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Back in the summer I happened upon the list of the 2019 James Beard Foundation Book Award winners (and nominees). Being me, naturally I was most interested in the International Category. There was representation from Northern Thai and Filipino cuisines but it was Anissa Helou’s work Feast: Food of the Islamic World that ended up being crowned winner. And once you start leafing through its beautiful pages, it’s easy to see why.
This cookbook is absolutely gorgeous (no, that is not hyperbole). As an avid collector (I sometimes collect more than I cook from, unfortunately) of cookbooks that feature glossy photographs of food and places from faraway lands, Feast: Food of the Islamic World might just be the fairest of them all. It might be the heaviest of them all too (special thanks to the Chester County Library system for lending its copy to me via Interlibrary Loan).
One of the things I liked most about Feast: Food of the Islamic World, besides its beautiful images and surprisingly not too difficult recipes, was that its name is just that. Too often when we hear “Islamic world” we automatically think of those countries in the Middle East and maybe North Africa. But the Islamic world comprises so much more. Its borders stretch to the eastern coast of Africa (Tanzania) to the waters of the Indian Ocean (the Maldives), to way over to Southeast Asia, where Indonesia has the distinction of being the world’s most populous Muslim country. So while I of course enjoyed seeing those recipes from mainstream spots like Turkey and Egypt, I also enjoyed seeing recipes from Nigeria, Senegal, and China.
Grilled scallion pancakes from the indigenous Uyghur people in China’s western Xinjiang region
Syria is a country I think about constantly. The civil war that has been going on for nearly a decade…the hundreds of thousands of lives lost…the millions more whose lives were destroyed, their homes gone. But I also think about how in the blink of an eye it went from being a bastion of stability in an otherwise volatile region, an area that saw many tourists visit its ancient sites, to most likely being forever known as a war zone (at least in my generation and immediate ones to follow).
Although other geographical areas of the cookbook intrigued me, I ended up making a Syrian recipe. From what I read on it, Kabab Karaz (Meatballs in Sour Cherry Sauce) is a dish that symbolizes the food of Aleppo, a city that was tragically destroyed during the war there.
These were incredibly easy to make and didn’t require a lot of time in terms of preparation. If you’re concerned about the sour cherry taste, don’t worry. Yes, there is undoubtedly a strong cherry taste to the dish, but a good one.. Being sour, it’s not overly sweet and rather, meshes well with the allspice. If you’re a fan of Middle Eastern cooking, especially lamb, you will adore this dish.
Meatballs in Sour Cherry Sauce
Kabab Karaz from Syria
Recipe courtesy of Anissa Helou’s Feast: Food of the Islamic World
FOR THE MEATBALLS:
1 pound lean ground lamb (obviously any other ground meat can serve as a substitute if you don’t like the taste of lamb or are unable to find any)
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of allspice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
FOR THE CHERRY SAUCE
2 1/4 pounds fresh or frozen pitted sour cherries
NOTE: If you can’t find fresh sour cherries, use dried sour cherries and simply rehydrate them by soaking them overnight in water: 2 cups water for 14 ounces pitted dried sour cherries. Add the soaking water along with the cherries when you make the sauce.
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
2 to 3 pita breads, split into 2 disks, and cut into medium triangles
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
A few sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/4 cup of pine nuts, toasted in a hot oven for 5 to 7 minutes, until lightly golden
1.) To make the meatballs: Mix the lamb, salt, and allspice and shape into small balls, the size of large marbles. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and saute the meatballs until lightly browned.
2.) Put the cherries, sugar, and pomegranate molasses in a pot large enough to eventually hold the meatballs and bring to a bubble over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. Add the meatballs and simmer for another 15 minutes until tender.
3.) To assemble the dish: Arrange the pita bread triangles all over a serving platter, coarse side up. Drizzle the melted butter all over the bread. Spoon the meat and sauce over the bread. Sprinkle the chopped parsley all over, then the toasted pine nuts. Serve immediately.