Sukkot is upon us, and what will I make? My grandma Estrella’s famous harira soup, of course, the same one she used to make for her Muslim maid in Morocco to help her break the fast during Ramadan. It was my mother’s job to deliver this fragrant and filling stew directly to the maid’s home. This year I’ll serve it in my sukkah, this meal-in-one pot stew, and my guests will drool, as they always do over it. That’s how good and unusual harira soup is, this Sephardic version of minestrone soup.
My grandmother’s food was something special—not just the tasty products of cookbook recipes but delectable dishes tweaked and refined over generations, in the courtyards of women. She cooked in huge quantities, sharing what she had. I saw grown men fight over the last helping of her eggplant at my brother’s bar mitzvah. And her lamb tagine had people swooning, as did her roasted pepper, couscous and carrot salad. She plied me with her rolled candy cigars and other Sephardic pastries. She raised cooking to the level of artistry, at a time when people considered pineapple chicken and pasta primavera haute cuisine.
She seemed altogether different from the other grandmothers in my Silver Spring, Maryland enclave, where diversity was decades away, if ever to come at all. I bragged to my Hebrew Academy classmates that she’d been a seamstress in the king’s palace in Morocco and then I’d show them the cute things she’d sewn for me. She threw big bashes in her tiny apartment where she’d play twanging Middle Eastern music in the background while she milled among the guests, flirting, laughing, full of mischief. What a cool grandma, I thought. She dyed her hair blond and looked like Zsa Zsa Gabor and could belly dance, too. Whenever she’d get excited about something, she’d shake her wrists and cry out, “Weelie, weelie,” and all the bangles made a chiming noise. Wherever I was, I knew, there’s grandma, and I’d laugh. Best of all she knew how to hug, with her entire ample body. In short, she was adorable.
But there was another side to Grandma Estrella. Sometimes, or shall I say more than sometimes, her tongue got the better of her, but who could blame her? Her lines were cruel but good: This one’s behind wobbled like a rhinoceros’s, that one’s nose was crooked and had too much nostril hair. That neighbor had a crude laugh and a neck like a turkey’s. She couldn’t stop herself. From her put-downs, you could tell she had a thing for beauty, or, put another way, was bothered by the lack of it.
She would even physically assess her own grandchildren. This one is so tall and pretty, she’d say, that one’s so big-eyed and handsome. For me, all she could muster up was: “Your hair is so brown.” Actually, this was her more tactful way of intimating that I wasn’t pretty enough. At least she didn’t tell me, like she’d told another grandchild, that he’d have breasts like a girl if he kept eating like a pig. But honestly, why bear a grudge? Didn’t I laugh along at her put-downs? If she’d been born sixty years later, she might’ve been up there with Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer.
Imprinted on my grandmother was the slyness and cleverness of the Middle Eastern market place and the intrigues and schemings of sheikhs and tribal monarchs. On holidays, when different lines of our family converged, she would sniff just so at my other grandmother’s food to suggest it had no taste, no history, no nothing, and I’d watch my American-born grandmother wilt before my eyes. Sometimes at a family meals, everyone would be joking and getting along wonderfully, but then, as though a dybbuk had seized my grandma Estrella against her will, she would turn a compliment into devastating insult with a flick of the wrist, and then back again. You could almost admire her cleverness if the results hadn’t been so painful. Even at her deathbed, I’m told, she was causing trouble, rending kingdoms with her words, maybe even justifiably. (A little house cleaning ?)
I often wonder: How did she come by her razor sharp tongue? Did she come out of the womb speaking that way?
I close my eyes and think of her as a little girl in Casablanca, hearing the news that her mother was abducted by a sheikh who was entranced by her beauty. Yes, that really happened. Through back door channels and a little greasing of the palms, her mother returned home a week later, untouched, unharmed. A miracle! But the joy doesn’t last long. Her mother died that year. Before Estrella could even take in this horrific loss, her father remarried. According to family lore that’s when Estrella began to divide and conquer with her tongue, that same year when her life situation kept switching back and forth, forth and back, like quicksilver. Her rapid-fire words, good and bad, were all she could count on. Free will? The poor soul was fighting for her life.
Oh grandma, grandma. Recipes for food she had, but not so much recipes for life. But her cooking. Her cooking was the flawless creation that she wasn’t. Now here I am this Sukkot, once again making Grandma Estrella’s harira soup. A soup has a way of blending contrasting elements into a unified whole. In this soup I taste flavor, culture and family history, so many contradictions and ironies. Is that why I make the soup? Well, no. It just tastes too good.
The sukkah is compared to a wedding canopy, to which the souls of previous generations come to the chuppah to bless the couple, according to Jewish tradition. The thought of grandma Estrella’s spirit stopping by to bless our Sukkah-canopy fills me with mild trepidation. Will she throw her usual barbs and make comments about the Ashkenazi food with no taste? Or, perhaps, the after-life has cured her, finally sent that dybbuk of pettiness packing, sent it along to someone else, perhaps Leona Helmsley.
As I prepare the soup, chopping the onions and celery, I imagine Estrella as a girl of ten or eleven, before her mother died, before her father remarried and brought her a new mother. I see her standing in the market, delicate-featured, high cheek-boned, not yet aware of her beauty—untouched by slyness or bitterness. She’s carefully picking out white onions and tomatoes nearly bursting with seeds and juice, curling leaves of cilantro, shiny lemons and fresh celery stalks. She’s gathering up the lentils and chick peas. She’s humming and imagining what a great harira soup this will be.
Grandma Estrella’s harira soup recipe:
Boil water in a big pot, then put in a few pieces of meat on a bone (you can skip the meat if you want, my grandmother would say, but if you do, then add a tablespoon of olive oil for richness).
Add a cup of chick peas (from a can is OK, but fresh is ten times better), let it cook until it falls apart, then add a cup of rinsed lentils, two stalks of sliced celery, and one big chopped up onion and coarsely cut garlic.
And what else, what else? Oh yes, the tomatoes. Three big, fat, red, juicy ones. Grandma Estrella used to make a big deal out of par-boiling them, then taking off the skin, then squeezing out the seeds, and using the pulp that’s left for the soup. It will add beautiful color, she’d say. I say not it’s worth the time—just chop up the tomatoes and throw them into the soup—but I never told her that as it would’ve broken her Casablancan heart.
Add the right balance of salt and pepper—your tongue will guide you—and I suppose add also a teaspoon or two of cumin, although I don’t remember that being officially part of the recipe.
Let it all cook for, say, an hour and a half. Then add a nice fistful of fresh kuzbara (cilantro) toward the end, so the heat doesn’t kill it, and also squeeze in fresh lemon.
Here’s the critical part: break angel fine noodles into small pieces, and throw them into the boiling pot the last two minutes before you serve the soup. If serving for erev Shabbat Friday, prepare the noodle thickener beforehand and it won’t make a real difference. Or just make a paste with a tablespoon of flour and add to the soup, but I like the fine noodles much better. (Forgive me, I can’t bear saying “pasta.”)
Taste and pour a capful or two of olive oil if you think it’s necessary. Add more salt and pepper, if necessary. Make sure to remove the bones. Grandma Estrella liked to blend the soup so no small parts were discernible. I never do that—I like to see what I’m eating.