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Thursday, July 31, 2014

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The best of Syrian Jewish food from Aleppo

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Aleppo, a city in northwest Syria lying astride major Middle East trade routes, was settled by Jews in waves of immigration starting during antiquity.  In the 15th century, following the Spanish Inquisition, yet more Jews arrived in Aleppo. By the turn of the 19th century, Aleppo was a thriving Jewish centre.

The Jews of Aleppo, influenced by Mediterranean and Levantine gastronomic traditions, developed a wonderful cuisine based on bountiful local products including grains, legumes, vegetables and herbs.

If you were fortunate enough to have been invited to a Jewish home in Aleppo, you were plied with a succession of delicacies. These dishes might include mujedrah (rice with brown lentils and caramelized onions), keftes (tamarind-stewed meatballs), s’fiha (stuffed baby eggplants with ground meat and rice) and spanekh b’jib (spinach cheese frittata).

These days, Aleppian Jewish food is rarely, if ever, found in Syria. After the 1947 United Nations Palestine partition plan, Aleppo was the scene of a pogrom that prompted Jews to leave Syria. Today, for the first time in 2,000 years, not a single known Jew lives in Aleppo.

Despite these developments, Aleppian Jewish culinary traditions are lovingly maintained in a host of countries where Syrian Jews have resettled.

One such place is Deal, N.J., where Poopa Dweck – an expert in Aleppian Jewish cookery and a first-generation Syrian Jewish American – resides with her family.

As a gift to her children and community, Dweck has co-written a first-class book, Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, published by HarperCollins. The co-author, Michael Cohen, is an attorney and food writer.

Lavishly illustrated with atmospheric vintage photographs of 19th-century Jewish residents, Aromas of Aleppo is chock-full of great recipes that are easy to follow.

Appetizers run the gamut from eggplant sesame puree to lemon-infused allspice cumin potato salad. Mains include baked bulgur ground meat pie and spicy grilled meat kabobs.

Dairy dishes range from parsley and onion fritters to scrambled eggs with rhubarb.

There are recipes galore for rice, grains and pasta: classic Aleppian rice, rice and fava beans with garlic, buttery noodles with cheese ravioli and bulgur with cheese.

Soups have a definite place in this sumptuous volume: noodles and lentil soup, chilled yogurt and cucumber soup and red lentil soup flavoured with garlic and coriander.

The sweets look tantalizing. How about stuffed Syrian pancakes? Pudding with rose water and nuts? Semolina pudding drizzled with butter? Or ricotta-filled shredded wheat pastry?

Aromas of Aleppo is a beautifully crafted, well-written book that preserves for posterity the rich legacy of Syrian Jewish cooking and baking.

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