Author and journalist Annia Ciezadlo and her Lebanese-born husband spent their honeymoon in Baghdad at the start of the Iraq war, and lived between that city and Beirut for the next six years. Throughout their time in the Middle East, Ciezadlo used food as a way to connect with the people she encountered and to better understand the cultures that surrounded her. Last week, the writer’s account of her time abroad, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War came out in paperback, which seemed like a good excuse for us to pick her brain about Middle Eastern food. See the interview straight ahead.
You lived in several different places in the Middle East. Did you find there were similarities among the cuisines?
When we think of Middle Eastern food, what we’re really thinking of is Levantine social food. We’re thinking of meze, basically. And what we don’t realize is this has absolutely nothing, nothing to do with Iraqi food, for example. We’re basically thinking of Ottoman food. And you have these whole other traditions, Levantine home cooking … it’s very different, there’s a lot of meat stews, a lot of vegetable stews, a lot of very hearty grain-based dishes. Syria, northern Iraq, southern Turkey tend to have a lot of these foods in common. And then there’s Persian, and that tends to be a lot of cooking meat with fruit … chicken cooked with plums, or lamb cooked with apricots. And then there’s a whole other set of traditions, which are the Bedouin traditions, a lot of simple, hearty foods, the kind of stuff that you want to eat if you’re going to be on the road for a few months.
Are these cuisines layered with various historical influences?
Yes. Absolutely. When you look at Iraqi food, you see there’s a lot of Turkish influence, a lot of Persian influence, and a lot of desert food. The desert influence is not as strong, and it’s mostly very recent. I interviewed a guy who grew up in Baghdad. He was there until he was 18. And he had never had hummus until his Syrian friend’s family made it for them, and it was like, "Hey, wow, look at this cool thing we’re totally unfamiliar with."
What are some typical Iraqi dishes?
There’s the Iraqi version of dolmas, which just means “stuffed.” It’s this amazing combination of stuffed grape leaves, stuffed peppers, stuffed tomatoes, onions, stuffed zucchini, stuffed whatever you have. You put them all in a big pot with a bunch of lamb chops and you stew it all together, and it’s amazing. And you should also look at this thing I have a recipe for in the book, which is tebsi baitinjan: fried eggplant, fried green pepper, fried onions and tomatoes, all cooked together in tomato sauce.
Sounds delicious. Can you find it anywhere in the U.S.?
Um, if you come to my house. I think there are a couple of Iraqi restaurants in New Jersey that I haven’t tried. If there is an Iraqi restaurant anywhere in the New York City area, if anyone wants to let me know about it, I’d be really happy to try it.
Do you have any favorite Middle Eastern restaurants?
I actually really like Waterfalls on Atlantic Avenue. They make this really, really characteristically Syrian home cooking that’s just amazing. There’s this woman who comes in on Wednesdays and Saturdays named Samira, she makes the best stuffed grape leaves I’ve ever had. They also make mlukhieh, there’s very few places in New York where you can get mlukhieh, which is pretty much my favorite thing in the entire world. It’s a stew made from the leaves of the Jute plant.
Are there limitations on which ingredients you can find here?
You can get everything in New York. Sahadi’s has everything. And what they don’t have you can get at Patel Brothers in Jackson Heights. At the Trade Fair in Jackson Heights. And I think it’s called Oriental Pastry and Sweets across the street from Sahadi’s. And there’s a very good place in Sunnyside called Shater, and that’s got a lot of good Lebanese ingredients and stuff.
So if you want to eat Lebanese, are you mostly cooking at home, or are there restaurants you go to?
Yeah. Ilili has really good Lebanese food, and Tanoreen in Bay Ride — I almost don’t want to plug them because it’s such a trendy, hipster destination now.
Are there instances of nouveau Lebanese cuisine or nouveau Middle Eastern?
That’s a really good question, because it’s still considered taboo, it’s frowned upon to integrate with traditional Lebanese dishes. Often people will comment, ‘Oh, this isn’t real, authentic’ … whatever it is. I interviewed a Lebanese chef who’s trying to do sort of nouveau stuff. I don’t think you’d call it nouveau, but basically he’s trying to experiment with common Lebanese flavors. And I asked him, well, what sort of stuff do you do? And he’s like, ‘Well, I do something that people think is just crazy: I put sun-dried tomatoes in the hummus.’ And he was waiting for me to be really shocked, like, ‘My God, how can you do that?’
Ha. I was also curious whether you had a favorite eating city in the Middle East.
It’s hard not to be biased in favor of Beirut because I lived there for so long.
If you were to, say, only have a day to spend eating there, where would you go?
I wake up in the morning and first thing in the morning I have foul, which is stewed fava beans and chickpeas; it’s a great breakfast. And then I walk around the neighborhood. There’s this lady, this old Bedouin lady, who sells wild greens on the sidewalk, and I usually stop by her and buy some wild greens. And she’s very funny, she’s very persuasive, this woman, so no matter what you buy, you’ll always end up buying five times more than you need. Sometimes I stop by the butcher. I miss that. That’s the thing about New York — in Lebanon you have this, like, deep relationship with your neighborhood butcher; it’s almost like the relationship you have with your psychiatrist. … It’s the kind of thing where, if you go to some other butcher, you’ll be embarrassed and not want your butcher to know.
Sort of like hairstylists.
Very much like hairstylists, actually. The same mix of trust and fear and respect.