A spicier side of Rosh Hashana

Times Staff Writer

On Rosh Hashana, Ashkenazi Jews dip apple slices in honey for a “sweet New Year.” The Aleppine Jews -- whose ancestors were prominent residents of Aleppo, Syria, for many centuries -- may eat scarlet candied quinces instead, or even translucent shreds of candied spaghetti squash.

That’s just the beginning of the unexpected quality of their cuisine. Its roots go back many centuries, and the dishes have both rich historical resonance and a remarkable originality. The rest of an Aleppine Rosh Hashana meal might be leek fritters, spicy tomato soup with kibbeh meatballs, stuffed baby artichokes, Swiss chard with chickpeas and a luscious braised breast of veal.

When you get away from the holidays, the really unfamiliar dishes appear. Okra with prunes, apricots and tamarind. Chicken roasted with spaghetti until it starts to crisp. Eggs scrambled with rhubarb.


But scarcely anything had been written about this distinctive school of cooking before Poopa Dweck’s “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews.”

Unlike most big Middle Eastern cities, Aleppo didn’t suffer an economic decline at the end of the Middle Ages. Elsewhere, medieval caravansaries (inns for caravans) have been torn down or converted into museums, but in Aleppo some still serve as commercial warehouses. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Aleppo was prosperous from the silk trade.

With prosperity came both a rich cuisine and an air of tolerance.

Early in the 20th century, when Aleppo was the largest city in Syria, T.E. Lawrence described it as “a point where all the races, creeds and tongues of the Ottoman Empire meet and know one another in a spirit of compromise. . . . there is more fellowship between Christian and Mohammedan, Armenian, Arab, Kurd, Turk and Jew, than in, perhaps, any other great city of the Ottoman Empire.”


Preserving a cuisine

THAT was some 90 years ago, of course. The last Jews left Aleppo in 1997 and most now live around New York or in Latin America. Dweck’s family came to New York in 1948. She has made it her task to preserve their venerable cuisine in its fullness. Her book is a huge tome of 388 pages and is lavishly produced; most of the 180 dishes are illustrated with color photos, interspersed with soulful black-and-white family pictures dating back to the 1890s, when the first Aleppine Jews came here.

The cuisine of this book is clearly north Syrian, as you can tell from the favorite spices. Aleppo pepper adds its fragrant, moderately hot note to dish after dish. There’s lots of cumin -- cumin in hummus, cumin in potato salad, cumin in tomato salad, cumin even in yogurt cheese. As in Lebanon, the most common spice is allspice, standing in for the spice mixtures used in the Middle Ages.

A few touches are obviously Jewish. Because of the prohibition on mixing meat and dairy, frying is typically done in oil, rather than in butter or lamb fat. The influx of Sephardic Jews, from Spain, after 1492 brought a few dishes with Spanish names, including the tiny meat pie bastel and the cheese ravioli calsonne. A meat roll that can be stuffed with hard-boiled eggs also has a Spanish look. The rest of the dishes are mostly amped-up versions of Syrian standards, emphasizing fruit and sweet-sour flavors.

All the regional cuisines in the area have a preferred ingredient for giving a sour flavor. In the citrus-friendly climate of coastal Lebanon, it’s lemons. In inland Syria, lemon has traditionally given way to vinegar, sumac and other sour flavorings. The Aleppine Jews are heavily into tamarind.

The secret of Aleppine cuisine, Dweck writes, is ou’, a thick sweet-sour tamarind concentrate. It shows up in all sorts of recipes -- in beet salad, in the broth for cooking artichokes, in the topping for laham b’ajeen (better known as in this country as lahmajoun). There’s a whole cup of ou’ for every pound of meat in that topping, which gives laham b’ajeen a smoldering purple-red color and a deep, fruity tang.

This book also shows a near mania for cooking savory dishes with fruit. Stuffed eggplants stewed along with quinces in tamarind ou’. Stuffed grape leaves (and stuffed zucchini) cooked with apricots and ou’. A sheet of ground rice and meat rolled around dried apricots and braised with cherries and ou’. Tongue with raisins. . . and pineapple (the Aleppines have taken eagerly to tropical fruits).

Needless to say, the Jewish tradition that you should eat sweet foods on Rosh Hashana is right up the Aleppine alley. Dates, apples, candied quinces are already year-round favorites.

Dweck ascribes the enthusiasm for fruit in cookery to Persian influence. It may also reflect the fact that meat was an expensive rarity in Syria, mostly served at holidays and on the Sabbath, so meat dishes tended to be appropriately elaborate.

For other days, there were plenty of egg dishes, particularly frittatas. The book has recipes for cheese, parsley, potato, leek, spinach, Swiss chard, zucchini and artichoke frittatas. Dweck proposes the potato frittata (ejjeh batata) as a simpler, lighter substitute for the potato latke of Ashkenazi cooking because it’s not bound with matzo meal. (Another difference: that inevitable dash of allspice.)

There’s an elegance to this cuisine, even at its thriftiest. Throughout the Middle East, cooks like to prepare zucchini stuffed with meat. This book has the only recipe I’ve ever seen that uses the seedy pulp that is usually discarded when zucchini are cored. The pulp is simply sautéed with lightly fried onions and a little sugar to make a side dish called lib kusa (the heart of the zucchini).

That’s a neat idea. I’ll never throw away zucchini pulp again.



An Aleppo Rosh Hashanah dinner

Apples dipped in sugar . . . .

Ejjeh b’kerrateh -- leek fritters

. . . . Kibbeh bi’kizabrath -- cilantro-tomato soup with Syrian meatballs

. . . . Rubuh’ -- Succulent roast veal stuffed with spiced ground meat and rice

. . . . Platter of fruit -- figs, grapes and sliced melon


Kibbeh bi’kizabrath (cilantro-tomato soup with Syrian meatballs)

Total time: About 1 hour, 45 minutes

Servings: 8

Note: Adapted from Poopa Dweck’s “Aromas of Aleppo.” A meat grinder is required for this recipe. Rice flour can be found at Asian markets and well-stocked supermarkets.

Kibbeh (meatball) filling

1/4 pound ground beef

1/2 cup chopped inner celery leaves

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil

In a medium bowl, mix together the beef, celery leaves, allspice, salt and vegetable oil.

Kibbeh shells and assembly

1/2 pound chuck roast

1/4 cup rice flour

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

Kibbeh filling

1. Grind the chuck roast in a meat grinder. Add the rice flour and salt and grind twice more until the mixture is smooth and well blended.

2. Roll the beef-rice mixture into 1-inch balls. In a small dish, combine the oil and lemon juice. Dip your index finger into the oil and lemon mixture (this keeps the shell mixture from sticking to your fingertip) and hollow each ball by using your fingertip to press the round ball against the palm of your hand, and firmly rotating that finger. The shell should be as thin as possible, about one-eighth inch, without allowing the filling to break through.

3. Fill each kibbeh shell with about 1 teaspoon of the filling. Close by pinching the shell firmly over the filling, smoothing with a little water. The meatballs may be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen. Makes 16 kibbeh.

Cilantro-tomato soup with meatballs

1 tablespoon olive oil

6 cloves garlic, chopped, about 1 tablespoon

6 medium tomatoes, chopped

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 teaspoons kosher salt

12 to 16 kibbeh

1 cup chopped cilantro

1. Put the olive oil in a large saucepan and add the garlic. Sauté over medium heat until soft, 1 minute. Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste and salt, raise the heat to medium-high, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer 10 minutes.

2. Add three-fourths cup of water, return to a boil and reduce the heat to low. Add the kibbeh, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Just before serving, add the cilantro.

Each serving: 157 calories; 10 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 8 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 20 mg. cholesterol; 598 mg. sodium.


Rubuh’ (roast veal stuffed with spiced ground meat and rice)

Total time: 3 1/2 to 4 hours

Servings: 8 to 10

Note: Adapted from Poopa Dweck’s “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews.” Veal breast can be advance-ordered from better meat counters. Ask your butcher to make a pocket in the veal breast along the rib bones to accommodate the stuffing.

1/3 cup short-grain rice, such as Cal-Rose

1 pound ground beef

4 teaspoons allspice, divided

7 tablespoons canola oil, divided

1 teaspoon cinnamon

3 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

1/2 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon white pepper, divided

1 1/2 cups chopped onion, divided

1 cup pine nuts

3 to 4 pounds veal breast, bone in, slit crosswise to form a pocket

2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced

4 stalks celery, including leaves, chopped

2 pounds frozen peas

1. Soak the rice in water to cover for 30 minutes, then drain. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. In a large bowl, mix together the rice, beef, 1 teaspoon allspice, 2 tablespoons canola oil, the cinnamon, 1 teaspoon salt, one-fourth teaspoon white pepper, one-half cup onion and all of the pine nuts until thoroughly combined.

3. Loosely stuff the veal breast with this filling. Place any leftover stuffing onto the center of a large piece of parchment paper; fold the paper to seal in the stuffing and set it aside to tuck into the roasting pan next to the meat.

4. Combine the remaining 3 teaspoons allspice, 1 teaspoon salt and one-fourth teaspoon white pepper and the garlic. Rub 1 tablespoon oil over the veal breast, season it with one-half teaspoon salt and generously apply the spice all over the veal.

5. In a large roaster over medium-high heat, sauté the remaining 1 cup onion and the celery in 2 tablespoons oil; stir occasionally until soft, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl.

6. In the same large roaster, add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and sear the veal over medium-high heat until just lightly browned, 2 minutes per side. Add the onion-celery mixture to the pan under and around the veal along with the envelope of filling and 1 cup water. Cover and braise at 350 degrees, basting occasionally, for 1 hour.

7. Remove from the oven and add the peas to the roaster. Season with one-eighth teaspoon allspice, 1 teaspoon salt and one-eighth teaspoon white pepper, or to taste.

8. Open the envelope of extra stuffing, break up the stuffing with a fork and stir the stuffing into the peas. Discard the parchment paper. Add one-half cup water to the roaster, cover and return to the oven. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees. Roast for an additional 1 1/2 to 2 hours until tender. Remove to a large cutting board and allow to rest. Pull out any large bones and thinly slice the roast. Serve with the peas and stuffing alongside.

Each of 10 servings: 732 calories; 68 grams protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams fiber; 41 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 227 mg. cholesterol; 598 mg. sodium.


Ejjeh b’kerrateh (leek fritters)

Total time: 25 minutes

Servings: 8

Note: Adapted from Poopa Dweck’s “Aromas of Aleppo.”

1 pound leeks

2 tablespoons plus 2/3 cup vegetable oil, divided

3 eggs, lightly beaten

3 tablespoons flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon Aleppo pepper

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1. Halve the leeks lengthwise, and clean and pat dry. Slice the leeks crosswise into one-eighth inch slices. Slice only the white and light green parts of the leeks and discard the remainder. Place 2 tablespoons of the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chopped leeks and sauté until soft, about 2 to 3 minutes and stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly in a medium bowl.

2. In a small bowl, combine the eggs and flour and whisk to combine. Whisk in the salt, pepper, allspice and cinnamon. Stir this mixture into the leeks just until combined.

3. Place the remaining two-thirds cup oil in a medium skillet over medium heat until a thermometer inserted reads 375 degrees. Drop 1 tablespoon of leek batter into the oil for each fritter, frying 3 to 4 fritters at a time. Fry the fritters until puffy and golden-brown in color, about 30 seconds to 1 minute per side. If the fritters mound too much while frying, gently flatten them with the spatula. Remove the fried fritters to a paper towel to drain. Repeat until all the batter is cooked.

Each serving: 204 calories; 3 grams protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 19 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 79 mg. cholesterol; 249 mg. sodium.