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Zen and the Art of Rolling a Grape Leaf

July 21, 2009

To inspire the palate is to understand the chemistry.

It’s flavor, structure, how it grows and its effect on the senses …whether it permeates the air with a sensual aroma or tantalizes the tongue with a distinct texture.  This is what my grandfather – Giddou in Arabic – taught me and for that, he made an indelible mark on my appreciation for a clean plate.

Giddou used to faithfully wait for me to come home from teaching English at the American Cultural Center In Alexandria, Egypt, each day and it would always be a bit of a surprise what he’d come up with.  He’d greet me with a toothy smile and a kiss on both cheeks, then lead me past the dining room table to the smallest and warmest room in the house – the kitchen.  It was about the size of a large closet, but somehow, with all of the frenetic activity, my giddou, tata and 3 of my tantes (aunts) could manage to maneuver around each other in a culinary tango without ever stepping on each other’s toes.  From this room emanated the soul of our lifeblood, scented with cumin, citrus, and garlic.  I’d curiously watch him hover over the marble top counter, meticulously chopping parsley or filleting fish with a small bone-handled knife.  He’d pan roast peanuts to bring out their nutty goodness and pickle enormous green olives and turnips for their crunch.  Add crisp pita bread from the oven and broiled finger-sized eggplant, slice them down the middle and bathe them in tahini and sweet olive oil for our mid-day meal. 

 We weren’t allowed to get too close to the action nor did we really want to get in the way lest we get knocked to the ground by a 38DD bosom or bumped like a pinball by a rotund bottom .  Instead we’d sit intently and extract fava beans from their leather-like shells or peel garlic or if we’d sufficiently demonstrated our mastery of the more simple tasks we’d get to roll mahshi waraa anab – stuffed grape leaves.  This task required a certain maturity because you couldn’t just mindlessly do the chore.  The end result should resemble a tightly wound mini Macanudo cigar, and the key is putting just the right amount of rice and lamb seasoned mixture in the front third – not too much for fear of rice seeping out of the seams like a woman who’s been zipped into a too-tight dress.

When it comes to rolling a perfect grape leaf , no matter how tedious the task may seem, it pays off in spades when those around you smile at the taste, awe at appearance and admire your dedication to the art.

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Learn how to roll a grape leaf like a pro: http://greekfood.about.com/od/greekcookinglessons/ss/foldleaves.htm

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