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A Lamb Recipe From Aleppo Finds New Life in Mexico City

A Lamb Recipe From Aleppo Finds New Life in Mexico City

Shared by Rafael Zaga
Recipe Roots: Aleppo, Syria > Veracruz, Mexico > Mexico City > New York City

Rafa's Grandmother Esther Cheja.

Rafa's Grandmother Esther Cheja.

Friday and Saturday afternoon meals with Rafael Zaga’s family in Mexico City sound as if they were pulled from a novel or film — more vibrant and vivacious than life is for most of us. Each week, when he was growing up, his grandmother Esther Cheja hosted Friday lunch and a feast of leftovers on Saturday for 25 family members in her home. Today, in her late 80’s, the feast is still going on for the immediate family of 15 people.

When guests walk in, her table groans with hummus, tahini, avocado with hot habaneros tempered in olive oil and vinegar, homemade pickles, a sauce for lamb made with her own fermented tamarind, olives, garlic, cilantro, and tomatoes, bottles of Coke, beer, Tequila, plates, and silverware. “And then, the food comes out,” explains Rafael, who goes by Rafa.

If you stop by her home on Wednesday or Thursday, all of the female relatives in the family are there helping to prepare. “Cooking, gossiping, cooking, doing each other’s nails…” he says. They’re making stuffed grape leaves that are nestled in a pot with lamb chops, and cordero relleno con papas, a leg of lamb stuffed with onions, garlic, chilies, nutmeg, and rice, and served in that aromatic sauce of tamarind and olives that graces the table. 

His grandmother has been cooking for the family for more than 50 years, serving a unique blend of Syrian and Mexican cooking that’s reflective of the family’s history. In the early 1900s, Rafa’s great-grandparents left their home in Aleppo. Learning that entering the United States would be challenging, the family settled in Veracruz, an area of Mexico along the Atlantic Ocean. But, in the 1920s, they moved to Mexico City, “that’s where my grandparents met after the Revolution,” Rafa explains. “There’s a long lost relative that was actually helping in the revolution...but everything’s very much lost in translation.”

His family settled in Huixquilucan, northwest of the city center. There are nearly 130 million people living in Mexico “and only 50,000 are Jewish,” says Rafa. “And they all live within 20 minutes of each other.” Many of them, like Rafa’s family, which is half Syrian and half Lebanese, came from the Middle East.

With the move to Mexico, came “a whole new wave of flavors for them,” Rafa explains. Locally grown chiles and cilantro wove their way into his family’s repertoire, becoming so ingrained in the family cooking by the time Rafa was little, that it’s as if they were there all along.

When Rafa, a cook at Marea, an upscale Italian restaurant in New York, asked his grandmother if she would teach him to make the lamb recipe, she invited him over, but when he arrived, the meal was already prepared. Fortunately, with Esther’s advice he was able to recreate the recipe in his kitchen and share it with us at our sold-out Mexican Seder at the James Beard House last year, along with a Mexican charoset of apples, celery, oregano, and orange.  

Esther’s lamb dish reminds us that traditions, particularly those in the kitchen, are breathing things. They are not only capable of evolving and adapting to new homes and places, but stronger because of it.

Photo by Dave Katz

Photo by Dave Katz

Cordero Relleno con Papas (Stuffed Lamb with Potatoes in a Tamarind, Tomato, and Chile-Olive Sauce)

Serves: 6 to 8
Time: 2 hours and 50 minutes


For the Sauce:
2 pounds (8 small) roma tomatoes, halved lengthwise and quartered
½ cup tomato paste
3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sugar
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 small dried chile de árbol
1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
1½ cups pitted kalamata olives
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
Kosher salt, to taste

For the Stuffing:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1½ pounds ground lamb
1 cup long-grain white rice
5 small dried chile de árbol
1 small plum tomato, roughly chopped
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Kosher salt, to taste
2 cups beef broth
1 cup water

For the Braised Lamb:
One 3½-pound lamb shoulder
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 celery stalks, roughly chopped
2 large carrots, roughly chopped
1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
3 cups beef broth
Kosher salt, to taste

For the Potatoes: 
1 pound small new potatoes, preferably multi-color
½ cup cilantro stems

1. Make the sauce: Combine the tomatoes, tomato paste, tamarind concentrate, olive oil, garlic, chiles, and onion in a medium saucepan and cook over low heat until the tomatoes break down and the sauce reduces, about 90 minutes. Add the olives and cilantro, then cook until the olives soften, another 30 minutes. Season with salt to taste and set aside. 
2. Meanwhile, make the stuffing: Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat and sweat the onions and garlic until translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the ground lamb, rice, chiles, tomato and nutmeg, then stir, breaking up the ground lamb, until the lamb is browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Season with salt to taste.
3. Add the broth to the mixture and bring to a simmer. Cook until the liquid almost completely evaporates, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the water and return to a simmer. Cook again until the water almost completely evaporates, about 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pan. Cook until the rice is tender, about 5 minutes more. Fluff with a fork and check for seasoning. 
4. Prepare the lamb: Preheat the oven to 375°F. Butterfly the lamb shoulder so that it is one, large piece, even in thickness (you can ask the butcher to do this for you). Season both sides generously with salt.
5. Place 1 cup of stuffing in a row down the center of the lamb and roll into a log. Tie the lamb into a roast with twine. Reserve the remaining stuffing for serving.
6. Heat the olive oil in 6-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Sear the lamb, turning as needed, until browned on all sides, 15 to 18 minutes. Transfer the lamb to a plate.
7. Reduce the heat to medium and add the celery, carrots and onion to the pan. Cook until the vegetables are slightly brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the broth and deglaze, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.
8. Return the lamb to the pot and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and transfer to the oven. Braise until the lamb is tender and reads 145°F on a thermometer, around 50 to 55 minutes. Transfer the lamb to a platter and cover with foil to rest.
9. Make the potatoes: Place the potatoes and cilantro stems in a medium saucepan. Strain the braising liquid, discarding the vegetables and transfer to pot with the potatoes. Bring to a boil and cook until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife, 20 minutes.
10. Layer the remaining stuffing on a large platter. Slice the lamb, discarding the twine and arrange over the stuffing. Scatter the potatoes around the lamb and spoon some of the braising liquid over top. Serve with the tomato-olive sauce on the side.

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