Lebanese

Why Grandma Odette's Chicken & Rice Is the Dish I Crave Every Easter

On the Lebanese classic, riz a jej.

April 17, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

It’s the Saturday evening of Easter weekend, and I’m sitting on the living room floor watching the Arabic version of Cartoon Network. It’s an imperfect translation of the The Powerpuff Girls, but as always, I’m transfixed by the colorful visuals. My attention starts to drift from the superpowered trio of Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup as I hear the drawn-out sprays of my grandmother applying her hairspray and perfume.

It’s almost time.

Her freshly applied perfume creeps into the room, pulling my gaze away from the television right as she walks in. Carrying a small black bag, she looks at me and asks if I have a dollar to donate to the church. Knowing the answer before I can say anything, she hands me a dollar and we're off to service.

I hate going to church on this night, the longest service of the year. My grandmother sits in the third bench from the front, and has me sit beside her. All I want to do is play in the back benches with the other kids, but every time I glance back she gives me a slap to remind me: that’s where the devil belongs.

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“Odette sounds like my grandmother who I did not get to know all that well. She passed away when I was 4. I literally owe her my life. Apparently 1-year-old me stumbled off the dock and Grandmother jumped into the water and pulled me out. My older sisters have wonderful memories of her gentleness and kindness and of her incredible baking skills. She loved having her granddaughters around as she cooked and baked.”
— HalfPint
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Al-Masīḥ qām,” the congregation chants. Jesus is risen. We're then handed a red egg that symbolizes the blood of Christ. This marks the start of our feast and the cracking of eggs.

Sitting next to my grandmother at the feast, I overhear endless disputes between her and her girlfriends, the most notable being how to properly plate the riz a jej, a traditional Lebanese chicken and rice dish. It's so close I can almost smell it: basmati rice spiced with bahārāt, a special seven-spice blend of black pepper, paprika, cumin, coriander, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom, then cooked in homemade chicken stock and finished with a smattering of toasted nuts.


To refrain from cooking meat on Good Friday, Grandma Odette would always begin on the Thursday prior. She'd roast the chicken, then shred the meat and make a stock with the bones. I'd come home from school to the smell of chicken stock and know immediately that riz a jej was on the horizon.

I'd sit in the kitchen at her blue-and-white tablecloth-lined table and watch as she fried the medley of nuts in separate batches, starting with the pine nuts. She'd catch the oil while it wasn’t too hot, so as not to burn their delicate nature. Then came the pistachios, walnuts, cashews, and almonds (in that order). She'd have a big metal tray lined with paper towels where she'd lay out all the nuts. I'd snatch a handful, and she'd yell at me, "At this rate they'll never make it to Sunday!"

Then, my kitchen privileges would be revoked (but only for a while).

Easter Sunday. Photo by Edouard Massih

At 4 a.m. on Sunday morning, walking back from the late-night feast at our church, bellies and hearts full, we'd all grab a bit of rest before meeting Odette to ready for our Easter feast. She'd sauté the onions, beef, and spices and maneuver her wooden spoon like a wand, as I sat mesmerized by the aromas and the pristine condition of her still-perfect hair. Finally came the rice, bay leaves, and chicken stock. I'd be torn, running between playing games with my cousins and checking on Odo and her rice.

I'd come home from school to the smell of chicken stock and know immediately that riz a jej was on the horizon.

Eventually, it'd be time for the plating. Everyone has a specific tradition for plating riz a jej. I’m a little biased, but my grandmother’s was the best. It was perfectly proportioned and maintained its crunchy texture from the nuts. When you put your spoon through it, you'd get the ideal amount of chicken, rice, and nuts in every spoonful. Odette called her plating mechanism “the ultimate cake, due to the masterful layering.

Photo by Edouard Massih

The unmolding was a ritual in and of itself. Odo would ask us all to step away from the kitchen table, kicking everyone out but me. I'd sit on the countertop and watch as she mumbled her prayers under her breath, ready to flip the rice cake. I'd hold my breath, listening to her continuous prayers as she shimmied the rice from the mold. Finishing off with the perfect layer of shredded chicken, she'd toss the nuts on luxuriously, creating a ring all over and around the riz e jej. It was always served with Greek yogurt for tang. Bringing this masterpiece to the table, amongst the plethora of her other incredible dishes, was the okay for mouths to water, and for the feast to begin.

Today, I stand in the basement kitchen of my home in Greenpoint, and am taken back to those Easter feasts as my kitchen fills with the aromas of the bahārāt and fried nuts. Odette’s riz a jej now travels across dinner tables and events that I cater, spreading her passion for food and flavors. It has wowed me to see the response my grandmother’s cooking has garnered from all those who have tried it, and it makes me gleam with joy to think that she is still alive, here and now, through her cooking.

Have you ever had riz a jej? Let us know in the comments below.
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Edouard Massih

Written by: Edouard Massih

12 Comments

Ann H. April 21, 2019
I've always enjoyed cookbooks in which each recipe is a lesson of culture, a testament to personal history. We are what we eat, as the old saying goes, and this article certainly attests to that.

As for the recipe, I was amazed and intrigued by the increased percentage of protein in this meal, definitely a one-pot wonder of sorts. I only wished I hadn't read this recipe on Easter Sunday when my source for organic lamb meat isn't open for business. I must try this!!
 
Author Comment
Edouard M. April 22, 2019
Hi Ann, you are so right - we are what we eat - I'm happy to hear that this article made you think of that! I hope you make the recipe soon and share your thoughts :)
 
Guylene R. April 19, 2019
Well written article, makes me want to cook this recipe ASAP! I can only wish that my grandchildren will remember my cooking like Edouard remembers his... I do not have grand kids yet but one can always wish!
Happy Easter to all
Guylene
 
Author Comment
Edouard M. April 22, 2019
Thank you Guylene and Happy Easter! I hope you try this recipe soon and share pictures :)
 
Lawyerjen April 18, 2019
What a lovely article and what beautiful memories of your grandmother. This dish sounds fantastic, too!
 
Author Comment
Edouard M. April 18, 2019
Thank you for your kind words!! I hope you make and try out the dish :)
 
Jennifer April 18, 2019
Thanks for this. It's been too many years since I celebrated Easter with an Arabic-speaking community (Jerusalem, 2004). This is the kind of writing that keeps me reading food52... I look forward to making the dish soon, inshallah.
 
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Edouard M. April 18, 2019
Ahhh so happy to hear that this is the type of reading that makes you come back for more! Thank you for your kind words! I hope you make the dish :)
 
Bea April 18, 2019
I loved your story. I'm so excited about the recipe! Oh my, never heard of it but want to serve it Sunday for Easter ..thank you for sharing both. It warmed my heart.
 
Author Comment
Edouard M. April 18, 2019
I'm so happy to hear that you enjoyed the story and recipe! I hope you make the dish - please share pictures and your thoughts with me @edouardmassih! Cheers
 
HalfPint April 17, 2019
Odette sounds like my grandmother who I did not get to know all that well. She passed away when I was 4. I literally owe her my life. Apparently 1-year-old me stumbled off the dock and Grandmother jumped into the water and pulled me out. My older sisters have wonderful memories of her gentleness and kindness and of her incredible baking skills. She loved having her granddaughters around as she cooked and baked.
 
Author Comment
Edouard M. April 18, 2019
Happy to hear that you were able to reflect on your own grandma story after reading the article! Hope you make the dish soon :) Cheers