05 April 2007
One Family, Two Easters
“Which Easter do you celebrate,” Umm Hana asked, “Catholic or Orthodox?” I’m not at all religious, but in Syria, it’s best to chose from the acceptable options, so I went with Catholic. “Ah, good, like me,” Umm Hana said proudly. “But Abu Hana, he is Syrian Orthodox, so the children go to that church,” she reminded me. “So which Easter will you celebrate,” I asked, knowing Easter is a major festivity in the Syrian minority community. I had heard the bands practicing for weeks, beating drums at all hours of the day as they practiced marching-band style formations in the Old City.
“We celebrate both,” Umm Hana assured me, “you’ll be here, right?” Of course I would be there, and of course I would want to help her prepare the feast. Over the next week, we prepped vegetables and chopped parsley. We sliced thick rounds of beef and pounded them out into 6 inch circles. A mixture of garlic and herbs was placed in the middle of the beef, then rolled up, and sewed closed with needle and thread. Hundreds of sewn beef rolls later, we seared them in clarified butter, then made a tomato sauce and simmered the rolls for over an hour. When I asked her what she called the dish, Umm Hana said “laziza,” which simply means tasty. She shrugged, “it doesn’t really have a name, so I just call it laziza.”
Easter morning came, and my friend Sara and I arrived early to help prepare. Soon the family and many friends arrived and toasts of Irish creme liqueur were passed around. I took one sip and nearly gagged, it was before noon and I was drinking something that tasted like rubbing alcohol. Having alcohol in small amounts is a matter of distinction in Christian households, to set themselves apart from the Muslim majority, but the most of the stuff tastes like it was made in someone’s bathtub. Sara and I tried to discreetly hide our glasses.
Liqueur, eggs, and a close up of the "laziza" beef rolls.
Soon, dishes were ferried to the table, and the feast began: steaming platters of saffron rice, stuffed vegetables, roast spicy chicken, salads, bulgur pilafs, stewed okra. The “laziza” truly lived up to its name. There was coffee and tea, then there were chocolate eggs with trinkets inside, and little cakes. By the time the date-filled biscuits were passed around, I was stuffed, but they were so good I found myself reaching for one after another anyway.
Several hours later, as Sara and I were about ready to roll our way home Umm Hana said, “so you’ll be here next week right?” Right next week, another Easter. As we tried to walk off the effects of our meal, I really thought I couldn’t do it again. “What if I say I’m sick next week?” Yet the next week, there I was again, newly ironed tablecloths, baskets of dyed eggs, carrying dishes from kitchen to table.
This year, Umm Hana caught a break, because both Easters happen to fall on the same day. I’ll be cooking for my own family, and in the interest of simplicity I’ll be cooking just one of the dishes Umm Hana taught me, albeit one of my favorites. Djaj ala Freekia, or chicken with roasted green wheat, is simple to prepare, but it ranks among my most coveted of homely Arabic foods. If you have never had freekiah, which most people haven’t, I urge you to go now, and search it out. It is green wheat which is harvested young and then immediately toasted over fires in the fields, which both preserves it and imparts a nutty, deep flavor. It can be a bit hard to find, but check your local Middle Eastern market, or it can be ordered from Kalustyans, it is sometimes labeled “Frik.” The traditional way of serving is to put the wheat on one big platter, the poached chicken on another platter, and pass a bowl of the broth alongside. You can moisten the dish with the broth, as you can see in the photo I like my freekiah a little more moist or soupy than most people.
On a final note, those absolutely addictive date-filled cookies are very similar to ma’moul, and are called kaak bi ajweh. I adore them, and Umm Hana gave me two big boxes, a few of which still remain in my freezer. If you want to try making them yourself, there’s an excellent recipe and article here. كل عام وأنتم بخير (Kul aam wa intom bi kheir), and happy holidays to all!
Djaj ala Freekia (Chicken with Roast Green Wheat)
Freekia is a roasted green wheat with a wonderful nutty flavor, it is available in Middle Eastern markets. For extra flavor, we like to poach the chicken in a light low-sodium broth, but water is traditional.
1 medium chicken, about 3 lb
6-7 cups water or stock
1 medium onion, diced
3 cinnamon sticks
1 bay leaf
1 tbl sea salt
2 tbl unsalted butter
1 cup freekia
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1. Rinse the chicken, place it in a pot, and add the water or stock to cover. Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Skim the surface, add the onion, cinnamon, bay leaf, and salt. Reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for one hour.
2. After half an hour of the chicken cooking, remove 3 cups of the cooking water and set aside. Let the chicken go on cooking, covered, for the remaining half hour.
3. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the freekia and stir until well coated with butter. Pour in the reserved chicken stock and season with the cinnamon and allspice. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the liquid is absorbed, about 25-30 minutes. Check the freekia, is should be tender but still slightly chewy, like barley. If you want it more cooked, add more stock and simmer until done to your liking.
4. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board, remove and discard the skin, and separate into pieces. Spoon the freekia into a platter. Place the chicken on another platter, and place some of the broth in a bowl. Serve, passing the platters, with extra salt for seasoning.