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The Ashkenazi Protector of a Family’s Iraqi Jewish Recipes

The Ashkenazi Protector of a Family’s Iraqi Jewish Recipes


Recipe Roots: Basra, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Switzerland, Florida, NYC
Shared by Robina Shapiro

“Growing up in Iran we all lived in a couple of blocks away from each other,” explains Robina Shapiro, the mother-in-law of Jake Cohen, a food writer and a recipe tester for the Jewish Food Society. “I never remember my mother cooking just enough for the family.” If her mother was driving by her grandmother’s home, she might honk the car’s horn and be invited in for a meal. “Everybody cooked everyday,” she explains. “My dad never ate leftovers.”

The family cooking became an amalgam of influences learned from hopscotching between Iraq, Iran, and Israel. In the 1940s, Iraqi Jews, who trace their community back to the 6th century BCE, experienced a wave of persecution, most notably in the 1941 Farhud, or pogrom. In the aftermath, the community and families fractured. Many members of older generations moved to Iran, while “the younger generation, who were more adventurous, wanted to go volunteer in the Israeli army,” she says.

Robina’s parents were among them. They joined the Israeli army, but, for “most of these people, including my parents, life was not as wonderful as they thought it would be,” Robina adds. Two years after she was born in 1953, her parents moved to Iran to live near her grandparents.

They joined a community that was born out of the migration, that blended Iraqi and Iranian traditions, linguistically and culinarily, explains Robina. Farsi and Judeo-Arabic from Iraq were used interchangeably. And, the recipes of the community started to shift as they settled into life in Iran.

“The core of the recipes are very very similar,” she explains, but there were notable differences like rice preparations. In Iraq, it was colored with turmeric, and scented with earthy cumin and cardamom. In Iran, a boyfriend’s mother introduced Robina to saffron, which is used to make some of the cuisine’s most celebrated rice dishes.

Put another way, by Jake, “These cultures have been like a sponge, absorbing these ingredients and dishes and creating this hybrid cuisine.”

Khoresh e karafs, a sweet and sour beef stew made with celery, entered the family’s culinary canon in Iran as well, while dolmeh, or stuffed vegetables, were made in the Iraqi tradition by Robina’s maternal grandmother using parsley and pine nuts.

From a young age, Robina helped her mother in the kitchen making these dishes, preparing them on her own from memory by the time she was was a young teen, she says. She took them with her as her family moved back to Israel, and she ultimately moved to Turkey, Switzerland, and finally the U.S. Both she and her mother were “good about having a feel for food,” Robina says. “So, I never really wrote anything down.”

And no one asked her to, until Jake entered the family as her son Alex’s boyfriend and more recently his husband. Only a few months into dating, a large package from Amazon arrived for Jake from Robina. It contained a Persian rice cooker and a copy of the “Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies,” by Najmieh Batmanglij, a bible of Persian cooking. It’s a common care package in the community, Jake explains, gifted by mothers to the partners of their children to help them learn the recipes their children love most.

Despite his Ashkenazi roots, Jake took to the recipes quickly, making ghormeh sabzi, an herbaceous stew, yogurt sauce, and a shirazi salad for a dinner where he was introduced to Alex’s greater family. Most of the guests extended him a compliment to the chef in Arabic. “And then [Robina] takes a bite,” Jake recalls and jokingly cursed him saying, “this is better than mine.” Since then, she has taught him to make her recipes like the ones she shared with us.

Cooking is one of the ways that Robina and Jake have found a deep connection. Gay relationships aren’t always widely celebrated in the community, but the family has openly embraced theirs, Jake explains, largely because of their cooking and his passion for their culture. “It’s been this incredible way for me to get closer to the family.”


Robina's Koresht e Karafs

Serves: 6
Time: 3 hours

¼ cup, plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
3 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1½-inch pieces
Kosher salt, to taste
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
4 cups beef stock
1 head (2 pounds) celery, trimmed and washed, leaves removed and reserved
2 teaspoons ground dried Persian limes*
1 tablespoon light brown sugar, plus more to taste**

1. In a large Dutch oven, heat ¼ cup of the oil over medium-high heat. Season the beef with salt, then working in 2 batches, sear, turning as needed, until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes per batch. Transfer to a bowl.

2. Add the onion to the pot and cook, scraping up any fond on the bottom of the pan, until softened and just starting to brown at the edges, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the cumin and sauté until fragrant, 1 minute.

3. Add back the seared beef and pour in the beef stock, then bring to a simmer. Cook, covered until the beef is tender, and the broth is thickened, 2 hours.

4. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat. Add the celery and cook until lightly golden and crisp-tender, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the heat and season with the crushed dried lime and salt.

5. Once the beef is tender, add the celery mixture and brown sugar to the pot and stir to incorporate. Simmer for another 15 minutes to meld the flavors. Adjust seasoning with salt and brown sugar. Garnish with celery leaves, then serve.

*Most Middle Eastern shops sell ground dried Persian limes, but you could also grind whole dried limes yourself, just first crack them open to remove any seeds.
**While traditionally white sugar is used, Robina likes to use brown sugar. One of her aunts even uses chopped prunes to add sweetness to the stew.


Robina's Polo

Serves: 6 to 8
Time: 55 minutes, plus 1 hour soaking time

3 cups basmati rice, rinsed
3 tablespoons kosher salt, divided
¼ teaspoon saffron thread, crushed
½ cup boiling water
¾ cup vegetable oil, divided
2 teaspoons advieh polo spice, divided
1 cup whole Greek yogurt*
1 stick unsalted butter, cubed
½ cup dried currants
½ cup pine nuts

1. In a large bowl, cover the rice with cold water and 1 tablespoons of the salt. Let soak for 1 hour.

2. Meanwhile, in a large glass, combine the saffron and boiling water and let bloom until vibrant red, 10 minutes, stir in 1 tablespoon of the salt, 1/2 cup of the oil and 1 teaspoon of the advieh polo spice.

3. Once the rice has soaked, bring a large pot of water to a boil with the remaining 1 tablespoon of salt. Drain the rice and add to the pot to cook for 5 minutes, then strain.

4. In a large bowl, stir the yogurt with ⅓ of the saffron mixture. Add 3 cups of the cooked rice and toss to coat.

5. Great a 4-quart non-stick pot with 2 tablespoons of the butter. Lay the yogurt coated rice along the bottom of the pot and up 1-inch around the edges. Add ½ of the remaining par cooked rice to the pot and drizzle with another ⅓ of the saffron mixture. Dot with ½ of the remaining butter. Layer the remaining par cooked rice on top, then drizzle with the remaining saffron mixture and dot with the remaining butter. Tie a kitchen towel around the lid of the pot and cover (this is to capture excess steam).

6. Place the pot over medium-high and cook, turning often until you can hear a constant sizzle, 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, turning occasionally until the rice is fully cooked and the bottom is golden, 25 to 30 minutes more.**

7. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat the remaining ¼ cup oil over medium heat with the remaining 1 teaspoon advieh polo, currant and pine nuts. Cook, stirring constantly until fragrant and the pine nuts are toasted, 3 to 4 minutes.

8. Once the rice is ready, place a platter over the pot and invert to reveal the crispy tahdig. Spoon the currants and pine nuts over top, then serve.

*While yogurt is common for the classic casserole tahchin, Robina uses it for her regular rices or polo to form a richer and thicker crust.
**You can alternatively bake, covered, in a 375 oven (as long as the pot is oven safe) for about 2 hours, which is how you would make tahchin.

Photos by Noah Fecks

Photos by Noah Fecks

Robina's Turkish Eggplant Dolma

Serves: 6 to 8
Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes

3 slices whole wheat bread, crusts removed and roughly torn
1 cup water, divided
2 pounds ground beef
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
Two 1-pound eggplants (preferably with an elongated shape)
4 eggs
¼ cup vegetable oil, plus more as needed
1 cup tomato sauce
2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate*
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Crumbled feta cheese, for garnish
Chopped parsley leaves, for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 350°. In a large bowl, cover the torn bread with ½ cup of the water and mash with your hands into a paste. Add the beef, the 2 teaspoons of salt, the cumin and the 1 teaspoon of pepper. Mix by hand until well incorporated, then set aside.

2. Remove the tops and bottoms of each eggplant, then thinly slice each lengthwise into ¼-inch slices, discarding the end pieces (you want both sides of each slice to be the white flesh of the eggplant with the skin on the outside edges to hold it together when cooking).

3. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with salt and pepper, then toss in the eggplant slices to coat completely. Transfer the slices to a colander to drain for 5 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and prepare a sheet pan, lined with paper towels. Working in batches, fry a few slices of the eggplant, flipping once, until golden and softened, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer the slices to the prepared sheet pan to drain and repeat until all the eggplant is fried, adding more oil to the pan if needed as you fry.

5. Once the eggplant slices have cooled, work one at a time to stuff them by placing 2 tablespoons of the beef mixture at the base of each slice, then rolling them lengthwise. Place each roll next to each other in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

6. In a medium bowl, stir the remaining 1/2 cup water with the tomato sauce, tamarind concentrate and sugar. Season with salt and pepper, then pour over the eggplant to coat. Bake until the edges of the eggplant are golden and the filling is fully cooked, 35 to 40 minutes.

7. Remove from the oven and garnish with feta and chopped parsley, then serve.

*Traditionally, lemon juice would be used, but Robina likes to use tamarind for sweetness and tartness.

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