I only really started to cook in the summer before I came to Columbia. I had spent some time in the kitchen, but never seriously. Before leaving, I believed that I needed to quickly learn how to cook so that I could feed myself when the dining hall closed. The first thing that my mother said I needed to learn to make was an allayet bandora, which means tomato stir-fry in Arabic. This is a simple meat sauce that can be eaten with rice, and is very easy to make. If you’d like, you can also turn it into a breakfast dish by frying some eggs with it.
For a recipe that feeds four, you’ll need the following ingredients:
1 medium onion, chopped into small pieces
1 Ib. ground beef
4 tbsp. corn oil
A handful of pine nuts, fried in vegetable oil
1 tsp. Arabic spice mix*
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
2 Ib. tomatoes, cubed
1 green chili (optional)
*You can make this spice mix yourself by mixing the following spices, or you can try to find it at a Middle Eastern specialty store. If you’re only using this spice mix for this recipe, then I don’t think it’s worth buying all of the spices just make one teaspoon. You can just add whatever combination of these spices that you like or that you already have.
Much of what we associate with home is the food that we grow up eating. Many people will tell you that nothing is better than mom’s cooking. When we are homesick, what we miss most is our favorite home-cooked meal. After making the 12-hour-long trip back home for spring break, I could not help but ask my mom to prepare my favorite meal, and I’d like to tell you about it. This dish has many names depending on where you’re from. My family calls it waraq dawali, others call it waraq ‘inab, others dolma. Stuffed grape leaves (waraq in Arabic), are the main component of the dish. It is believed that the word dolma comes from the Turkish dolmak, to stuff. There are many varieties of stuffed grape leaves. In Greece and Turkey, they are served as cold mezzes, whereas in Egypt they are eaten hot, accompanied by other stuffed vegetables such as eggplants and cabbages.
My favorite dish, waraq dawali, is a pot with layers of stuffed grape leaves, stuffed zucchini, tomatoes, and onions, and lamb chops on the top. These layers are tightly packed in a large pot, cooked, and then inverted on a plate. The stuffing is usually a mixture of rice, minced meat, and tomatoes, although different households will have different varieties , just like different American homes have different varieties of Turkey stuffing on Thanksgiving. While the pot is on the stove, the juices of the grape leaves and zucchini flow, trickling down through the layer to give moisture and a lot of flavor. The lamb chops at the very top of the dish (or the very bottom of the pot), are juicy and tender. This dish is really one of the most popular among people from the Middle East. It’s a perfect meal; it offers lots of protein from the meat and the stuffing, a healthy serving of carbs from the rice, and rich nutrients from the grape leaves and zucchini. It is a very filling meal, and can keep you warm when the temperatures in that part of the world occasionally drop below 60 degrees.
Lunch in the Middle East is, of course, never complete without some delicious sides. The day I had my favorite meal, my mom also prepared two of my favorite side dishes. The first is called Kibbeh and originates in the Syrian city of Aleppo. A kibbeh is prepared by encasing a minced meat and onion mixture in a dough-like shell made from bulgur wheat, lemon juice, and even more meat. This oval-shaped dumpling is then deep-fried, giving the case a crunchy texture. No one ever said that all Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food is diet-friendly, but kibbeh is a really popular side-dish found all over the Levant and Iraq, with many different variations and shapes. The other side dish that I had was specifically a Palestinian pastry that consists of rolled up filo dough stuffed with, again, meat. Its name, lahmeh mabroumeh, is accurately descriptive because it literally means “rolled up meat.” Usually, this pastry is found as an appetizer accompanying other savory pastries like spinach or cheese pies (fatayer sabanegh w jibneh).
As you may have guessed, after eating all of this food in one sitting, I was too full for dessert, but this doesn’t mean that I didn’t have any. In my next post, I’ll tell you about my favorite Middle Eastern dessert, the knafeh.
Today is officially my last day in Argentina. I’ve said almost all of my good-byes. My bags are packed (somehow I got everything to fit into the exact same bags that I came with; I have no idea how that’s possible, but I’m not going to question it for fear of them bursting right open). My flight leaves in just a few hours, and then tomorrow, after God-knows how many hours of travelling, I’ll land in California, get picked up at the airport by my parents, and start this American life once again. Hello family, old friends, Mexican food, sushi, and English spoken everywhere.
There are a lot of things from home that I’ve missed while abroad, but there’s also so much that I’m sad to leave here. Argentina may be full of economic problems, political corruption, and a frustratingly unreliable bus system (never again will I complain about having to wait eight minutes for the 1 train to arrive at the platform), but it’s also here that I’ve met the nicest, most generous, warm people. I already miss the friends I’ve made here, and I don’t even want to think about how the improvements I’ve made in Spanish are going to plummet into the abyss of invisibility when I stop speaking and hearing the language during most of the day, or how I have no idea when I’ll be having another one of those amazingly flavorful asados. Oh Argentina, what will I do without you?
There are a few things (i.e. food) that I will be able to take along with me. One of my carry-ons, for example, is filled with the different types of cookies that my host mom would serve me for breakfast (no fruit of yogurt here in the morning as you will be called a monkey if you’re caught eating a banana for breakfast). Among those many cookie boxes are six of the Manón brand; they carry my name, so I was basically obligated to take a few with me, right? I’ve also got copies of several of my host mom’s recipes and the address of an Argentine grocery store in NYC. So aside from those asados, I’m basically set.
There are also a few of us in the program who might have decided to be one of those pretentious study abroad return-students who show in the most obvious way possible that they’ve lived outside the country. So if you ever see a few people drinking mate on Low Steps, it might be us.
Mate is one of the greatest Argentine customs, and travelling to Argentina without tasting this famous infusion is like going to Italy without eating pizza or to France without enjoying a croissant. Mate is to Argentina as the hamburgers are to the US, and aside from the horrendous Fernet con Coca (which apparently is an acquired taste, but to me just tastes like something you’d take for a bad cough) it’s basically the national drink and its people’s pride and joy. While many Argentines drink it in the morning as Americans would coffee (mateina has a similar energizing effect as caffeine), mate is generally enjoyed in social settings. The tea is passed around to all participants and everyone sips from the same bombilla (metal straw), all the while respecting the protocol that surrounds this friendship ritual. There are a lot of different claims to the correct way to cure the mate cup, how to prepare the tea, which brand of yerba to use, and more, so five months in Argentina and many mates later, I still feel as though I’ve only acquired a very basic understanding of the complex ritual that surrounds this tea. Evidently, it’s much more than just a simple plant infusion.
The first time that a friend and I were offered to share mate with an Argentine that we’d just met, we were sitting in film class listening to the professor’s lecture and were thus unable to communicate our excitement to each other about having just been initiated into the most Argentine tradition that there could be. We passed notes to each other that read, “make an Argentine friend…CHECK!” and “drink mate in class…CHECK!” and did our best to control our exhilaration. I later found out that by taking just a few sips without finishing the whole cup I had totally butchered the protocol, but oh well… A couple weeks later, a few of us from the program went to the park to drink mate, and if only we hadn’t been taking a ton of pictures of ourselves we would have looked totally local. Good thing we’ve gone back since, complete with snacks and a guitar (and without the camera).
Most of all, I’m going to miss the daily mate and charla (chatting) that I’d enjoy with my host mom after waking up from the siesta. She’d set up a beautiful table of toast, homemade jams, cookies, and cake, and then we’d sit down and talk about whatever was on our minds at that moment: class, politics, friends, the repairs that needed to be made in the apartment upstairs, food, the neighbors, family, or life. Over these past five months in Argentina, I’ve gotten to be pretty close to my host mom—she’s made me feel at home in a foreign country, she’s taken me into her family even though we’d never known each other before my arrival, and she’s taught me so many valuable lessons, whether about the Spanish language, cooking, or life. My host mom is one of the most generous and genuinely good people that I’ve ever met in my life, and she will be the hardest person to say good-bye to when I leave. I’m really going to miss her, as well as our daily mate and charla, when I’m gone.
Mate is something very special, and it is a custom that I will dearly miss when I go back home. More than just a tea, it’s about friendship and the people it’s shared with. While my time in Argentina is now coming to a close, the national traditions I’ve learned about, the people I’ve met, and the people who have taken me into the their hearts will stay with me forever. There are many reasons to come back, so I hope it won’t be too long before the next time I set foot in this country once again. Un beso grande, Argentina.
My mom and I have probably been thinking about this year’s Thanksgiving dinner since the end of the summer when I began to get ready to go back to school in September. And during these past weeks especially, we’ve been narrowing down possible courses, getting ideas for unconventional versions of the Thanksgiving classics, and determining the items to appear on the final menu. My in and outboxes are full of emails about recipe finds and menu ideas, grocery lists and cooking schedules. I can literally go to my Gmail outbox and find dozens of messages with subjects that read Appetizer ideas, AMAZING Pumpkin Pie, Final Menu, or Final menu version 2. This Thanksgiving brainstorm became quite an obsession and a major excuse to procrastinate during midterms, so good thing D-day is finally here and the madness can now come to a close.