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Steeped in tradition, Syrian dishes perfect for today. Boston Herald, March 1998.
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Steeped in tradition, Syrian dishes perfect for todayThe Boston Herald, 3/25/1998
At Kareem's restaurant in Watertown, a bowl of almihshia - baked, stuffed vegetables - is an edible still life. Eggplant, potatoes and tomatoes, mounded high with ground lamb and pine nuts, rise out of a tangerine-colored sauce of tomatoes and lamb stock.
Chef/owner Ahmad Yasin hovers over the table, visibly relaxing when a guest takes a taste and sighs with undisguised pleasure. The dish is extraordinarily delicious and authentic - it was prepared just as Yasin was taught by his mother, who learned from her mother, back home in Latakia, Syria.
"I was born into a big family - 11 children," Yasin said. "My mom was a gifted cook and my dad was a farmer. The combination of the two of them, when it came to great food, was pure excellence. He provided the best vegetables and she was the expert in the kitchen. I started cooking when I was still a kid."
Yasin, who came to the United States in 1971, studied pharmacology at Northeastern University before opening Kareem's in 1984.
"Cooking is my love and my passion, especially my food, Arabic food," he exclaimed. "We're talking about Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria. All those countries cook a similar cuisine. Calling this food 'Middle Eastern' is misleading. The Middle East is a huge area with many cuisines. In Turkey they may use grape leaves, but in Syria, we will prepare them very differently."
Yasin's face grew animated as he described the culinary building blocks of the Arabic diet.
"Syrian food relies on olive oil, garlic, parsley, mint and lemon," he said. "Sesame is big. We cook with tahini (sesame paste) a lot - with fish, chicken, lamb, falafel, and, of course, with desserts. Spread a tablespoon of tahini on bread and top with a tablespoon of honey and you have a terrific alternative to peanut butter and jelly.
"We eat a lot of tomatoes and a lot of eggplant. Chickpeas are widely used in dips like Hommus and baba ganoogh, and in many salads, stews, and braises. Olives are served several times a day. Yogurt is an important ingredient. Essential spices? We use cumin, cloves, thyme, coriander and a wonderfully flavored and flaky, crushed red pepper called Syrian or Aleppo red pepper."
Yasin believes his cooking mirrors his cultural, historical and religious legacy.
"The history of our table is a reflection of our civilization as a nation," he explained. "Syria is very old. Some of these dishes have been around forever. Cooking is a part of my heritage.
"The hospitality of the Arabs, especially under Islam, is legendary. Whoever comes into your home, you must offer them food immediately. No matter how poor or how rich your visitor might be. Whether he's a friend or not, you always offer something to eat. There is much tradition to our food."
Yasin is both pleased and proud to see that many of the dishes he grew up with have achieved mainstream popularity in his new homeland. He is not surprised.
"I knew this was going to happen. Arabic food is fresh and healthy; it was just a matter of time. Look at Syrian bread. It's low in fat with no sugar. Plus, it's tasty and you can do so many things with it - in sandwiches and wraps, with dips, as an accompaniment to the main meal, or tossed in salads.
"Americans are growing more health conscious. You are the most important person on Earth when it comes to taking care of yourself. You owe it to yourself to be the best and eat the best. Syrian food is not only healthy, but it's delicious as well."
KAREEM'S ALMIHSHIA (BAKED STUFFED VEGETABLES)
- 2 large Idaho potatoes
- 2 large, firm red tomatoes
- 4 baby eggplants (3 to 4 inches long)
- 1 1/2 T. melted butter
- 1/2 lb. ground lamb
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 4 oz. pine nuts
- 6 c. diced fresh tomatoes
- 3 c. lamb stock
- Sprinkling of ground cloves
Peel potatoes and eggplant. Preheat oven to 450.
Cut potatoes and tomatoes in half; cut a slit in the eggplant, hollow out potatoes to look like "boats." Brush with melted butter. Coarsely dice leftover potatoes and reserve until later.
Arrange eggplant and potatoes on ungreased baking sheet and place in oven. After 10 minutes, add tomatoes. Cook an additional 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, saute lamb and onion in ungreased frying pan over low heat until brown.
Lightly brown pine nuts in remaining butter and add to meat mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste and a sprinkling of ground cloves. Stuff baked vegetables with meat mixture.
In 9-by-12 baking dish, mix stock, diced tomatoes and the diced potatoes. Add vegetables, being careful not to spill the stuffing. Sprinkle with ground cloves. Bake at 450 for 45 minutes.
- 2 lb. lamb bones (ask your butcher)
- 6 c. water
In a large stockpot, bring water and bones to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Skim off any fat and strain before using.