Kareem’s Syrian fare... returns to Watertown on weekends. Boston Globe, January 2013
The Joy of Cooking. Boston Globe Magazine, July 2010
Plot the Right Course (cooking schools). Boston Magazine, March 2009
Learning Syrian cooking, and culture. Boston Globe, October 2008.
Dining Out: Kareem's. Boston Globe, December 1998.
Steeped in tradition, Syrian dishes perfect for today. Boston Herald, March 1998.
At Kareem's, dig into tasty, low-fat Syrian spread. Boston Herald, October 1994.
Kareem's: a pleasant oasis. Watertown Sun, May 1994.
Learning Syrian cooking, and culture
The Boston Globe / Food & Travel, 10/15/2008
WATERTOWN - Ahmad Yasin has never met a chickpea he didn't like. He lovingly soaks the dried legumes for at least 12 hours. He treats the boiling water to a dash of baking soda measured in the palm of his hand to help soften the peas. He tastes, pinches, and examines them to determine when they're done. He even saves the cooking liquid for sauces, soup stocks, or just a tall glass of chickpea liquid for drinking straight up.
Yasin, a former restaurateur and now a Syrian cooking teacher, approaches many dishes this way. Cooking and eating are his life. The word you hear him say most about food is "awesome." Last year, Yasin bought adjoining storefronts in a tiny cluster of businesses on sleepy, residential Common Street in Watertown. What were once a florist and a nail salon now form one large, open room, called Yasin Culinary. A long dining table fills one side, and an island with a stove and miles of counter space fills the other. It's there that people gather to take a hands-on cooking lesson.
The teacher has a lot to share about food, agriculture, conviviality, and hospitality. Eight years after he sold Kareem's restaurant, he's bringing food and people together once again.
Yasin is a robust personality, with a big voice, thick accent, and a shock of white hair. On a recent Saturday around lunch time, as his students begin to trickle in, he greets them, introduces them to one another, and says there will be no shy participants in his house. Everyone will have to talk.
He's making a menu of three dishes. Students have paid $85 to join the class - he runs a class when he gets a small group. When he's not teaching he's catering in customers' homes or hosting private events in the storefront. This afternoon, four people are participating. Two salad dishes come first, one made with chickpeas and beets, which he simmers separately. The chickpeas have doubled in size after soaking, and when they're cooked, they give off a full, deep, earthy aroma, which is distinct from the preserved, metallic scent of their canned brethren. The teacher wants tender chickpeas, not "dead soft," he says. The moment Yasin drains them, they are just beginning to bloom open, fragrant, and delicate as geraniums.
The beets, meanwhile, quartered but not peeled, are boiling away, leaving a red scum on the sides of the pot. Yasin doesn't peel the rounds because the outer skin is where many nutrients are.
Health is a recurring theme in Yasin's mini-lectures on eating. He loves good flavor, but he's a bit of an evangelist for freshness and authenticity in food - the real thing done well - and he grows an impressive suburban garden in Watertown that yields much of what he eats and prepares, including a bold horseradish that wins many hearts later that day. Yasin grinds the hot white root with lemon juice and pairs it with a delicately poached shrimp atop a piece of fresh coconut, which he offers as an hors d'oeuvres. Coconut, not native to the Middle East, has grown there for many years.
Yasin came here when he was 20 to attend college. He graduated from Northeastern University, but wasn't happy with his jobs. A former girlfriend convinced him to open Kareem's, which he ran for 16 years. After he closed the restaurant, he missed the customers, so he opened the cooking school and catering venture.
Syrian cuisine is based on bold spices such as cloves, coriander, hot pepper, cumin, and saffron. Aromatic mint, parsley, thyme, fresh lemon juice, and fruity olive oils dress many dishes. The chef was raised on a farm and remembers the tastes of his childhood. In a story he tells about his boyhood, he was helping a local fisherman who didn't pay him, so the young Yasin snuck home shrimp when the fisherman wasn't looking.
As the chickpeas cool and the beets simmer, the chef and his students begin a tabbouleh salad. Tabbouleh, served all over the Middle East, is made with bulgur and chopped salad vegetables. Yasin has a heavy hand with parsley and mint, which is what distinguishes his version. It begins with large, crisp leaves of romaine. He lets the students slice them, but watches carefully, insisting that they slice it cleanly and finely. A sharp knife is the best tool, he says, rather than something like a food processor, which would crush the leaves. He also suggests students chop the heavy core end of the plant, ordinarily thrown away. Fresh mint and parsley are given the same treatment as Yasin waxes poetic about eating greens. "The chlorophyll is so awesome for you. It's the blood of the plant," he says. In his culture, tabbouleh is prepared moments before the evening meal and never eaten the day after it's made.
He soaks fine cracked wheat, or bulgur, in hot water for three minutes exactly, then squeezes it in his hands to remove the excess liquid. In a bowl, he tosses finely chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions with the wheat, then adds lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and Syrian pepper.
The chickpeas go on a platter, and Yasin begins the simple and elegant assembly of a dish he calls Emir/Emira, or "East meets West." The West comes in the form of avocados, which is something Yasin didn't know before he came here. They're scooped out of their skin, and set on the dish with thinly sliced beets. He crushes garlic and salt in a mortar and pestle for a lemony dressing with olive oil and ground cumin.
On the plate, East meets West - and around the table, Yasin's students sample Syrian food and take home a lesson on culture.
Emir/Emira -- chickpea, beet, and avocado salad (Serves 4)
Watertown cooking teacher Ahmad Yasin makes this dish with dried chickpeas, which he soaks, then simmers until tender. This version is made with canned chickpeas.
- 2 beets, trimmed and scrubbed
- 2 ripe avocados
- 2 cans (15 ounces each) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 2 cloves garlic
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 sprigs fresh parsley, leaves chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1. In a saucepan, combine the beets with water to cover by several inches. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and partially cover the pan. Simmer the beets for 40 minutes or until they are tender when pierced with a skewer. Remove the beets from the water and set aside to cool.
2. Meanwhile, halve and pit the avocados. Scoop the flesh into a large bowl. Add the chickpeas.
3. When the beets are cool enough to handle, quarter them, then cut them into 1-inch pieces. Add them to the chickpea mixture.
4. On a board, crush the garlic with a generous pinch of salt. Transfer to a bowl. Whisk in the lemon juice and olive oil. Sprinkle the dressing over the salad. Add the parsley, cumin, and pepper. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper, if you like. Adapted from Ahmad Yasin