An accomplished writer and artist, Linda Dalal Sawaya’s family immigrated from Douma, Lebanon to Detroit in 1926; her grandmother Dalal and mother Alice Ganamey Sawaya, mother of five, grandmother of seven, great-grandmother of nine, soon became famous for their cooking, and as the youngest of five daughters, Linda later became their kitchen assistant. In “Alice’s Kitchen” (now in its fourth edition), Linda lovingly collects family portraits, memories, and over 100 traditional Lebanese dishes including mezza, salads, kebabs, stuffed veggies, and delicate desserts that capture the essence of Lebanon’s healthful, veggie-centric cuisine in a simple, easily approachable format. In addition, a portion of the proceeds benefits the children of Lebanon.
Linda, her artwork, and “Alice’s Kitchen” were featured prominently in an issue of the excellent magazine “Aramco World,” and Linda was kind enough to send a copy of the issue “Memories of a Lebanese Garden,” which features stunning cover paintings of the author and her mother in a garden filled with classic Lebanese imagery and produce as well as full-page paintings of scenes from Douma, the author learning to toss bread in the air like her mother and grandmother before her, family portraits, and illustrated ingredients for the featured recipes (‘ihjee, sambusak, mujaddrah, kusah mahshi, salatat bandurah Elis).
Linda’s grandmother Dalal had lived through WWI, rationing, single parenting and a historic earthquake before joining her husband in Detroit; having survived these hardships, she taught her children and grandchildren the art of recycling, conversation and not wasting even a single grain of rice. Moving to the US meant that new culinary skills had to be learned – where the town butcher in Douma had previously prepared various cuts of lamb, this was a luxury not available in 1950s Los Angeles, so Alice and Dalal learned to cut legs of lamb for various dishes, and how to bake their own bread (huge, paper-thin loaves). Linda grew up surrounded by an abundance of food, prepared not only for the family but also any visitors that happened to drop by, a hallmark of Lebanese hospitality. Her family kept a small kitchen garden where they grew mint, purslane, squash, grape leaves, and figs.
Although I never had the pleasure of meeting Alice, I feel as though I know her through reading Linda’s stories and through the black and white photographs; my own grandmother was named Alice and also immigrated to Michigan (in my case, from Poland in 1913). She similarly preserved and passed down her heritage through her love of cooking and feeding family, so “Alice’s Kitchen” resonated deeply with me on many levels far beyond a simple culinary connection. As a child, I remember my grandmother recounting arriving at Ellis Island; when I finally made it to Ellis Island in 1914 during a job interview in NYC, it was a highly charged emotional moment to see it from the ferry for the first time, just as my grandmother must have seen it. Now as an adult, I am attempting to reconnect with my immigrant heritage by trying to recapture the taste of my grandmother’s home cooking. (Unlike Linda, I was not fortunate enough to preserve my grandmother’s recipes or to learn from her in the kitchen while she was still alive).
Having grown up surrounded by her family’s Lebanese cuisine in Los Angeles, Linda had the chance to finally experience Lebanon’s culture and legendary hospitality for herself during a three-month sojourn in 1971. Suddenly familiar rituals and flavors that she’d taken for granted took on new meaning; the artistry that her mother Alice incorporated was evident in every dish. This first encounter with Lebanon transformed her life and provided the starting point for “Alice’s Kitchen.”
Opening with a very helpful guide to “About the Recipes,” you’ll find a section on curing olives and pickling (green, black, pickled turnips and vegetables), homemade cheese, yogurt and butter (including Arabic cheese, labne, and clarified butter), sauces (yogurt garlic, tahini, za’atar with olive oil). Salads are probably my favorite part of Lebanese cuisine, and you’ll find familiar favorites like fattoush and tabbouli alongside Salatat Elias (tomato salad with garlic and spearmint), yogurt and cucumber, and Lebanese potato salad.
As lamb is a central component to many Lebanese dishes, there is an excellent illustrated guide to breaking down various cuts (leg, breast, shoulder) and many excellent serving suggestions (shish kebab, grilled ground lamb, meat pies, and the national dish, kibbe nayye (raw minced lamb and bulgur). Chicken and fish dishes will give you additional ideas for mains.
Being vegetarian, of course my favorite section was vegetarian entrees and vegetables, beans, and grains. Lebanese cuisine lends itself particularly well to vegetarian dishes such as mjaddrah (lentils and rice with caramelized onions, fatayir (spinach pies), ‘ijjeh (omelette with parsley, mint and onion), summer squash stuffed with rice, vegetarian stuffed grape leaves, falafel and vegetarian kibbe. As a fan of both pumpkin and bulgur, the kibbet jlunt (baked pumpkin and bulgur with pine nuts) was a revelation. Her version of Mhammara (grilled red pepper and walnut dip) is superb; just the right degree of tart (from lemon juice and pomegranate molasses) with a little kick from the chili paste (I used Tunisian harissa), this addictive dip goes perfectly with veggies, pita, feta, and basically anything you can think of! And you’ll find the full range of wonderful Middle Eastern desserts, from walnut ma’amoul, ‘atayif (crepes with cheese or walnut filling), knafe, a delicately spiced rice pudding, and baklava rounded out with suggested drinks. There’s even a section on homemade preserves and fruit leathers (fig jam with aniseed and walnuts, quince, apricot, and pumpkin and carrot infused with rose geranium petals.
Recipe names are given in transliterated Arabic as well as English (Arabic titles are listed in italics in the index). Each recipe is introduced with a brief background into the dish, its importance in traditional Lebanese cuisine or preparation and serving tips, and family stories and traditions. A handy glossary breaks down Arabic terms for cooking, tools, ingredients, terms of endearments and hospitality, and sample menus for breakfast, lunch, mezza, dinner, and more.
Here is Linda’s fabulous recipe for Mhammara:
3 red bell peppers, roasted or grilled until blackened (I used one jar drained roasted red peppers)
1 cup walnuts
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon chili paste (I used harissa)
3 cloves of garlic
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional – I skipped it)
2 tablespoons sesame seeds (I used toasted)
2 tablespoons bread crumbs (or more as needed)
1. Place whole red peppers over a grill, or broil until blackened. This takes only a few minutes. Put hot peppers into a paper bag and close to cool. This makes them easy to peel. Under running water, remove all the blackened skin. Cut in half and remove seeds. Juices from the peppers can be used in the dip.
2. Put peppers and all of the remaining ingredients into a food processor and pulse just until the consistency is minced but not pureed.
3. Taste and add seasonings or bread crumbs as needed. Serve with Arabic bread, pita chips, or crackers.
Makes 2 cups of dip, serving 8 to 10 for appetizers.
Overall, Alice’s Kitchen is a book I will be turning to again and again to make the most of summer’s bounty through simple, delicious recipes that preserve the unique flavors of the fruits and veggies that star in them.
As Linda so eloquently puts it, the appeal of traditional Lebanese cuisine is that “Our tradition is about living gently on the earth. Using resources of the earth respectfully. Sharing and preparing food with love. Eating what is in season. Growing our own food as much as possible. Living simply and richly. Honoring the earth. Honoring ourselves and each other. This is my gesture to honor and preserve that culture for myself, for my family, and for others who appreciate these traditions, values, and foods.” As Linda’s mother Alice described it, “Dear, if you make it with love, it will be delicious.” Sallem dayetkoom!
(A heartfelt shukran (thank you) to Linda for the review copy of Alice’s Kitchen, postcard featuring her original oil paintings, and copy of the January / February 1997 Aramco World magazine she was the cover story on.)