Ah’len: Welcome arabic recipes

T&T’s Syrian-Lebanese community is known for its delicious food. Sharon Millar read these Arabic recipes with relish

Fried kibbi (kibbi mikliye). Photograph by Abigail HadeedParsley salad (Tabouleh). Photograph by Abigail HadeedStyle-ah’len109_1

A good cookbook can be as satisfying as an excellent meal. Good ones present clear, uncomplicated recipes that produce delicious meals. But the truly excellent ones bring history and memoir to the collections, blending good storytelling with epicurean instruction. Ah’ len: A Culinary Journey Through the Eyes of the Syrian Lebanese Women’s Association of Trinidad and Tobago, an impressive 300-page Arabic cookbook, delivers on all counts.

Beautifully produced with bright, glossy photography and easy-to-follow recipes, Ah’len, which means “welcome” in Arabic, is sprinkled with personal stories and historical titbits. It is a compilation of recipes learned and perfected in the kitchens of the mothers and grandmothers of the Syrian-Lebanese community. The book is a tribute to the first wave of Syrian-Lebanese women who arrived in Trinidad at the beginning of the twentieth century, but it is also a celebration of the daughters and granddaughters who have developed and strengthened this legacy.

Fifteen recipe sections, which include titles such as “Mezza” and “Kibbi” as well as the more prosaic “Fish & Chicken”, make up the bulk of the book. There is also a comprehensive index, as well as a section entitled “Specialty Ingredients & Tools”. Both the amateur cook and the experienced chef will appreciate the exact recipes, clear instructions, and inside tips on how to get the best Arabic dish possible.

As one of the most beloved Arabic staples, it is no surprise that kibbi (a kind of fried croquette stuffed with minced beef or lamb) is given a whole section, and this is one of the stellar areas of the book, with clear step-by-step visual instructions to accompany the fried kibbi recipes. Delicious options such as lentil, pumpkin, and even fish kibbis open a new world to kibbi aficionados. Friends and family get together to prepare the kibbi for an upcoming event amidst laughter, gossip and even zulghut (ululation).

The snippets of personal recollection give a fascinating insight into a community which has meticulously preserved not just the food of the homeland but also the culture and customs. Each recipe heading is given in English, but the Arabic name is also listed, in slightly smaller print. And yet the voices of the women who share their tips and anecdotes are uniquely Trinidadian, reminding us that this is a book written by Caribbean people:

“Arab men love meat and they love to lime. Most men get together to share a drink but when Arab men meet, they roast meat and eat it hot off the fire.”

Ah’len

Over the last few decades, previously exotic dishes such as hummus, tabouleh and babaganoush have made their way into mainstream Trinbagonian cuisine. With its spicy, garlicky, often lime-y accents, Arabic cuisine is perfectly suited to the Caribbean palate. As with most immigrant food, traditional Arab fare was subtly adjusted to compensate for unavailable ingredients and enhanced with the introduction of regional staples. Dishes such as eddoes and chick peas (abu shooshi) or black-eyed peas, patchoi and wheat (marshooshi) are examples of this adaptability.

Ah’len received a “Best in the World” award for charity cookbooks at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards and Paris Cookbook Fair in March.

It is an excellent addition to the region’s culinary canon. This hardworking Arabic cookbook belongs in all Caribbean kitchens. And on days off, it’s certain to find work moonlighting as a beautiful coffee-table book.

Ah’len
(Syrian Lebanese Women’s Association of Trinidad & Tobago, ISBN 978-9768210364, 300pp)

Recipe: Parsley salad (Tabouleh)

½ cup No. 1 wheat
4 cups freshly chopped parsley
1 cup chopped chives
2 – 4 cups tomatoes* (ripe but firm)
3 tablespoons freshly chopped mint leaves
1¾ teaspoons salt
1⁄3 – ½ cup of olive oil
¼ – 1⁄3 cup lime juice
Tomato carved into rose for garnish
Romaine lettuce or cabbage leaves to garnish

  1. Rinse and soak the wheat in water for 25 minutes. Drain and squeeze out excess moisture as much as possible.
  2. Place the wheat in a mixing bowl. Put the tomatoes over the wheat and leave to rest for 10 minutes to allow the tomato juices to be absorbed into the wheat.
  3. Add parsley, chives, and mint to the wheat and tomatoes, and toss. Mix in the salt, olive oil and lime juice thoroughly. Taste and adjust salt, oil and lime, if necessary.
  4. Serve in a platter and garnish with a tomato carved into a rose and romaine hearts, or the small inner leaves of a cabbage.

*Some people prefer to have a lot of tomatoes in their salad and/or to deseed their tomatoes. These are both matters of personal taste.