Tag Archives: lebanese

Traditional Arabic Dish – Koosa and Ejeh

Text/Context

EM – Koosa is a traditional Arabic dish. First, squash is hollowed out using a special scoop. My grandmother uses a scoop that belonged to her mom and grandmother. The squash is stuffed with a seasoned ground lamb meat and rice mixture and cooked in a tomato soup seasoned with spearmint.
And of course the squash seeds can’t go to waste, so they are salted to draw the water out and squeezed to drain as much as possible. They are then mixed with eggs, parsley, onions, and Syrian pepper to make an omelette-like batter. They are then deep fried into little cakes called ejeh. Fun to make and heavenly to eat.
Interviewer – Any special occasions to eat these recipes?
EM – We usually make koosa and ejeh in the summer when we can get fresh squash from the farm.
Interviewer – Are they always made side-by-side? Do you eat them at the same time in the same meal or do you eat them separately?
EM – Sitto (Arabic word for grandmother) doesn’t always make ejeh, but when she does, its always with koosa. We don’t usually eat them together, though. I like ejeh as a snack or breakfast, and koosa is always lunch or dinner.
Interviewer – If your grandmother has the special scoop, can no one but her make them “properly” or do you use whatever scoop you have? Is the scoop actually made specifically for koosa, and what does it look like?
EM – There are other scoops out there. I have my own, but Sitto’s is special because it’s been passed down. I don’t actually know if anyone uses the scoops for anything else but we call it a koosa scoop. It’s a long metal half-tube basically.
Interviewer – Does someone make them better than anyone else?
EM – Sitto makes them the best.
Interviewer – Have you learned both of the recipes?
EM – I know the recipe fo koosa, but not ejeh yet.
Interviewer – Do these recipes feel culturally significant to you personally, or are they just food you are glad you get to eat? Do you feel connected to your family through these recipes?
EM -The recipes are culturally significant to me because I feel close to my family when we make and eat them.
EM – All of my family’s recipes are either in our heads, or in the case of ka’ak and other desserts, the recipe is written down but no directions are given, so the only way to learn to make them is to observe and learn from our elders making special bonds and memories

Analysis

The dishes are usually made in the summer for maximum freshness. Because I collected the story during the winter, the story was not performed with the actual food but rather in a context of discussing favorite foods.
Koosa and Ejeh are examples of food connecting a person to their family and their heritage. The informant has never traveled to Lebanon, and knows only a few words in Arabic, but is proud of their heritage and feels connected when they learn the recipes that are passed down through family, learned by memory, and made with and for their family.

Traditional Arabic Dessert – Ka’ak

Text/Context

EM – Ka’ak is a traditional Arabic pastry that is usually a cookie. However there is a version that is more like a sweet bread that is traditionally made for Easter. This is the version that’s been baked in my family for generations. My mom would watch her grandmother make it (she wasn’t allowed to touch it until it was done). It’s always a special time of year and a special day when it’s made. It takes most of the day and the whole house smells delightful.
Also in my family, we usually make a quadruple batch.
First, the heat in the house is turned up to at least 70°F (this is the one day a year the heat is turned up above 64° in my house). The dough, using specifically King Arthur flour (no other brand is allowed) whole milk, sugar, and a bunch of spices including anise and mahlab (crushed cherry seeds) is made early in the morning. Then it’s covered in every extra blanket, quilt, and wool coat in the house, because if the dough catches cold, it’s ruined.
After the first rise, it’s rolled into balls, and set on baking sheets for the second rise. After that, the balls are padded onto a special homemade ka’ak press made of chicken wire, then set to rise again. They’re baked and cooled, and then they’re glazed in a milk, sugar, and rose water mixture, dried, and enjoyed. We distribute it to everyone in our family and community.
Interviewer – You said the sweet bread version is usually just for Easter. Does your family make it just for easter? Or is there some other cause for celebration with ka’ak? Is “special time of year and a special day” a particular day each year, or an arbitrary day and it is just the recipe that makes the time special?
EM – The ka’ak we make is traditionally the Easter version but we usually make it at Christmas because mom had more time. We don’t make it on a specific day but because we really only make it once a year that day becomes special.
Interviewer – Why a quadruple batch?
EM – We make a quadruple batch because we give it to a lot of people. We even ship some out to family in California (From Massachusetts).
Interviewer – Since even the kind of flour is so strict, and your mother was not allowed to touch the dough as a child, does that mean there is no change allowed to the recipe?
EM – The only change to the recipe is that my great grandmother always used ghee but we use regular unsalted butter.
Interviewer – Have you learned the recipe, or done it on your own?
EM – I’ve learned the recipe, though I don’t know it by heart yet, and have made it with my mom and then with my aunt in California, when I visited and brought the spices with me from home.I got pulled aside at the airport because of them. They didn’t believe me when I said they were spices.
Interviewer – Who counts as community, when it comes to distributing the ka’ak?
EM – We give ka’ak to neighbors, some people at our church, and like I said, family, including those in California.
Interviewer – Do you feel that the recipe is part of your Arab heritage?
EM – Yes this recipe and experience is absolutely part of my heritage. All of my family’s recipes are either in our heads, or in the case of ka’ak and other desserts, the recipe is written down but no directions are given, so the only way to learn to make them is to observe and learn from our elders, making special bonds and memories.

Analysis

This dessert is made only once a year and I did not collect this story during that time. The story was not performed with the actual food but rather in a context of discussing favorite foods.
Ka’ak is an example of food connecting a person to their family and their heritage. The informant has never travelled to Lebanon, and knows only a few words in Arabic, but is proud of their heritage and feels connected when they learn the recipes that are passed down through family, learned by memory, and made with and for their family. The informant is also excited to share the dessert—and part of their heritage—with people outside of their family.
It is also an interesting case when the food itself becomes cause for celebration, because it is very labor-intensive and time-consuming, so the dessert becomes very, very special.

Nowruz Celebrations in Lebanon

RA: “Nowruz is the Iranian New Year, and it’s a different time every spring. I was young when we left Iran, so I don’t really remember celebrating Nowruz there. We also never went back there during the spring, so the timing never worked out after we moved. When we lived in the UK, we couldn’t really celebrate Nowruz there either because we were so separated from our extended family, and there weren’t many Iranians living in London at the time. Most of my memories of Nowruz come from Lebanon. There were a lot of Iranians living in Lebanon then, and there still are, so it was a big holiday that lots of people there celebrated, even people who weren’t Iranians. There were lots of Nowruz parties and celebrations in the parks so you would sometimes see bonfires and lots of music just while walking around. What made Lebanon interesting is that there were lots of Arabs who celebrated with us, in addition to a lot of British and American ex-pats who worked with my dad at the oil company. So our Nowruz celebrations always had lots of people who had no clue what was going on but who were having lots of fun. My favorite part of Nowruz—because there were, you know, lots of parts like in most Iranian holidays—Anyways, my favorite part was Chahar Shanbeh Soori, where you’re jump over fireworks or a bonfire. You make wishes for the new year, and you leave behind the bad things you don’t want to take into the new year. I think its celebrated it on the last Wednesday before the new year because shanbeh means first in Farsi, but it might be the first Wednesday of the new year, I don’t really remember. There’s lots of partying and food, because there always is at Iranian holidays, and afterward we would build bonfires to jump over. This feels super dangerous in hindsight… there were bonfires all over this park we went to, and there was also a big bonfire in the center of the park that we would all sing and dance around. My brothers and I would race each other and jump over as many bonfires in the park as we could…which I can’t believe they let us do, but I think parents just liked to let their kids loose then. I just remember it being really beautiful at night, because you could see bonfires glowing everywhere across the park, and also in people’s backyards and front yards—wherever you could build a bonfire. That must have been so dangerous, but I don’t remember anyone ever burning themselves, just having lots of fun.  “

Informant’s interpretation:

AB: “Why was this your favorite part of Nowruz? What did Chahar Shanbeh Soori (did I say that right?) mean to you?”

RA: “I only ever celebrated Nowruz when I was young, because I left Lebanon in Middle School, so I don’t remember much now. I just remember how beautiful the fires were and how much fun I had with my family running around the park. It’s a beautiful part of beginning the new year, and I think it really helps energize and excite you for the new year.”

Personal interpretation:

Fire is important in many Iranian practices due to its spiritual significance in Zoroastrianism. Fire is often associated with cleansing and with divinity, so the role of fire in Chahar Shanbeh Soori may be seen as a way of cleansing yourself of impurities before the year to come, as well as entreating the divine to bless the coming year.

The Dabke Dance

This interview is a transcribed conversation between me, interviewer, and interviewee, referred to as SM. 

SM: I’m from Lebanon and in Lebanon and many other Middle Eastern Countries along the Sinai Peninsula, we commonly do this dance we all refer to as the dabke. I always see it at family weddings and other celebrations like birthdays.

Me: So what does this dance look like?

SM: So this dabke dance is done with both men and women, and it’s basically when people line up together and hold hands or link arms and then in a circle begin to dance and stomp their feet in synchronization. They also, like, sway their bodies from side to side in synchronization. Everyone dances and, oh, everyone sings as well in the circle. The circle rotates and people just keep swaying and dancing and stomping.

Me: Ok, and why do you do this dance?

SM: I was told by my dad, and other family members, that the dabke actually originates in Lebanon when we as Phoenicians used to make our homes out of stone and would put straw, wood, and finally mud on top. My dad said they used to have to stomp on the mud to pack it into the straw and be sturdy. Apparently the only way to do that on the roofs of the homes was to have men line up and stomp in synchronization.

Me: Have you ever done the dabke?

SM: Yeah, I’ve done it at a couple weddings and stuff – usually it just breaks out and everyone gets swept into it.

Background:

Interviewee was born and raised in America, but his parents are both Lebanese. He lived in Dubai during his teen years and has always had very close ties to Lebanon. He visits Lebanon at least once a year and speaks with his parents regularly, where they speak in Arabic and often chat about history. They also all continually practice many Lebanese and Arabic traditions and share folklore. 

Context:

This interview was conducted over a video call. Interviewee and I are romantically involved, so the conversation was very open and casual. He was very willing to help out and share some of his culture’s lore. 

Thoughts:

It is interesting to hear a young person’s rendition of a traditional dance that clearly is still prevalent in Middle Eastern culture. His recollection and the version he knows is only one of many – many different dabkes emerged in different Middle Eastern countries. The interviewee explained the history of the dabke quite well – it is adapted from a roof dance. I greatly enjoyed learning about this and would love to see it in person. 

For a different version and more history of the dabke dance, refer to this link: https://www.arabamerica.com/dabke-cultural-background-preparing-arab-american-wedding-season/

A Tame Sort of Trance

During high-school, my dad studied abroad in Brazil for a year. He stayed with a family of Lebanese immigrants who showed him both Brazilian and Lebanese traditions, and always included him in everything. Growing up, I heard tons of stories from his time there. The Brazilian stories were relatively tame – beaches, clubs, schools, etc. But the Lebanese culture was of particular interest.

Driving home from lunch one sunny afternoon, I ask him and my mom if they have any stories that I could use for my folklore project.

“I was just thinking about my experiences when I was a teenager in Brazil with a family of Lebanese immigrants who were Druze, and had the belief of many paths to the mountaintop. But they also had a uh.. a spiritualist element. And after I’d been there several months, they let me go to a family ceremony which was on a Sunday. One of the uncles would go into a trance and kind of channel spirits and try to get insight into some of the issues facing the family. So he would stand there and close his eyes, and appear to be communing with the spirits. And everybody would be quiet and sitting around, um, and then he would speak to them. But that was all in Arabic so I didn’t understand a word. Um.. But other than that, then they would say he’s asking about some problems we’re having with the business or this or that, and he would get some direction. They…they had these kind of sessions where one or more of them would kind of be in a sort of trance-like state. So I remember viewing that and thinking that was sort of interesting.”

Whenever I think of communing with the spirits, I picture ouji boards or fire-and-brimstone preachers in the deep south flailing around with snakes on their arms. I picture people getting real serious and asking about life’s deeper questions. It’s quite funny to picture this fairly frequent occurrence, where a member of the family would go into a trance and just ask advice for everyday problems. Obviously, the whole thing was treated seriously, as my dad had to earn a certain amount of trust before he was allowed to attend. But even so, there’s a lightness to it that is not normally associated with channeling spirits.