in the West. It has a lot of small seeds and a very glutinous texture, which can be lessened considerably by soaking it in a salt water-lemon juice solution before cooking. Small okras have small seeds and are not as tough and stringy as the larger variety. Therefore, try to buy the smallest fresh okra you can find, or buy frozen Egyptian baby okra from a Middle Eastern grocery. Before sauteing, rinse the okra quickly, so that it does not absorb too much water.
1 pound fresh small okra, stems trimmed, or frozen Egyptian baby okra (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped (about 2 teaspoons)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate, homemade or store bought
Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup pitted prunes
1. In a medium saucepan, gently saute the okra in the vegetable oil over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Add the garlic and saute until the okra is lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes. To prevent the okra from emitting its characteristic starchy, mucilaginous liquid, do not stir with a spoon; rather, shake the pot occasionally as it cooks.
3. Dollop the tomato paste and tamarind paste over the okra. Add 1 cup water, lemon juice, and salt. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes, then add the apricots and prunes. Cook for 30 minutes more until okra is crisp-tender, not mushy.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
CHICKEN, PEPPER, AND TOMATO KABOBS
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 garlic cloves, chopped (about 1 1/2 tsp.)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
2 pounds boneless chicken, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 red bell pepper, cut in chunks
1 yellow bell pepper, cut in chunks
1 green bell pepper, cut in chunks
2 large onions, quartered
18 cherry tomatoes (about 1 pound)
To make the marinade, combine lemon juice, garlic, oil, salt, and Aleppo pepper in a glass bowl or baking dish. Place the chicken chunks in the dish and marinate for 2 hours in the refrigerator.
Prepare a medium-hot grill. Remove the chicken from the marinade. Spear the chicken, bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes onto skewers, alternating chicken and vegetables.
Place the skewers on the grill and cook for 10 minutes, turning once, or until the chicken is tender.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings