When Grace Sitt was a child she watched her grandmother brush sheets of filo with butter to be layered with crushed pistachio for batlawa (also known as baklawa). Still, she had no interest in learning her family’s culinary arts. “I’d rather be at the beach or doing anything but in the kitchen,” she said.
But Sitt couldn’t escape her DNA — her grandfather was a pastry chef from Aleppo and her grandmother the author of a 1950s cookbook on Syrian cooking — and her disinterest in her grandparents’ kitchen evolved into pride in the rich culture of Syrian cuisine.
“It tells the story of where you’re from, what you’re about, who you are, and it’s something to be proud of,” said Sitt, who has owned Catering By Grace based in Deal for six years.
Her menus are “always infused with Sephardic specialties” — mazzas, lachmagine, and bazergan — even when they include trendy foods such as mini tacos and sushi.
In Sephardi culture, traditional foods are valued even if they’re not always prepared at home. The dishes can be time consuming and ingredients difficult to find in conventional grocery stores, and really, do working parents have time to roll out grape leaves to stuff while hashu (sautéed ground meat) simmers on the stove?
While Deal and the neighboring towns of Allenhurst and Long Branch are lacking restaurants that serve food reflective of the backgrounds of the towns’ Syrian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Moroccans, and other residents, prepared foods and pastries are abundant. Perhaps the kosher food purveyors are the guardians of the Sephardi heritage where family customs season the work done in their commercial kitchens.
“Ninety-five percent” of Jonah
Shemueli’s recipes come from his Damascene grandmother. Her recipe for homemade tamarind sauce is a process he follows that takes more than two days; he sells his tamarhindi at Sarah’s Tent, where he is the manager. Tamarind sauce is a staple in Syrian foods. It is used to give the tang in sweet and sour sauces that are served with stuffed vegetables, rice, meat dishes, and more.
Sarah’s Tent was purchased by Shemueli’s father, Jack, in 1991 and converted into a store with ready-made foods, groceries, and catering. Shemueli figures he spent more than half his life working in the Norwood Avenue shop.
Today his kitchen advisers include two aunts, who spend lots of time cooking and answer Shemueli’s questions as they come up. “They’re the gurus,” he said.
They came to his aid when his kibbe fell apart in the fryer. Kibbe is comprised of a dough made from bulgur wheat that’s stuffed with ground meat seasoned with allspice, garlic, and chopped onions, and then the torpedo-shaped piece is deep fried. His aunts told Shemueli he was adding too much water to the dough and advised adding a little flour, “a little of this, or that, and before we knew it, it was coming out perfectly,” he said.
Shalom Groceries also makes its own kibbe, as well as kelsones, a version of cheese ravioli, sambusak, and lachmagine, all of which are readily available from his freezer when they’re not sold fresh. “We’re continuing the tradition from Syria,” said store owner David Laniado.
From the outside, Shalom Groceries appears an unremarkable convenience store but for the teasing “Middle Eastern specialties” sign in the window. On a Wednesday afternoon in July, several Spanish-speaking women were preparing kibbe in back. The food is traditionally served as an appetizer with tahina.
Inside the small shop are freezers with prepared foods and dry ingredients such as rice, different cuts of bulgur, bundles of dried eggplant, and spices lining the shelves behind the cash register. Bags of different flavored kaak, a savory, round cracker, are in bins at the front of the store, and Laniado boasts he makes the “best tahina in town.”
His food evokes the customs of previous generations. “Everyone likes what their grandparents ate,” he said.
Prepared foods are the showpiece on Fridays at Sarah’s Tent, where customers can purchase Shabbat specialties by the pound. Some of the most popular Syrian items (ignoring the 10 varieties of fried chicken) include the yebra (stuffed grape leaves), onion stuffed with rice and meat in a tamarind sauce, and a rolled version of kibbe that’s sliced in pinwheels and cooked in a sweet and sour cherry sauce.
For Morris Assouline, an Ocean Township resident who is a screenwriter and works in real estate, the glut of prepared food is positive. That’s “one sign of a thriving community when things are abundant in that way,” he said.
The variety also gives the consumer choices. For example, Assouline likes sampling the different types of kaak — some are plain, some are seeded, the round cracker can be small and thick while others are large and thin — although his mother-in-law’s crispy variety is his favorite. “Store bought are good, but just don’t compare to homemade,” he said.
On the other hand, the convenience of prepared foods could harm the transmission of a delicious aspect of Sephardi culture.
Regarding traditional foods, Shemueli said “there’s a recognition of how we use it every generation, a little bit less than the generation before,” referring to the parents and grandparents who labored for hours in the kitchen.
“Many rely on the stores,” Assouline said. “But what happens if that store goes out of business, then what?” For him, food is just one aspect of Middle Eastern Jewish culture that he values; he’s concerned about losing other important cultural markers such as the indigenous Hebrew pronunciation, tunes used in prayers, and the ability to recite all the books of the Bible. There are traditions that have gone away, he said, “but food is the thing that seems to stick around.”
Sitt understands this sentiment and said she tries to teach her children, all seven of them, how to cook, even though childhood apathy, not dissimilar to her own, might sometimes get in their way. “I feel like it’s important to know how to make it and to know how to do it,” she said. “It’s something that’s eventually going to get lost.”
Some quintessential dishes she teaches include mesche, the stuffed vegetables, and mazza, the bite-sized foods. Her hands gesticulate in the air as she mimes the motion learned from her grandmother for twisting the ends of the dough for sambusak, the cheese pastry, calling it “intricate” and hard to master but a skill that’s important for her children to know.
She compares the absence of native cooking skills to a language that is no longer handed down from one generation to the next.
“If they’re not learning it, your culture just disappears.”