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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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I filled a pot with water and ground cinnamon and waited for the sweet scent to mask my failure. I pulled a Tupperware of my mom’s matbucha from the freezer. It would defrost just in time for Irv’s arrival. I felt relieved I hadn’t told him what I set out to do that day. At least only I knew how dire the situation had become. As I lit the candles that night, I prayed I would find fulfillment from kitchen duty. My cabinets overflowed with my mother’s Tupperware, and I feared she would soon send me home with baby food, too.

The following Thursday, I decided to trek back to my mother’s home, where I knew she would already be preparing for Shabbat. As I turned onto her block, she waved from the porch and blew kisses like she used to when I stepped off the school bus. I followed her through the living room where she once spent evenings helping me with homework, through the dining room where we lit Shabbat candles together, and into the kitchen where she taught my siblings and me a new vocabulary word over breakfast each morning.

“Let’s begin,” she said. Her bangles clanked together as she tossed me an apron.

We spent the next few hours dicing and stirring eggplants and tomatoes into her masterpiece. She gets so much joy from this, I thought. Joy from cooking, but also joy that I need her even as a grown, married woman. It’s how she raised me. I looked down at my baby bump and hoped I would do the same. I might not ever be the perfect Syrian Jewish mother, but I would always be something even luckier: the daughter of one.

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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?

Michael Marcus says:

uestions:

1) there’s a guy name Irv (Irving?) with “Lebanese taste buds?”

2) I know a local Ashk. husband of an SY : is that common? Articles some years ago in the NYTimes led me to believe that such “marrying out” was akin to … to … well, you know…

3) @ Alex Schindler: if you’re saying that the dish is Moroccan, how does that explain the author’s mother making it?

4) at first I read the author’s CH in matboucha as French- sounding. The letter Hebr. HET / Ar. KHAA way too often wrongly Romanized as CH. All that matbukha means, I think, is “something cooked,” yes?

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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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