We’re back this week to bring you a taste of the Levant after cooking up a storm in Willets basement. Today’s dish is mahshe (MAH-shee), a Syrian stuffed zucchini dish straight from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, where Clara spent the summer studying Arabic and eating as much as she could.
Wandering Through a Culinary Capital
Aleppo, or Halab, is known for the labyrinthine souk that winds through the old city, the ancient citadel in the city center, and its market stalls filled with spices and olive oil soap. But most importantly, Aleppo is the prime destination for a foodie in Syria. Its roasted meats, savory mezze dips, pistachios, and milk-based desserts are renowned throughout the region. The name of the city itself is derived from the word for milk.
The flavor profile of Aleppo’s food is strongly influenced by the fact that the city once lay on the Spice Route from India. Although it’s not generally spicy, Aleppan food is richly flavorful and features lots of garlic, allspice and Aleppo pepper. The city lies close to the northwest border and its residents hail from from all over. Turks, Kurds, Armenians, and Iraqis have all brought with them their culinary traditions. The food was definitely worth the ribbing I got for my Halabi accent once I returned.
Many of my Aleppan adventures were food related. I once got hopelessly lost in the Armenian quarter in an (ultimately successful) search for the best cherry kebab in the city. I had all sorts of strange encounters in the souk while buying kanafe, a milk and honey-based dessert. This included a pleasantly bizarre conversation with an Oscar Wilde impersonator who assured me he had the best ecstasy in all of Aleppo. I chose to save my money for kanafe, a miniature hookah, and a bag of saffron.
But those are stories for another column.
Our recipe today comes from a decidedly more domestic environment: my friend Nadine’s apartment. Nadine, a grad student at the University of Aleppo, was matched up with me as an Arabic language partner. In the language department, she had me beat right off the bat, and could easily converse in Arabic, English, and Japanese. Nadine was a lovely host and taught me all sorts of things, all the while putting up with my earnest but often comical attempts at speaking the Syrian dialect.
One day, Nadine brought me home for a personal mahshe tutorial, courtesy of her mother. Mahshe is a stuffed zucchini dish that includes lamb, plenty of allspice, and either rice or bulghur wheat. Like the shakshouka from our last column, it’s a dish to eat at home. I never encountered once mahshe in a restaurant.
Upon arriving at their apartment, and after chatting over sweets and tea, I was presented with a giant bowl full of miniature zucchinis, and a long, sharp instrument I can only describe as a zucchini hollower. Such an instrument is apparently as commonplace in a Aleppan household as a can opener. The instructions, which seemed deceptively simple, went something like this:
1) Carefully insert the corer into the center of the zucchini, twisting gently and stopping just before you puncture the other end. Don’t puncture it, obviously. This is very bad form. [See picture 1]
2) Securing it with your thumb, pull the core out of the zucchini. This takes some finesse.
3) With a scraping motion, remove the rest of the zucchini flesh until it the shell is a couple of millimeters thick. The thinner and more even it is, the better.
Nadine’s mother was remarkably patient as I poked holes in the zucchinis and otherwise made a fool out of myself. Meanwhile, Nadine and her mother made quick work of the rest of the pile. Later, we mixed together the rice, meat, and fragrant spice mix, and began the decidedly more enjoyable task of stuffing the shells. After they simmered in a small bathtub-sized pot for a few hours in a flavorful, sour tomato broth, it was time to eat.
I’m a fan of foods that require a little ceremony to properly consume: lobster, artichoke, Oreos. Mahshe is no exception. The dish is often eaten with a large spoon, which is used to slice the zucchini lengthwise into small sections. Always start at the open end of the zucchini, where the rice is the most flavorful and slightly overcooked. As you move down, the rice becomes drier and firmer. My favorite is the very end, with its combination of slightly crunchy rice, crumbling ground meat and tender zucchini flesh. Nadine’s family and I ate around a small table, taking breaks to sip sweet black tea from tiny glass cups.
An essential part of the authentic mahshe experience is that you will always be gently coerced by your host into eating one more than your stomach can reasonably hold. Syrians have a saying that goes “However much you love me, that’s how much you’ll eat.” As with most Middle Eastern meals, it’s wise to come hungry.
Syrian Cooking, Swat-Style
Miraculously, we managed to pull off this dish in the Willets kitchen. The co-op didn’t have zucchini, but medium sized (6 ounce) green squash worked just as well. Target wasn’t selling zucchini corers, but we made do with a butter knife.
We used epicurious.com to remind ourselves of the ingredient amounts and tweaked the amounts as we saw fit. Using a tip from Nadine’s mother, we used small pieces of the hollowed out zucchini flesh to keep the filling in, while allowing the chicken stock and other ingredients in the frying pan to marinate the squash.
6 medium Clarita zucchinis or green squash, hollowed (see article)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 lb ground beef chuck or ground lamb (not lean)
1 cup long-grain rice
2 cups canned diced tomatoes including juice
1 cup chicken stock or broth
1 teaspoon ground allspice
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
optional: Aleppo pepper
1. Wash the rice until the water runs almost clear. Drain.
2. Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch frying pan over medium heat.
3. Saute the onions and stir until golden, then add the garlic and cook for an additional minute. Take the frying pan off of the stove.
4. Meanwhile, core the zucchinis. Using a paring knife, remove the stem and cut a small circular hole in the center of the zucchini to remove the seeds. Then, use a butter knife to scrape out the zucchini flesh.
5. Combine Â¼ cup of the onions and garlic with the rice, ground meat, allspice, 1 Â½ teaspoons of salt, Â½ teaspoon pepper, and Â½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper (optional), and mix thoroughly.
6. Stuff the zucchinis, bearing in mind that the rice will need space to expand. Plug the top of the zucchinis with the larger pieces of pulp you reserved earlier.
7. Place the zucchinis in the frying pan, and then place the tomatoes, chicken stock, and the remaining onions, salt and black pepper around the zucchinis. Simmer, turning occasionally, until the rice is cooked.
8. Squeeze the lemon over the zucchinis and serve warm.
Stay tuned for our next column, in which Jasper will use his 20 visits to Mexico to butcher fajitas and guacamole.
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