A Seder with a Syrian Flavor
Helou Hindi (Candied Coconut with Pistachios)
is a sweet finish to a Passover Seder made up
of traditional dishes of the Jews of Aleppo, a
town in northwestern
“I've always loved the Seder table but found the food
lackluster. Let's be honest, gefilte fish is homely, even with its dashing side
of beet-enhanced horseradish. And cakes made with matzo meal never look or
taste like the real thing. Then I discovered the Jews of
April 16, 2008 — When my mother was a child in the 1920s, her great aunts once
held a formal Passover Seder. The women wore long gowns and the men tuxedos.
Celebrating the Jews' liberation from slavery in
Of all Jewish holidays, Passover includes the most formal, multi-course meal. Tables are set with the best linens, the china is taken out of quilted storage cases and the silver is polished. Fresh flowers make the table look like a spring garden.
I've always loved the Seder table but found the food lackluster. Let's be honest, gefilte fish is homely, even with its dashing side of beet-enhanced horseradish. And cakes made with matzo meal never look or taste like the real thing.
Then I discovered the Jews of Aleppo. And in their exotic, fragrant and flavorful cuisine, I found enticing options for my traditional Seder menu.
American Jews, I come from an Ashkenazic background.
That means my relatives came from
Jews are from countries, such as
first Jews settled in the northwestern Syrian town of
None of the recipes, however, were written down. They existed only in the minds and the hands of the older women.
About 30 years ago, Poopa Dweck got worried. A first-generation Jewish Syrian-American, she wanted to be sure the traditional foods were not lost with the cooks who knew how to prepare them. So she and other women in her community in Deal, N.J., began talking to older cooks and writing up their recipes.
Last year, these community recipes were rewritten and compiled in a large, coffee-table cookbook full of color photographs and the history of the Jews of Aleppo, Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, written by Dweck and Michael J. Cohen.
Dweck says Syrian food differs in
some ways from other Middle Eastern cuisines. The use of tamarind, for example,
is uncommon in cooking of other countries in the region. Dweck
says tamarind was introduced to
unusual are the small bitter cherries, abundant near
Dweck says the food of
are, however, some strict dietary laws for Passover that limit options. The
rules prohibit anything made from wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt, reminding
us that in their haste to leave
One of the major Passover dietary differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, however, is the question of rice. The Ashkenazi, making a different interpretation of Jewish law, do not eat rice on Passover. The Syrians do.
Ashkenazi Seders usually include chicken matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, a roast meat, green vegetable and cake made with matzo meal — or some variation thereof. Color and spice are rarely in attendance.
For her Seder, Dweck serves Aleppian rice with its crunchy, golden crust, roast veal stuffed with spiced ground meat, stuffed artichokes, meatballs stewed in cherry sauce and candied coconut with pistachios — a meal in full color.
It's a Seder menu worthy of my great aunts' damask cloths.
This is one of the more elaborate dishes in Aleppian Jewish cooking. It looks very dramatic but is actually quite easy to put together. In this recipe, adapted from Aromas of Aleppo by Poopa Dweck (Ecco 2007), allspice-scented hashu, the common Aleppian ground meat and rice filling, is stuffed into a breast of veal that is slow roasted until very tender. Fresh fava beans are usually available around Passover and are often added to this dish. Ask your butcher to form a pocket in the veal breast. Veal breast has a fairly high fat-to-meat ratio so it is quite rich. A little goes a long way.
6 to 7 pounds veal breast, bone in, with pocket
1 pound hashu - Aleppian ground meat and rice filling
(See recipe below.)
1 Tablespoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced (1 1/2 tablespoons)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
4 ribs celery, including leaves, chopped (about 2 cups)
2 pounds shelled fava beans
(may substitute shelled green peas, whole
mushrooms or artichoke hearts — all may be
fresh or frozen)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Loosely stuff the veal breast with the hashu. Set breast aside on a tray.
3. Combine the allspice, salt, garlic and pepper. Rub 1 tablespoon of the oil all over the veal breast. Generously apply allspice mixture to the meat.
4. In a large roaster, saute the onion and celery in the remaining 2 tablespoons oil for 3 minutes, or until soft. Transfer to a small mixing bowl.
5. Sear the veal in the same roaster over medium-high heat or until lightly browned, turning once, about 5 minutes. Add the onion-celery mixture to the pan along with 1 cup water. Cover and roast for 1 hour, basting occasionally.
6. Remove from oven and add fava beans (or other vegetables) to roaster. Season with additional allspice, salt and pepper, if desired. Reduce temperature to 300 degrees. Add another 1/2 cup water if pan dries out and return to oven. Roast for another 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
7. Let roast rest 10 minutes then slice between ribs.
Jewish community still lived in
1 pound lean ground beef
1/3 cup short-grain rice (white or brown)
1 teaspoon ground allspice
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 onion, chopped (1/2 cup)
1 cup pine nuts
1. Soak rice in water, enough to cover, for 30 minutes. Drain.
2. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Mix well. (Hands work well).
Makes 8 to 10 servings
Classic Aleppian Rice
This recipe is similar to Persian rice with the golden, crunchy crust that sticks to the bottom of the pot. This crust is called tadiq by the Persians and a'hata by the Aleppians. However, Persian rice uses butter while the Jewish Aleppian style substitutes oil to meet Jewish dietary restrictions.
3 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups long-grain white rice, preferably basmati
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1. In a medium saucepan, bring water and salt to a boil. Add rice and boil 10 minutes. Drain rice in colander and rinse in warm water.
2. In a 2- to 3-quart saucepan, heat the oil for about 30 seconds, then add the rice. Cover the pan with a kitchen towel, and then a heavy lid over that. Cook rice over medium-low heat for 30 to 35 minutes, until fluffy and a crust has formed on the bottom.
3. Dip the bottom of the saucepan in a large bowl of ice water for 30 seconds. Turn upside down on platter and golden rice crust will be on top.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
the Aleppian Jews' sweet of choice for Passover.
Freshly grated coconut meat is best but somewhat labor intensive. (Break open a
coconut with a hammer, drain out the liquid, and pry out the meat with a dinner
knife. Peel off the thin, brown skin with a sharp knife. Grate the meat.) If
you opt for store-bought coconut, be sure it is unsweetened. This recipe is
adapted from Aromas of
2 pounds fresh coconut meat shredded (2 to 3 coconuts)
or store-bought unsweetened coarsely
2 cups sugar
1 Tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon orange blossom water**
1 cup pistachios, shelled and peeled***
1. In a medium saucepan, combine all ingredients but pistachios. Bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring the mixture occasionally with a wooden spoon.
2. While the mixture is still hot, stir in the pistachios. Mix well and cool before serving.
* If using store-bought coconut, place in a mixing bowl and cover with cold water. Gently fluff the coconut with your hands and let stand for 1 hour to plump and moisten the flakes. Drain before using.
** Orange blossom water is available at Middle Eastern markets and some specialty stores.
*** Shelled pistachios are available at some specialty stores.
Makes 2 quarts, or 10 to 12 servings
About the Author
Bonny Wolf is Kitchen Window's contributing editor and a commentator on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. She also hosts the Kitchen Window podcast. Her book of food essays, Talking with My Mouth Full, is out in stores. You can find more information at http://bonnywolf.com.