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Every week, we’re unearthing Heirloom Recipes -- dishes that have made their way from one generation's kitchen to the next.
I was enchanted with "international" food in my teen years. I spoiled my siblings with creamy mushroom and chicken casserole, my boyfriend with spaghetti puttanesca, and the masses with risotto. I was particularly proud of my béchamel-sauce-making capabilities and doubly so as I’d managed to pick it up just by loitering around one of my aunts' kitchens. But, as much as I enjoyed messing around a stove, never did I consider cooking Middle Eastern food.
My family celebrating my grandfather being awarded The Order of the Cedar. From right to left: my father, my sister Joslin, my three aunts (Amale, Najwa, Janane), my grandfather and my grandmother.
By my early twenties, I still had yet to allow my hands the honor of completing a Middle Eastern dish. After all, I had grown used to the comforting Lebanese food that was prepared daily by my aunts, grandmother, and father. These were dishes executed to perfection by tireless hands that pounded, chopped, and stirred to keep age-old techniques and aromas alive.
When it came time to find work, I left Lebanon and wandered to far-off places such as Montreal and Houston. During my days in Montreal visiting with family, my cousin Melanie and I grew accustomed to a freezer with shelves piled high with homemade kebbeh pies that would see us through until my aunt Amale’s return from Dubai.
Grandma making kebbeh. My mother is skewering meat in the background and my aunt Janane is smiling.
Amouleh, as we endearingly call her, is an aunt to cherish for many reasons -- if you are only so lucky to taste her kebbeh, then you would no doubt concur with my previous statement without hesitation. With a crisp, flavorful crust and a filling loaded with caramelized onions, her kebbeh is nothing short of a labor of love, learned by watching and helping her mother Adla, whose knack for kebbeh and tabouleh preparation was revered. It wouldn't be long before I would become the next culinary heir in the line of female cooks in my family, and so the technique of kebbeh-making was passed on once more from one generation to the next.
My dad and my Aunt Amouleh.
When the Montreal winter came through, I packed my bikini and headed for sunny Miami. When the freezer stuffed with edible gold was no longer within reach, my heart, soul, and belly began yearning for the very dishes I had come to realize I’d rebelliously taken for granted. I would have to take matters into my own hands to quiet the cravings. And so my endeavors for dinner quickly shifted from the now-meaningless spaghetti and risotto to my aunt Amale’s (and grandmother's) kebbeh, tabouleh, and other such Lebanese classics.
In the days before Facebook and with Skype just on the cusp of its first year, a good old telephone call was my best bet for reaching my culinary past. I secured a cordless phone between one ear and shoulder, dialed out my aunt's phone number and, after a brief greeting, I uttered: "Tell me how to make kebbeh, Amouleh?” This, along with hummus and mtabka, were the first things I wanted -- no, I needed -- to learn to make.
What I received that day were mere instructions, not at all a recipe. After all, like many Middle Eastern cooks, she cooked with nafas -- her “breath” or “flair.” Literally translated, it means “one that has a good appetite for taste.” As the instructions came in Arabic, she said: “put 1 part meat, 2 parts bulgur (make sure it's the fine grade), soak it for a little while in some water, add a little allspice, a little salt. You know you have to taste and see...” She would continue like so.
Twelve years on and after much time in more recent years spent with Amouleh, as well as traveling around Lebanon learning about the different kebbeh varieties and spices included, I have come to make my own version. I use my grandmother's and aunt's traditional technique with a bit more spice -- after all, she did always encourage me to taste and see.
Baked Kebbeh Pie
9 ounces very fine bulgur
1 lb 9 oounces minced lamb
1 large onion puréed and stained
4 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon dried mint
1 tablespoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried rose petal (optional)
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons toasted pine nut
Olive oil for greasing
Photos by Sarka Babicka.