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How To Cook Like a Syrian: Making My Mother’s Matbucha

I never wanted to learn to make my mother’s matbucha, a savory eggplant salad–until I became a mom-to-be

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The author’s mother packs matbucha. (Paulette Safdieh)
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When Irv and I faced each other under the chuppah three years ago, I thought about my role as his wife. I was ready to assume some of the responsibilities that came with the title “Mrs.”—like standing in synagogue when Irv went up to the Torah, and visiting the mikveh every month. But I didn’t want to put on the pink, frilly apron my friends gave me at my bridal shower and spend hours doing what my mother called “kitchen duty.”

Cooking, my mother taught me, was an essential part of being a Syrian Jewish wife. But as a new bride, I discovered a secret life beyond the kitchen—a life my mother never told me about. Instead of schlepping home bags from Syrian grocers in Brooklyn, I spent my evenings with girlfriends at happy hour in Manhattan and ordered takeout dinners on Seamless.com. Irv encouraged my rebellious behavior, excited to have an adventurous and independent woman on his arm.

And he still got the home-cooked meals that men have long come to expect from their Syrian Jewish wives. He just got them from my mother. Whenever I would visit, she would drop a jar of her savory matbucha, the warm tomato and eggplant salad that’s central to Syrian cuisine, into my bag. “For your husband,” she’d tell me, her tone implicitly disapproving of the fact that I hadn’t cooked it myself, the way a proper Syrian wife would. “Irv loves matbucha.” When I’d get home, Irv would twist off the cap and dunk a tablespoon into the chunky red mix. “Mmm,” he’d say with total sincerity, hoping his independent wife might at least take the time to use the kitchen once in a while. “I can’t wait for you to cook like your mom.”

Before he met my mother, Irv’s Lebanese taste buds only sampled store-bought matbucha. It lacked the freshness and authenticity of matbucha cooked in a Syrian kitchen, and so my mother’s won over his heart. As he ate every last bite, I would think to myself: I love eating it, too, but there’s no way I’m going to cook it—sautéing eggplant, peppers, and crushed tomatoes until our apartment smells of matbucha.

But that all changed eight months ago, as I watched two pink lines spread across the screen of a home pregnancy test. I had weaseled my way out of cooking for Irv, but my baby squirmed inside whenever my mother slipped matbucha into my purse. The little Syrian Jew inside me wanted my mother’s cooking, just like its dad. And this time I couldn’t say no.

***

I loved growing up in Brooklyn, just blocks from where my great-grandparents settled after leaving Aleppo in the early 1900s. I loved Friday nights—a time of relaxation for my three siblings and me in our Modern Orthodox home. I loved the smell of warm white rice and lemony grape leaves that my mother made every Shabbat. I loved fighting for the seat next to my dad at the head of the table. Sometimes I wondered if my mother felt neglected, but she would get her time with me soon afterward.

I hated that part.

Once the six of us finished eating and the ceramic plates were littered with olive pits and challah crumbs and smeared with matbucha, my brothers and my dad headed to the couch. My sister and I followed my mom to the kitchen. We scooped leftover chunks of matbucha from small glass bowls into Tupperware and stacked the crusty dishes by the sink. My mother scrubbed them clean, her gold bangles clanking together as her arms moved back and forth. Her cooked salad defined our Shabbat table—as it did for many holidays and family gatherings—but it made for a miserable cleanup. Kitchen duty, I decided from a young age, was not for me.

And it didn’t have to be. My mother flipped pancakes on weekday mornings, packed turkey sandwiches on pita bread for me to take for lunch, and had lentil soup waiting for dinner. By the time I started college, I’d never even boiled a pot of pasta. And when I left her house to become Irv’s wife, my prayers under the chuppah were answered. Now my mother cooked for both me and my husband. And any guilt I felt for disappointing her—or Irv—quickly disappeared as I got to enjoy both her food and my freedom.

I knew one day she would cook for my children, too—and happily, too, as their grandmother. But the thought of that eventually caused me tremendous guilt. What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t provide the comfort of homemade meals, the warmth that Syrian cooking aromas brought to the home?

The Syrian Jewish community, which numbers more than 60,000 in Brooklyn alone, holds on to a past over 5,000 miles and 100 years away. When the first immigrants moved from communal villages in Aleppo to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1919, their olive-colored skin, Arabic language, and spicy, tangy foods set them apart from the Eastern European Jews who lived in the neighborhood. The Syrians adopted Western dress, learned English, and settled on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. But one aspect of Aleppan life—food—stayed the same. For my family, this meant matbucha. Savta Elana, my grandmother, fried the eggplant, while my mother baked it, but either way, the red salad always had its spot on the table.

I needed matbucha to have a spot on my own table. The future of my people—the future of my marriage and my Jewish child-to-be—depended on it. I called my mother and asked for her recipe. She proudly listed the ingredients.

***

Friday afternoon was not the best time to start.

I had attempted to make my mother’s matbucha for Shabbat, but so far all I had was a stovetop splattered with tomato sauce, and frizzy hair that reeked of fried onions. I left the high flame unsupervised and the tomatoes burnt into solid, black crisp on the bottom of the pan.

With three hours to go until candle lighting, I knew my mother’s matbucha was already garnished with a couple of parsley sprigs and ready to grace her table. I looked over at the sliced eggplant rounds about to become part of my experiment, their slimy juices absorbed by a paper towel underneath them. As I heard the crackling of a burning onion and I watched smoke rise from the pan, I realized that tradition had stopped cold in my home. I wondered why my mother’s kitchen never resembled my own at the moment. And how come her hair never smelled like onions? I dialed my mother.

“Boil some cinnamon, Paulette,” she said, her favorite trick for cutting down on kitchen odors. “Who sautés an onion without it?”

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Poupic says:

Nice story. I could smell the kitchen. But where is the exact recipe?

disqus_v1AmT8ojZ9 says:

TRADITION!!!! A delicious story of family and food

I really enjoyed this story. I think this is a question many young women face and the writer described it in a graceful way. Can’t wait to make the recipe!

Click the picture on the bottom left, under where it says ‘recipe.’

Poupic says:

Thank you

This is a sweet story. I looked at your mom’s recipe and realized, you might just be afraid. We are often afraid of something we haven’t done. Cooking can be a simple pleasure if you don’t put too much pressure on yourself. After many years of cooking, I still find I occasionally toss an entire pot of something when it doesn’t turn out as planned. ;)

Miriam Leah Cohen says:

When I went to put the recipe in my binder, I saw another one for Matbucha with grilled fresh tomatoes and peppers, but without eggplant. Does the eggplant make it Syrian?
Does your mother really use canned tomatoes, or is this the shortcut version?

Growing up in the same “SY” community of Brooklyn as the author, I couldn’t help but read this account with some vested interest. Learning to cook, and thereby transmitting the exclusive heritage of our mothers, is a major part of coming of age for most young women in our community (being competent in the kitchen is, of course, abnormal of me, being a dude and all). It is one of the major features of our culture that maintains its uniqueness. Yet there’s an ironic tension underlying this narrative of a soon-to-be SY mom learning the ways of her own mom, an inheritance that takes us back to Aleppo of a century ago.

(To be clear, the apparent cultural hegemony of Aleppan Jews in our purportedly “Syrian” community might surprise the outside observer, who would be justified in wondering about the seeming melting pot effect on tons of Lebanese, Egyptian and Damascene residents of the same space who share the same rabbinic leadership, educational institutions, and cultural expression to varying degrees).

That tension is manifest when the author describes herself “schlepping” groceries from Syrian grocers (if they’re desserts, though, and from Mansoura’s on Kings Highway, some would be surprised to learn that their ba’lawa and ma`mol comes from Moroccans!). It is especially relevant when she describes her (our? same school, and all) “Modern Orthodox” upbringing. The nostalgia for “challah crumbs” is part of the phenomenon in question as well. And finally, it comes through when maTbukha, a North African tomato-based salad foreign to Syria but quite popular in Israel (where it is often called, just as geographically inaccurately, “salat turkit”), is thought to be part of a century-old Syrian or especially Halabi culinary heritage.

The tension I describe is that which exists within a community that on the one hand, believes itself to be proudly maintaining its culture, its customs and its heritage in every regard, from its Hebrew pronunciation to its cuisine, but is on the other hand thoroughly assimilated into a great many other entities. American culture, for one. Ashkenazi Jewry, for another. And the Israeli invention of pan-”Mizrahit” culture, for another– which is the reason anyone might imagine maTbukha was on the menu in Aleppo a century ago, any more than shakshuka or for that matter latkes.

I see it everywhere. Where my Syrian cousins in Mexico will still call their synagogue a “knis,” the Arabic term, I know nary a Syrian in Brooklyn who calls it anything but “shul,” the Yiddish term. Where centuries of observance of halakha to varying degrees was simply understood as such, with no connection to socially-isolated sects or ‘denominations’ like Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Jewry — American imports from Europe, but as alien to the Levant as the mini-pizzas you’ll find at a Brooklyn mazza spread– the author, like most of our contemporaries, believes herself to be categorized within the “Modern Orthodoxy” of American Jewry– a term either of our great-grandparents might have scoffed at, were they even aware of the religious schisms of Ashkenaz.

Now, I’m a big fan of maTboukha, and an even bigger fan of those mini-pizzas on tea-matzos or even on dough usually reserved for laHmajin. Adding diversity to a century old menu is great. And Yiddish is a pretty cool language, though it does irk me that SYs probably know less Arabic than Yiddish at this point. Change is often good, and living 100 years and 5000 miles away from the here and now may frequently be ill-advised. But all the same, when crucial matters of communal identity are on the line, it is often jarring to see how easily and how quickly people are re-educated about their recent past and culture.

I love the boiling cinnamon strategy. Perhaps I’ll do that next time I cook with coconut oil, since the scent drives the rest of my house nuts.

Why doesn’t your husband join you in learning to make it?

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How To Cook Like a Syrian: Making My Mother’s Matbucha

I never wanted to learn to make my mother’s matbucha, a savory eggplant salad–until I became a mom-to-be