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A spicier side of Rosh Hashana

September 12, 2007|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

On Rosh Hashana, Ashkenazi Jews dip apple slices in honey for a "sweet New Year." The Aleppine Jews -- whose ancestors were prominent residents of Aleppo, Syria, for many centuries -- may eat scarlet candied quinces instead, or even translucent shreds of candied spaghetti squash.

That's just the beginning of the unexpected quality of their cuisine. Its roots go back many centuries, and the dishes have both rich historical resonance and a remarkable originality. The rest of an Aleppine Rosh Hashana meal might be leek fritters, spicy tomato soup with kibbeh meatballs, stuffed baby artichokes, Swiss chard with chickpeas and a luscious braised breast of veal.

When you get away from the holidays, the really unfamiliar dishes appear. Okra with prunes, apricots and tamarind. Chicken roasted with spaghetti until it starts to crisp. Eggs scrambled with rhubarb.

But scarcely anything had been written about this distinctive school of cooking before Poopa Dweck's "Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews."

Unlike most big Middle Eastern cities, Aleppo didn't suffer an economic decline at the end of the Middle Ages. Elsewhere, medieval caravansaries (inns for caravans) have been torn down or converted into museums, but in Aleppo some still serve as commercial warehouses. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Aleppo was prosperous from the silk trade.

With prosperity came both a rich cuisine and an air of tolerance.

Early in the 20th century, when Aleppo was the largest city in Syria, T.E. Lawrence described it as "a point where all the races, creeds and tongues of the Ottoman Empire meet and know one another in a spirit of compromise. . . . there is more fellowship between Christian and Mohammedan, Armenian, Arab, Kurd, Turk and Jew, than in, perhaps, any other great city of the Ottoman Empire."


Preserving a cuisine

THAT was some 90 years ago, of course. The last Jews left Aleppo in 1997 and most now live around New York or in Latin America. Dweck's family came to New York in 1948. She has made it her task to preserve their venerable cuisine in its fullness. Her book is a huge tome of 388 pages and is lavishly produced; most of the 180 dishes are illustrated with color photos, interspersed with soulful black-and-white family pictures dating back to the 1890s, when the first Aleppine Jews came here.

The cuisine of this book is clearly north Syrian, as you can tell from the favorite spices. Aleppo pepper adds its fragrant, moderately hot note to dish after dish. There's lots of cumin -- cumin in hummus, cumin in potato salad, cumin in tomato salad, cumin even in yogurt cheese. As in Lebanon, the most common spice is allspice, standing in for the spice mixtures used in the Middle Ages.

A few touches are obviously Jewish. Because of the prohibition on mixing meat and dairy, frying is typically done in oil, rather than in butter or lamb fat. The influx of Sephardic Jews, from Spain, after 1492 brought a few dishes with Spanish names, including the tiny meat pie bastel and the cheese ravioli calsonne. A meat roll that can be stuffed with hard-boiled eggs also has a Spanish look. The rest of the dishes are mostly amped-up versions of Syrian standards, emphasizing fruit and sweet-sour flavors.

All the regional cuisines in the area have a preferred ingredient for giving a sour flavor. In the citrus-friendly climate of coastal Lebanon, it's lemons. In inland Syria, lemon has traditionally given way to vinegar, sumac and other sour flavorings. The Aleppine Jews are heavily into tamarind.

The secret of Aleppine cuisine, Dweck writes, is ou', a thick sweet-sour tamarind concentrate. It shows up in all sorts of recipes -- in beet salad, in the broth for cooking artichokes, in the topping for laham b'ajeen (better known as in this country as lahmajoun). There's a whole cup of ou' for every pound of meat in that topping, which gives laham b'ajeen a smoldering purple-red color and a deep, fruity tang.

This book also shows a near mania for cooking savory dishes with fruit. Stuffed eggplants stewed along with quinces in tamarind ou'. Stuffed grape leaves (and stuffed zucchini) cooked with apricots and ou'. A sheet of ground rice and meat rolled around dried apricots and braised with cherries and ou'. Tongue with raisins. . . and pineapple (the Aleppines have taken eagerly to tropical fruits).

Needless to say, the Jewish tradition that you should eat sweet foods on Rosh Hashana is right up the Aleppine alley. Dates, apples, candied quinces are already year-round favorites.

Dweck ascribes the enthusiasm for fruit in cookery to Persian influence. It may also reflect the fact that meat was an expensive rarity in Syria, mostly served at holidays and on the Sabbath, so meat dishes tended to be appropriately elaborate.

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