Flash in the Pan
Food of the Syrian Diaspora
"Everyone knows what tabbouli is," explained chef and cookbook author Ray Risho. "It's a cracked wheat salad. The Assyrians called it safsouf. My mother made it a certain way, my grandmother made it another way. I could taste a safsouf blindfolded and I could tell you which aunt made it."
Risho's parents were born in Damascus, Syria, after his grandparents fled persecution in Turkey. His family are Assyrians, northern Semites who were members of the Assyrian Orthodox Church.
"Every tribe in every clan and every family has their own cuisine," Risho told me.
So far, 1,500 Syrians have come to the US since the Syrian civil war began, but the US plans to increase the number of Syrian refugees allowed in the country to 10,000 in the next fiscal year. To assist those who wish to prepare for the coming diaspora, perhaps by cooking a welcome dish for their incoming Syrian neighbors or learning a bit about the culture and eat some good food, I reached out to Risho. His forthcoming book, Ray Risho's Ports of Call, will include a large section on Syrian cuisine.
According to Risho, the Assad regime hardly represents the Syrian population's first brush with dictatorship or inequity. "The royal household and the elites, they basically ate well," Risho said, of Syria's culinary history. "But most of the other levels of society didn't eat any meat at all, because they couldn't afford it. That's why in that part of the world, the food didn't have meat in it, or very little."
The paucity of meat compelled the various Syrian ethnic groups to create some fantastic flavors, often with the aid of spice mixes. In this spirit, Risho helped me select a meat-free recipe to share.
The recipe for roasted eggplant with herbs (M'tabbal) is Risho's interpretation of a classic dish and includes what he calls his Syrian 7-spice blend, which consists of two parts allspice, cinnamon and coriander and one part nutmeg, cloves, cardamom and black pepper, all pounded together in a mortar and pestle (or spice grinder).
This recipe also calls for Halaby pepper, aka Aleppo pepper. "There aren't many coming out of Syria now because of the civil war,” Risho said, “but you can get Turkish chilies, or Hungarian chilies." He also suggests substituting chatta, a chili paste that can be found in Middle Eastern stores.
The yogurt mixed in with the eggplant should be free of thickeners and emulsifiers, and should be strained.