Monday, February 16, 2009

The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber with Recipe for Jordanian Kofta and Yogurt Sauce (Ιορδανικό Γιαουρτλού Kεμπάπ)

Diana Abu-Jaber grew up in the environs of Syracuse, New York during the 1960s and 1970s. She shares the dominant cultural references of all Americans her age. Her mother and influential maternal grandmother are Americans, their distant heritage “Irish, German, maybe Swiss?”

Abu-Jaber’s father is from Jordan; his heritage Bedouin and Palestinian. His large, loud, exuberant family, many of whom lived in or near Syracuse, was a constant in Abu-Jaber’s life. At home and in her lunchbox, Abu-Jaber ate Middle Eastern food. This food and her Arabic name, so unlike her pale skin and murky green eyes, set her apart from her schoolmates.

When Abu-Jaber was in grade school, her family moved to Jordan. In Jordan, it was her pale skin that set her apart. The smells and sounds and experiences of life in a crowded Middle Eastern city woke up senses Abu-Jaber hadn’t known in America. Just as her heart began to beat with the rhythm of Jordanian life, Abu-Jaber’s family moved back to America.

“America is a cold breeze that snaps us awake … We’ve left Jordan, with its lush winds, dust, and sun-stained air. When I wake in a hotel bed on the first morning back in America, I’m dazed by a blankness around me: the sleekly painted walls, the air slack without the scents of mint, olive, and jasmine, and an immobilizing silence. I close my eyes and conjure the songbirds Mrs. Haddadin kept in a gold cage hanging from a tree branch; the wobble of Munira’s singing as she dashed a broom through the courtyard. … We’ve returned to Syracuse, to a split-level house that does not have another family living in the upstairs apartment or a communal courtyard or thick hedges of mint.”

In her 2005 memoir, The Language of Baklava, Abu-Jaber describes her rootless journey to adulthood. She struggles to connect with her American and Jordanian cultures, often standing as an outsider to both.

grew up in a family of storytellers: “To me, the truth of stories lies not in their factual precision, but in their emotional core. Most of the events in this book are honed and altered in some fashion, to give them the curve of stories. Lives don’t usually correspond to narrative arcs, but all these stories spring out of real people, memories, and joyously gathered and prepared meals.”

The essential truths and complexities of Abu-Jaber’s relationships to her family and twin cultures, as revealed through her stories
, are captivatingly real. By book's end, we understand Abu-Jaber’s American and Jordanian heritages are inseparably bound in her heart and soul.

In telling her family's stories, Abu-Jaber reveals universal truths about the immigrant experience in America. Like millions upon millions of immigrants who've given strength and diversity to their adopted homeland, Abu-Jaber’s family, many of whom are Arab and some of whom are Muslim, is inextricably woven into the fabric that makes up America. None of these immigrants, or their descendants, can be categorically ejected or rejected without leaving an irreparable hole.

In other words, there is no “us” and there is no “them.” As Abu-Jaber wrote in the Washington Post,
The world is a place of nuance, flux, hardship and complexity: We all live together in it. The real safety will come from learning how to live together better, not from trying to push others out.”

For me, Abu-Jaber’s book had special resonance.
The Language of Baklava is, in many ways, a love letter to Abu-Jaber’s father. I began reading it in a nursing home, by the bedside of my ill father who, briefly and terrifyingly, didn’t recognize me. The veil of sadness through which I read The Language of Baklava made its message of paternal love particularly poignant.

I returned home from visiting my father emotionally drained. That night, I cooked some of Abu-Jaber’s recipes for my husband. As we greedily piled our plates with Jordanian Kofta and garlicky Yogurt Sauce, I experienced anew the relationship between food and love that inspired The Language of Baklava.

Jordanian Kebab and Yogurt SauceJordanian Kofta and Yogurt Sauce (Ιορδανικό Γιαουρτλού Kεμπάπ)
Serves 4 as a meal or more as an appetizer
Adapted from The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber
These taste best when cooked over a grill (in winter, we grill in our fireplace), but can also be made on a stovetop grill pan. To serve as an appetizer, make smaller kebabs by dividing the meat into 16 equal pieces rather than 8. Serve with Tomato, Cucumber, and Onion Salad, feta cheese, Kalamata olives, and warm pita bread.

1 pound ground lamb or beef
1 egg
1 cup finely diced onion, 1/8”dice
2 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley
2 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. freshly crushed cumin
1 tsp. chile powder, preferably Ancho
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
Freshly ground black pepper
Bamboo skewers

Yogurt Sauce:
3 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups plain yogurt, preferably whole milk
1/4 – 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

Make the Sausage: Put all the sausage ingredients in a bowl, and knead everything together with your hands. Divide the seasoned meat into 8 equal pieces. Roll each piece of meat around a bamboo skewer into a long sausage shape. Refrigerate until you’re ready to cook the Kofta. (The recipe may be made ahead to this point.)

Make the Yogurt Sauce: Purée the garlic and salt with the flat of a chef's knife or using a mortar and pestle. Mix the garlic purée with the yogurt and 1/4 cup lemon juice. Taste and add salt or the remaining lemon juice, as needed.

Cook the Sausages: Grill over a hot fire, turning regularly, and being careful not to overcook. Serve immediately, the hotter the better, with a generous dollop of Yogurt Sauce on the side.

To cook on the stove, heat a cast iron grill pan until it’s very hot, cook the sausages until they are well-browned on one side, turn them over, immediately turn down the heat, and cook until they are done on the other side. Serve immediately.
This is my entry for Cook the Books Club, founded by Rachel at
The Crispy Cook, Ioanna from Food Junkie, Not Junk Food, and Deb from Kahakai Kitchen. Cook the Books is an online book club; this month’s selection is The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber.


Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul said...

What a lovely and heart felt review Laurie...I was almost tearing at the end. The kofta are delightful, especially with that yogurt sauce.

Maria Verivaki said...

a very poignant post Laurie, not to mention a delicious recipe

Rachel said...

A wonderful analysis of the book and a fitting and inspirational dish. I'm so glad you could join us in reading this great book for our little foodie book club.

Peter M said...

Great review Laurie and a reminder that we must keep near & dear our elders. I've always enjoyed the company and wisdom of elders, grandparents and the like.

As for the kofte,I'm a big fan of pairing mince with Giaourtlou and pita bread.

MAG said...

Very nice and warm review Laurie :) I came across her book several times while shopping from Amazon, and I've always wanted to buy it, now I will defenitely get it :) I love kafta too!!!!!!

Christina said...

My mom is reading this book right now, I will definitely have to borrow it from her soon!

Anonymous said...

A beautiful review that makes me want to go right to the library to find this book. I love the recipe, too -- almost everything in it comes from the pantry. We grill all winter long, outdoors, in the snow!

Mediterranean Turkish Cook said...

The book sounds so interesting, I may just check it out from the library this week. The koftas look delicious.

I hope your father is doing better.

Laurie Constantino said...

Peter, the kofta were wonderful - I was happy to have the opportunity to make them.

Thanks Maria.

Rachel, I enjoyed the book and was glad to participate. I would have done last month's, but my copy of the book was in Greece. Can't wait to see what's on the agenda next month!

Pater M, I do love spending time with my dad. He came home from the hospital today so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that he'll be okay for awhile.

MAG - Diana Abu-Jaber has a good story to tell and her book is a very interesting read. I hope you like it!

Christina, yes you will!!

Lydia, I know you'll like this book. As for grilling outside in the snow, we definitely do it, but on work nights, it's nice making use of the fireplace.

Nihal, thanks for the kind thoughts about my dad. He IS better, for which I am happy and relieved.

Noor said...

This looks really good, I love making this. I really need to start getting more involved in cooking things again like you are (the entries,etc). Its a lot of fun. I like your blog, glad I found you.

Laurie Constantino said...

Hi Noor, welcome! I went by your blog and really liked it, so I hope you start posting more too!!!

Suzie said...

Congratulations on your winning post. You are a very deserved winner - and the rest of your blog is gorgeous too. Your photos are amazing.

Maria Verivaki said...

bravo laurie for winning the language of baklava cook-the-books event!

tasteofbeirut said...

Thanks for this review. I was not aware of this book and now it is next on my -must read-list!