A curious legacy of Syrian and Jewish recipes, riddled with photos and a meandering family history, A Fistful of Lentils is much more than a simple cookbook. It's part memoir, the family memories wrapped up in food as so many good things are, and part how-to, divulging the secrets of Abadi's childhood Syrian-Jewish cuisine.
The book begins by relating the "secrets" of the Syrian cuisine: 42 heavily used ingredients. Most are common here in the U.S., like rice, salt, sesame seeds, tomatoes, though definitive of the region's cuisine. (A specialty grocery and spice store appendix is listed by state, making the few rarer items more accessible.) Abadi provides a glimpse at daily life with her thorough menu planning section, grouping recipes by meal, and then highlighting special occasion and traditional holiday menus. For example, this Jewish holiday menu for Yom Kippur dinner: Baba Ganush, Syrian Pita Bread, Tomato-Rice Soup with Stuffed Meatballs, Stuffed Squash with Lemon-Mint Sauce, Lemon-Mint Salad Dressing, Stuffed Date Candies and Mint Tea.
Abadi's recipes have a strong sense of balance, heavy on the cinnamon and cumin for warmth, sweet-spicy and comforting, often with the Syrian tang of fruit appearing unexpectedly. Recipes run the gamut from breakfast to dessert with yummy-sounding vegetable sides and flavorful, brothy soups.
Originally published in 2002, I find the paperback addition much more usable for cooking with its flexible spine. I was surprised to find so few Jewish recipes, though I can see the influence of the holidays and style of cooking in the dishes Abadi does include here. Simple Syrian recipes like Lebnah (yogurt cheese), Syrian Pita Breads, Eggplant Dip with Pine Nuts, look easy to make and seem refreshingly different than the hummus and baba ganoush typical of Middle Eastern restaurants here in the states. (Not that I don't appreciate a good hummus and baba ganoush!)
Though the recipes don't achieve true hybrid status between the Syrian and Jewish cultures, with Abadi leaning almost entirely on Syrian flavors, A Fistful of Lentils showcases the balance and singular palate of the Syrian cuisine.
A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie's Table
Jennifer Felicia Abadi
Harvard Common Press
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Review based on a free copy of this book, courtesy of the publisher.