We often draw empathy, not from our imagination, but from seeing our past staring back at us. As the global Jewish community grapples with how best to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis, we remember our own doomed history in the area. Jewish life in 20th and 21st-century Syria was marked by persecution, totalitarianism and abuse, the Jewish people banned from their jobs, their schools and eventually, their own properties. Later, Syrian Jews were able to flee the region, escaping to neighboring Israel, the United States, and Central and South America. Like so many Jewish communities in exile, Syrian Jews are a dispersed people, scattered, but connected by their traditions, but perhaps most, unmistakably, by their food.
Syrian Jewish cuisine traces the Jewish people’s ill-omened passage in and out of Syria. The food melds the bold and vigorous flavors of varying Jewish groups that resettled in, and eventually escaped from Syria: the native Syrian Jews known as the Musa’abarim, who first entered the region in 586 BCE; Sephardi Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, and Portugal in 1497, and Italian Jews who moved to Syria for trading purposes. Aromatically, the food is rich with spices from the Far East and Persia, Jewish spice traders perfuming the cuisine with allspice, cumin, sumac and cinnamon.
Despite the collage of influences, Poopa Dweck, author of Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews, say that Jewish Syrian food has blended into a single culinary tradition. The cuisine draws heaviest from the native Syrians, who revised the fare to fit Jewish dietary needs. Like mainstream Syrian cooking, Jewish Syrian meals features grains, legumes, vegetables and dried fruits, and swell with sweet and sour flavors. To adhere to kosher laws, Joyce Goldstein, author of The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home, says that dishes will be cooked in broth, instead of butter, and kabobs are dipped in tahini, rather than yogurt. Lamb fat and oil also serve as popular stand-ins in milk and butter-based dishes. Jennifer Abadi, author of A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen, says that Syrian Jews, the food purists that they are, sometimes eschew ingredient substitutions, ditching the dairy altogether. Crumbly pastries of spiced meats and cheeses will, for example, become cheeseless meat pies. Abadi believes that reinterpreting dishes to adhere to Jewish cooking laws is what helps Jewish cuisine continue to innovate and evolve.
The Sephardim’s imprint on Syrian fare is often difficult to parse due to the group’s long history in the area. But Abadi says that many of the region’s eggy dishes are Spanish-derived, as are the meat-packed pastry bastel, and the cheese-filled kalsonnes b’rishta. As for the Italian influence, many earthy vegetables tossed into Syrian dishes, such as tomatoes and artichokes, were brought over by Italian settlers.
The Syrian Jewish kitchen’s complexity radiates most splendidly—and perhaps most distinctively—on Jewish holidays. Syrian Jews heed Jewish holiday rituals and meaning but the dishes are more expansive, and fragrant than standard holiday fare. On Hannukah, Deck says Syrian Jews serve ataiyef, a guzzied-up potato pancake, stuffed with ricotta cheese and pistachio, and drizzled with a fragrant dessert sauce. The Passover sweet of choice, she says, is helou hindi, a rich candied coconut sprinkled with pistachios. As coconuts are readily available in Aleppo, the pastry’s snowy coconut meat was often pried right out of the shell.
On Shabbas, the Jewish Sabbath, Dweck writes that twelve loaves of Syrian flatbread is often served to commemorate the twelve loaves of shewbread displayed at the Jewish Temple. Syrians avoid cutting the bread with a knife, a tool of warfare ill-suited for the Shabbas table. The bread is (fair warning) tossed, rather than passed, to distinguish it from the bread that is passed by hand to mourners.
As Syrian Jews dispersed, and lives began to shift—women entered the workforce, modern conveniences freed up time in the kitchen—Syrian Jewish cooking adapted to the taste and mores of the contemporary world. Working women grew eager to find shortcuts for Shabbas and Jewish Syrian food shops lining Kings Highway and Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn began selling timesaver tricks: pre-made tamarind sauce, pastries and dough (mainly for traditional Syrian meat pizzas called lahem b-jeen).
Modern Syrian Jews have also begun “leaning in” to food trends, providing more health-conscious and vegetarian options. Old world food is often larded with fat, and oozing with oil and salt, so modern cooks will use lighter substitutes. Abadi says that heavier meats, for instance, might be traded in for tuna, or white rice for the more nutrient-rich brown. One can only imagine the influx of Jewish Syrian raw food trucks lining Brooklyn streets in the near future.
Like so many other Jewish food traditions, Jewish Syrian cuisine helps us understand who we are by illuminating where we’ve been. While we often understand Jewish history through its movements (fleeing, resettling, blending, preserving), perhaps we can now also understand it through taste: flavors mixing, textures thickening and certain dishes (much like specific Jewish sects) asserting their own identity, amid the often dueling flavors surrounding them.
Photo by Divya Thakur, CC BY-SA 2.0