Tuesday, July 2, 2013

I Ate An Ouzie! Two, actually.

I got to eat ouzie at my aunt's house the other day. She had the usual spread of EVERYTHING, but also had ouzie, which is one of my favorites. Ouzie is rice, mutton or lamb, pistachios, and peas wrapped in a filo dough crust. Because of the rice and peas, it tastes a bit sweet even though it is basically a meal in a filo dough shell. This is one of those wonderful Arab dishes that use cinnamon as a savory spice. Cinnamon goes really well with lamb and mutton.

Baba had already refused to serve ouzie at our end of school party earlier in the summer because ouzie are often used for funeral banquets. So I had resigned myself to not having any ouzie on this visit. Instead of ordering them from a caterer, my aunt made these herself, so they were particularly good. They were less greasy than catered ouzie can be and probably made with lamb rather than mutton. My aunt also made them small enough to be a regular helping (a small fist). Catered ouzie are usually meant to be a whole meal on the go, so they are about the size of a large tea saucer. My aunt did another unusual thing and actually gave me a doggy bag. Normally, in Syria, when you eat at someone’s house, you're expected to stuff yourself within an inch of hospitalization and leave the rest there. This time, I got to eat two ouzie at home a few days later. Yummy!

Here are some of the more standard dishes at the same feast:

Boiled mutton over steamed barley, topped with almonds and cashews.
I have to admit that I haven’t had this one before. Baba was surprised by that. I guess it’s usually not included in feasts but eaten frequently in the home. Apparently no one taught it to my mom.

Two Kinds of Baraq (meat, and cheese), Spinach Fatayer (tricornered with ridges), and Kibbeh Balls.
Baraq are sometimes made with filo dough. They are just pillows with a little bite of filling. The cheese ones have goat cheese and parsley inside. The meat ones have a similar filling to the Kibbeh Balls: minced lamb, onion and pine nuts. The Kibbeh Ball itself is made from cracked wheat. Sometimes, as a treat for children, some of the Kibbeh Balls will be stuffed with boiled eggs, whole boiled eggs if the cook is skillful enough. The Spinach Fatayer, are one of my favorites, with enough lemon juice to give the spinach a little bite, while the dough crust is sweet.

 Koosah Mhshi 
Stuffed zucchini are practically a staple. The variety of zucchini in Syria is larger and the skin more tender, not to mention lighter colored, than we grow in the US. It’s closer to a Magda Squash. Each one is hollowed out by hand (using a special tool) and then stuffed with a filling of spices, rice, lamb and an occasional chickpea for a surprise. Our family boils the stuffed zucchinis in a tomato based sauce, which is to spoon over the rice filling once you slice the zucchini open with your spoon. Yes, I said spoon. The zucchini is very tender.

Women in my family usually fill at least a four quart pressure cooker with rolled grape leaves when they make yebra’ or yalangi. For a large banquet, the entire cooker is over turned to form a tower of neatly stacked cylanders. I think these are yebra’ which are usually served hot as opposed to yalungi which are served cold (similar to dolmas, but less oily). In our family, yebra’ is usually served with a tomato lemon broth for dipping and pita bread. But not at banquets. I’m told only children eat yebra’ with the broth and bread, but I prefer it that way

No matter how much you like them, only take a couple yebra’ onto your plate at one time. Forcing food onto a guest is a required show of hospitality in Syria. Your hosts – this can sometimes include everyone at the table – will insist on adding items to your plate once you have eaten your first serving, sometimes sooner. Pace yourself. Take the smallest portions possible and eat slowly. Tell your hosts that you want to savor each dish by itself. If they see helpings of every dish on your plate at the same time, they will later claim you only had a taste and must have a proper helping.

It’s considered rude to refuse, but eventually you must. That is usually when the hostess busts out the “from my hand” trump card. Just when you are bursting at the seams, your hostess (the cook, presumably) will beg that you eat one last portion “from my hand.” This does NOT mean that she wants to hand feed you. It means that you must eat one last serving that she dishes up for you, personally, to honor the cook/hostess. This is truly the rock and the hard place, when you’ve already been force fed three helpings of everything on the table. Generally this is when I eat stuffed grape leaves. As portions go, they are smaller. When the hostess begins to dish me up that last morsel, I say, “just some grape leaves, please, they are my favorite.” They are, actually.

Salads were also served at this meal, but the entry got so long that they are posted separately as “Tabbouleh and Other Salads”

 Damascene Baklava #1

In the west, many people think of baklava as a walnut treat, but in Syria, walnut baklava is just a junior member of a family of treats using filo dough crusts and pistachios. In Damascus, if you speak of baklava and you are not specific, people will think you are talking about shredded filo dough that has been stuffed with fresh cream (almost like a pudding), quickly deep fried, drizzled with rosewater syrup and topped with cream and pistachios. If you haven’t left room for this dessert, you’re in trouble! More pictures of baklava in an upcoming post.

I didn't get a picture of this but did you know that you can stuff turkish delight with fresh cream pudding and pistachios...? Yummy...I doubt anyone could eat more than two. They are small, but, wow, how rich!

Good luck. I’ve gained several pounds in a single afternoon while being shamed into eating one last bite of this or that. I think of it as the price I have to pay for not visiting more often. If you are invited to more than one feast, try to space them out no closer than one in three days and fast in between.

The meal is finished with fruits and tea or coffee, depending on the time of day and your intimacy with the hosts. If it’s afternoon and you’re like family, the fruits and tea may be served after everyone has a nap!


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