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Journey From Iraq

February 8, 2007 By:
Deborah Davis, JE Feature
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"I want people to see this book as a journey," says Rivka Goldman, author of Mama Nazima's Jewish-Iraqi Cuisine, published in mid-2006. This is more than just a cookbook; it's a tale of exodus, even survival. Goldman intertwines family stories with recipes derived from her mother, Leah Nazima Sofer, so that the book serves both the stomach and the soul.

The collection offers more than 150 recipes authentic to Iraqi Jews; many are unique to Goldman's family. Ingredients the author uses to flavor the foods include turmeric, cumin, cardamom, ginger, parsley, oregano, paprika, mint, cinnamon, rose water, onion, lemon and garlic.

Jewish-Iraqi food is influenced by the cultures that had contact or control of Iraq, such as the Mongolian, Indian and Turkish cultures. They also borrow the afternoon-tea tradition from the British. However, their teatime includes not just tea, desserts and jam, but items like feta cheese and fresh bread. Dessert and jam recipes, such as quince jam and mango-nectarine marmalade, are part of the book.

Iraqi Jews tend to serve salads every day, as well as pickled fruits or vegetables at all meals. Most meals also include rice, which is the most common grain. They eat meat and fish, although many dishes are vegetarian. Holidays include dumplings, and stuffed meat or stuffed vegetables. Goldman includes recipes for all of these in her book, and most are easy to make.

Some of these dishes have sister dishes in other cultures, such as burekas -- or phyllo-encased, stuffed pies. Burekas come from Greece, and are also found in Bulgaria and Turkey, but these recipes for burekas are different because they don't put butter between the layers; they use cheese. "Cream cheese, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese and an egg," explains Goldman, revealing the ingredients for her delicious "Burekas in Gevina."

In this method, the recipes are low-fat and low-cholesterol, to "fit the modern nutrition knowledge of today," according to Goldman. With degrees in nursing, social work and medical science -- and a position as case manager at St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe -- Goldman is knowledgeable about health.

Her first teacher? Her mother: "My mother was a healer. She modified the recipes to fit the physical and medical needs of the people." Goldman says that her mother used hands-on healing and herbs to treat many problems, such as abdominal pain and broken bones.

People even seem to have more energy after eating her mother's meals.

"She found that if you cooked her way, people didn't feel sluggish," attests Goldman. "Sometimes, you eat a heavy meal, and you end up feeling tired after that. The way she cooked, you never felt tired."

Goldman says she achieved those results by using lemon and a combination of herbs.

'We Were Safe'

Goldman's mother was a fifth-generation Iraqi. She and her husband brought the family to Israel in 1951, when Goldman was just 7 years old. Jews had been in Iraq at least since 800 BCE. They had been treated well until about 1941, when the Nazi influence spread to Iraq, and a mob ran through the streets for 24 hours raping Jewish girls and pillaging Jewish homes.

People began saying, "The possession of the Jews are permitted to take." That saying remained; Goldman heard it for the first seven years of her life.

In the cookbook, she blends stories of the pogrom with her family's exodus to Israel. She reveals how her three brothers, one only 8 years old, were snuck out of the country. She also shares the story of immigrating to Israel with her parents and three younger siblings.

At first, the Iraqi government did not allow the Iraqi Jews to immigrate to Israel. But in 1950, it became possible -- as long as the Jews would renounce their citizenship and leave everything, including their birth certificates in Iraq. Goldman's parents did this, and the family left for a new life. Relates Goldman: "We were forced to leave with just the clothes on our backs, but we were free."

After an arduous search process by the Iraqis, including even searching the baby's diaper, the Jews were flown to Israel.

Goldman remembers that at first, they had a tent: "The sky was our roof. There was a public bathroom. No utilities. We could get water every afternoon at 3. As a child, I was happy there because I could roam the mountains. I was free. In Iraq, I was afraid to go out the door because it was unsafe, but in Israel, we were safe."

Goldman remained in Israel until 1972. She worked as a nurse in Israel, and earned a bachelor's degree in social work. At that time, there was no school in Israel that offered a master's degree in social work, so Goldman went to New York. She attended school and worked as a nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Then, she met her husband, an American, and "had to make a choice between my heart and going back home."

In 1980, the couple moved to New Mexico, for his position at Los Alamos National Labs. There, they raised their three children.

Even in New Mexico, they often had people over for the Jewish holidays.

"In my culture, you usually prepare 20 to 30 dishes when you have company. Hospitality is not an obligation, but a creed," she says, sharing a Jewish-Iraqi saying: Mani Yakle al ein au el-thum, or "Who desires food, the eyes or the mouth?"

She explains that this means once you see food, especially the colors, you'll want to eat it.

"The color is important," insists Goldman. "Green is hope, white is purity, blue is like you're close to heaven. There's a lot of mysticism in the Jewish-Iraqi culture."

Another mystic expression that Goldman's mother and other Jewish-Iraqis used is: "It's not far away from God's reach."

Goldman's mother was alive when the book was being written, but died before it was published.

"I wish my mother [could] see the book; she was an incredible woman," says her daughter.

Goldman dedicates the work to her mother, and includes stories about her mother helping the community when individuals had hard times, or were in need of healing. "I had two goals in mind when I started writing: One is to honor my mother, the other is to keep my heritage."

Goldman's next project is a vegetarian cookbook: "My sister was a vegetarian, so my mother adjusted some recipes for her."

This is a terrific book for fans of Sephardic food or Mediterranean cooking who are interested in new takes on their favorite dishes, or for anyone looking for low-fat, low-cholesterol food packed with flavor. But it's much more than a cookbook -- it is a collection of a forgotten culture, of recipes roped together with tales of strength and hope.

Orange-and-Tomato Salad

("Zlata Tamata oo Portkal")
[Pareve]

4 large tomatoes, chopped
4 large oranges, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup (about 6 small) sliced button mushrooms
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/3 cup raisins
1/4 cup sliced almonds

Combine tomatoes, oranges, mushrooms, parsley, mint, raisins and almonds in a bowl.

Chill for 30 minutes.

Serves 8.

 

Feta-and-Spinach Pie

("Burekas im Gevina vah Tered")
[Dairy]

2 Tbsps. olive oil
2 medium-size onions, chopped
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
2 lbs. spinach, steamed and chopped
1 lb. feta cheese, grated
1/2 cup roasted green chile peppers
1/4 cup chopped basil
2 tsps. olive oil
1 lb. phyllo dough, thawed

Heat olive oil in a pan over high heat and add the onions. Reduce heat to low.

Stir in nutmeg, garlic powder, ginger, and cumin.

Add the spinach. Mix it together and cook for 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and cool, then add the grated feta cheese, chile peppers and basil.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Grease a large baking sheet.

Place 10 sheets of the phyllo dough evenly on baking sheet.

Pour cheese mixture on top of the dough and spread evenly.

Top the cheese with 12 sheets of phyllo. Brush the upper-layer dough with the olive oil. Cut into 40 rectangles.

Bake until golden-brown, approximately 60 minutes.

Serve hot or cold.

Serves 10.

 

Date-Almond Balls

("Sambusak ab Tam'r")
[Pareve]

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 lbs. pitted dates
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp. rose water
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
40 whole almonds
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut

Heat the vegetable oil in a pan over low heat.

Add the dates, stirring and mashing until they become soft.

Stir in the lemon juice, rose water and cardamom. Remove from heat and cool.

Put water in a second bowl. Dip your hands into it so that the dates will not stick to them.

Divide date mixture into 40 pieces. Flatten each piece, place an almond in the center, and roll to make a ball, covering the nut.

Spread the coconut on a cookie sheet. Roll each date ball in the coconut until covered.

Place date balls on a platter. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

Makes approximately 40 balls. 

 

Baklavah

[Pareve]

3 cups pecans or walnuts, chopped
4 cups almonds, chopped
2 cups unsalted, shelled pistachios, chopped
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
2 Tbsps. rose water
juice of 1 large lemon
1/2 cup honey

Syrup Ingredients:

1 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
juice of 2 large lemons
2 Tbsps. rose water
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
  4 tsps. vegetable oil
1 lb. phyllo dough, thawed

For the Filling: Combine the walnuts, almonds, pistachios, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, rose water, lemon juice, honey, and 1/2 cup water.

For the Syrup: Combine 1 cup of water with the sugar, honey, lemon juice, rose water, ginger, cinnamon and cardamom in a pot. Cook over a low heat, stirring and bringing to a boil. Remove from heat and cool.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Grease a large baking sheet with 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil.

Stack 10 layers of the phyllo dough evenly on the tray. Place the nut stuffing on top of the phyllo layer and spread evenly.

Cover the remaining dough. Brush the upper surface of the dough with the remaining 2 teaspoons of the vegetable oil.

Cut into 50 squares or diamonds. Bake baklavah until golden-brown (about 30 minutes).

Remove baklavah from oven and pour the syrup over it.

Cool and refrigerate.

 

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