By Susan M. Selasky
DETROIT — Zinab Allie leaned in, dipping a spoon into her mother’s hummus, sampling a bit as Jamiley Cheikh prepared it.
“Very good, Mom,” Allie said. “It’s always good.”
It was a Sunday evening in mid-July and the kitchen of Allie’s Dearborn, Mich., home was busy as her sisters and mother cooked the evening meal to break the daily fast of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began July 8.
“It’s like Thanksgiving every day during Ramadan,” Allie said. “We all enjoy cooking together and to be in each other’s presence.”
For many Muslim women, preparing those evening meals is a social event — a chance to catch up with mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts. While traditional dishes are cooking, bonds are fortified, family ties are strengthened and memories are made.
“With Ramadan, you feel that closeness and that’s the beauty of mom and daughter cooking,” said Fatima Cheikh-Jaffal, 41, of Beirut, one of Allie’s four sisters who is in town for the summer. She has two daughters of her own, ages 8 and 14. “The family unit is so important. You want them to carry on the tradition, the culture. And it’s the simple thing of cooking together.”
Allie had lentil soup simmering on the stove while her sister Mariam Cheikh-Nazzal, 26, of Dearborn helped their mother make her signature dishes: a baba ghanoush salad and a layered hummus and meat dish. As sister Neda Cheikh-Fawaz, 39, of Dearborn chopped the onions for fattoush, Cheikh-Jaffal made the cucumber yogurt salad.
When the women cook together, they often talk about what’s going on in the world, what each of them is going through and what’s happening in their families’ lives.
“Life is so busy,” Allie said. “It’s things that I’m not going to know over the phone. … It’s not the same.”
Cheikh-Jaffal agreed. There are “some things you can’t share unless you are face to face and that there’s bonding more than anything,” she says.
And the sisters also like talking about their shared history.
“It’s a great time to realize everyone has a different interpretation of the past,” Cheikh-Jaffal said. “So we each would say how it happened.”
“The truth is, my mom finds out a lot about us when we’re all together,” Allie said.
Over the years, Fawzea (Fay) Abusalah said, cooking with her mother, Samiha, has taught her plenty.
“My mom is my cookbook, and she instructs me on what to do,” Abusalah, 31, said. “She’s taught me the importance of being together as a family unit.”
Now, Abusalah often cooks with her new sister-in-law, Liyan Ibrahim, 21, of Dearborn, and her future sister-in-law, Fatima Odetalla, 22, of Canton, Mich.
“We talk and cook, and it’s a time to catch up,” Ibrahim said on a recent Monday evening as the women prepared the meal to break the fast, at Abusalah’s home in Canton.
Lately, wedding talk has dominated much of the conversation. Ibrahim married Abusalah’s brother Salah in June. And Odetalla is set to wed another brother, Mohamed, next May.
The recent wedding brought together two cultures: Abusalah is Palestinian and Ibrahim is Lebanese.
“So we talk about how nice it was to see both cultures’ traditions at the wedding,” Abusalah said, adding that cooking with Ibrahim and Odetalla offers “an opportunity to talk and learn and grow closer together.”
For Najah Bazzy, cooking with her daughter during Ramadan is a special time because the mood of the home is very peaceful.
“It’s the conversation that normally happens at the dinner table, but it’s happening while you are preparing this meal,” said Bazzy, 53, of Canton. “It’s also the memories and spiritual preparation because you are a preparing a meal for a special feast.”
Cooking a meal Tuesday to break the Ramadan fast brought the two women closer together quite literally.
“She was cooking and I was cooking and we shared one stove,” Bazzy said, laughing about how they were trying not to get in each other’s way.
Family time and food go hand in hand throughout the year, Bazzy said, but now, especially during Ramadan, “you are not as distracted as you would be. Your energy is more focused on what you’re doing.”
And although they were fasting, Bazzy said they weren’t that hungry because they were spiritually full.
“The cooking feels more blessed,” she said.
Makes: About 32 rolls / Preparation time: 50 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
3 to 4 cups cooked chicken
¼ cup olive oil plus more for brushing on rolls
2-pound bag of small red onions, peeled, thinly sliced
1 chicken bouillon cube
¼ cup ground sumac or to taste
Salt to taste
Pine nuts or slivered almonds, optional
8 pieces Saj or thin pita bread
Hummus for serving, optional
Shred the chicken and set aside.
In a large saucepan, heat about ¼ cup olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté about 15 minutes or until they are just beginning to caramelize and brown.
Add the bouillon cube, sumac and salt. Continue cooking. The mixture should seem thick and have a maroon color. If desired, add pine nuts or slivered almonds to the mixture.
Cut the saj bread in quarters and trim off any hard edges. (You can cut the scraps of bread and fry them to use in fattoush salad.)
Place approximately ¼ cup of the chicken mixture lengthwise about 1/2-inch up from the long end of the piece of bread. Roll to encase the filling, fold in the edges and continue to roll completely like an egg roll or burrito.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees or table top grill (Abusalah uses her George Foreman grill). Brush the rolls and grill until the outside of the bread is just crisp. Or place in a baking dish, brush with oil and bake until bread is slightly crisp.
From Fawzea (Fay) Abusalah, Canton.
BABA GHANOUSH SALAD (EGGPLANT SALAD)
Makes: About 5 cups / Preparation time: 20 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Jamiley Cheikh prefers to grill the eggplant for this dish because it lends a better flavor. The eggplant also can be baked.
3 medium eggplants
1 cup chopped curly leaf parsley, plus more for garnish
2 large tomatoes, washed, diced
1 medium red or white onion, peeled, diced
Juice of 1 large lemon
2 cloves garlic, peeled, minced
½ cup olive oil or more as needed
Salt to taste
½ cup chopped walnuts
Fresh pita bread for serving
Preheat or prepare the grill. Place the eggplants whole and not peeled on the grill and cook until they are soft and have collapsed.
Remove from the grill and when cool enough to handle, cut each eggplant in half lengthwise and scoop out the flesh into a serving bowl. Stir in the tomatoes, onions, lemon juice and garlic. Drizzle in enough olive oil so it coats all the ingredients. Season with salt as needed and adjust the lemon juice to taste.
To serve, sprinkle with additional parsley and top with walnuts. Serve with pieces of pita bread.
From Jamiley Cheikh, Dearborn.
LAYERED HUMMUS AND MEAT WITH FRIED PITA
Serves: 8 / Preparation time: 35 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
This dish is seasoned with Seven Spice — a blend of allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, salt and other spices. Look for it at Middle Eastern stores or in the ethnic aisle of some grocery stores.
3 cups fried pita chips
1 can (28 ounces) chickpeas, drained
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup tahini (or more as needed)
Lemon juice to taste
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium red or white onion, peeled, diced
1 pound ground lamb
Salt to taste
Cinnamon to taste
Seven Spice seasoning to taste
Fresh pita bread
Sprinkle about a 1-inch layer of fried pita in the bottom of a 9-inch-by-9-inch-by-2-inch square dish. Set aside.
To prepare the hummus: In a food processor fitted with the steel blade, place the chickpeas and garlic. Pulse a few times to process the chickpeas. Add the tahini and olive oil and process the mixture until it’s smooth and creamy, adding more tahini and olive oil if needed to achieve that consistency. Season with lemon juice and salt to taste. Set aside.
To prepare the meat layer: In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until just tender. Add the lamb, brown and cook. Season the mixture with salt, cinnamon and Seven Spice.
Spread a layer of the hummus evenly on top of the pita chips. Top with the ground meat mixture. Garnish with pine nuts and serve immediately with fresh pita.
From and Jamiley Cheikh, Dearborn. Not tested.
©2013 Detroit Free Press
Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services
PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): RAMADAN-COOKING