SYLVIA RECTOR: Chaldeans collect beloved reci

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Posted by Jeff from ( on Friday, September 19, 2003 at 0:11AM :

SYLVIA RECTOR: Chaldeans collect beloved recipes


September 16, 2003


With more than two dozen women arriving with foil-wrapped platters, Tupperware bowls, baking dishes and covered pots, it looked like the beginning of a big family meal. But the undercurrent of suspense -- not to mention the way they were eyeing each other's dishes -- suggested it was more like a contest.

# Two authentic Chaldeans recipes
Tickets for the CALC recipe-tasting finals at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Community House in downtown Birmingham are $35 and are available by calling the CALC office at 248-352-5018, 9 to 5 weekdays.

The price includes tastings of dozens of dishes, a cooking demonstration and program by chef Keith Famie and a live art auction.

Traditional music, cultural displays and photographs from participants' ancestral villages will add atmosphere.

For more information about the cookbook or to submit a recipe, call the CALC office.

In fact, it was a bit of both.

The gathering at the Chaldean Manor senior home in Southfield was a preliminary tasting to pick the traditional dishes that will compete Sunday in the Chaldean American Ladies of Charity (CALC) recipe contest at the Birmingham Community House. The event -- offering tastes of more than 60 heritage dishes, as well as cultural displays and food prepared by a dozen metro-area chefs -- is open to the public.

Winning recipes chosen by the chefs will receive special mention in the CALC's eagerly awaited cookbook of traditional Chaldean family recipes -- the real point of the entire project.

Tentatively titled "Mah Baseema: Middle Eastern Cuisine with a Chaldean Flair," the book marks the first time the local Chaldean community has come together to record and preserve its culinary heritage. With more than 200 submissions so far and more being sought, the seven-member cookbook committee expects the collection to include 200 to 300 authentic Chaldean recipes when it is published next year, says committee chairwoman Joanne Yono of West Bloomfield.

Many of the recipes had never been recorded by the mothers and grandmothers who prepare them, and they might never have been, if the cookbook rules hadn't required exact measurements and full instructions.

"I'd never measured anything before," says Julia Hakim, 73, of Beverly Hills, who submitted a recipe for dobe -- a spicy beef stew -- that the committee had asked her to bring to the preliminary tasting. Flavored with cloves, vinegar and cardamom, among other seasonings, it smelled exotic and wonderful.

Hakim cooks from memory, with a handful of this and a spoonful of that.That wasn't a problem in the past, when parents passed their unwritten recipes on to their children as they cooked together, but with today's busy lifestyles and changing dining habits, that happens less frequently. With less repetition, there's more danger that recipes will be lost.

As Hakim says, "My kids are always asking, 'Why don't you write these recipes down? Who's going to remember how to make all these things?' "

With the book, everyone will.

"Our food is such an important part of our heritage, traditions and culture . . . If we don't write down the recipes, we'll never be able to pass along a very important part of our traditions," says Jane Shallal of West Bloomfield, an attorney and president of the 600-member CALC.

"Food is a big thing in our community. It's how people show their hospitality and that they like you and enjoy your company," she says.

Chaldeans are Christians who live in a handful of northern villages in their homeland, Iraq. They are descendants of the Babylonians and Assryians, rather than the Arabic empires, Shallal says, and they speak their own language in addition to Arabic. Accounting for only 3 percent to 4 percent of the Iraqi population, they identify themselves as a separate ethnic group.

About 100,000 people of Chaldean ancestry live in metro Detroit, Shallal says, making this the largest Chaldean community in the United States; other groups are concentrated in San Diego, Chicago and Arizona. Most of the migration to this area occurred in the 1960s, but because of religious persecution in Iraq, new families continue to arrive, and the CALC helps with their resettlement.

Shallal says some newcomers never learned to speak Chaldean, a language so ancient its roots go back to the time of Christ, and many of the young Chaldean Americans who've grown up here don't know it, either. With their language in danger also, preserving the culture's authentic foods takes on even greater importance.
Chaldean spice

Chaldean food is fundamentally Middle Eastern, of course, but taste it and you'll discover that it has distinctive flavors -- bolder and deeper than you might expect.

Many favorite Chaldean dishes are flavored with one -- or even both -- of its two signature spices: curry powder and a spice blend called baharat (BAH-ha-RAHT), a heady, complex combination of flavors and scents. Baharat carries the warm heat of peppercorns, paprika and chilies; the sweetness of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cardamom; and the pungency of cumin and coriander.

The basic family fare is comforting, simple and nutritious.

"The everyday food is stew with rice," says committee member Sally Najor. There are dozens of stews, each with its own name, from okra to chicken to fish or lamb.

"Chaldean food is very healthful. People cook with olive oil. And daily, people eat lots of vegetables -- okra, green beans, peas, potatoes, fava beans, all kinds of squash and tons of eggplant," Najor says.

Party and festival dishes, of course, are more elaborate.

For the second night of preliminary tasting, Najor planned to bring perda pilau -- a formed mixture of rice, chicken, peas and almonds wrapped in phyllo dough. Perda refers to a drape or curtain, so the dish is much like Indian biryani wrapped in a curtain of crispy pastry.

And then there's the delicious makloubi -- a layered tower of red rice, sauteed eggplant and onions and spicy beef, prepared for the preliminary tasting by Beth Boji-Kelly, 31, of Grosse Pointe Farms. (Recipe, Page 3F.)

Boji-Kelly often gets requests from non-Chaldean friends to bring it to parties or pot lucks. It's also a favorite of her husband, an Australian of Irish ancestry, so the unusual dish clearly has universal appeal.

She learned how to make it from her mom, Suad Boji of Waterford, who was helping her unmold it onto a wide platter for that night's preliminary tasting.

Boji-Kelly, an architect, says she never did much cooking or learned Chaldean recipes until she lived in Europe for a while and began missing the foods she'd grown up with. Soon she was calling her mom from Italy, she said, asking how to make this or that childhood favorite.

A really good Chaldean cookbook would have been just the ticket.

Shallal says the CALC will accept recipe submissions for its book for a few more weeks; it would like to include more than one version of many of the most popular dishes, because they're prepared in so many ways.

"There are a lot of great cooks out there, and so many recipes!" she says.

Contact SYLVIA RECTOR at 313-222-5026 or

Copyright 2003 Detroit Free Press Inc.

-- Jeff
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