It’s said that most families show love through food, but in a family that is not only close knit but sells imported food products, that phrase takes on special meaning. For Middle Eastern families, food is central to our culture. Preparing it, sharing it, lingering over the table and an absolute sense of hospitality to all who arrive are the most important aspects of our lives.
Growing up our home was always full of family, good friends and (of course!) wonderful food. I learned early on from my Mom and grandmother to always have something at hand for an unexpected visitor. When we had parties or hosted a holiday they were always encouraging all who came to just “have a little more.” Needless to say, it was a wonderful way to grow up.
I grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn for the most part, a solid neighborhood of mostly Irish and Italian American families sprinkled with a few Middle Eastern families. Our holiday meals were always slightly different than our neighbors. Most people I knew had lasagna or baked ziti at every holiday on top of the Christmas roast, the Thanksgiving turkey or the Easter Ham. We had Kibbee, a fantastically delicious and traditional dish for every sort of holiday.
Kibbee is made from only a few ingredients: lamb and beef, bulghur wheat, spices, onion and pine nuts. But, the technique is everything. In my mind’s eye, I can see my Mom forming the outside shell on her index finger and turning it around and around to make a nice even shell so she could stuff it with the filling she had made earlier. Then she would nudge the tip closed, all the while continuing to turn it into an even, perfectly sealed football. She always said as she was forming it, “if it isn’t sealed right, it will burst in the oven!” I was always OK with that because then we’d get to eat any that weren’t perfect before company came. This rolling and stuffing often went on for hours because she made a ton of these kibbe balls. Everyone loved her recipe (and still does!).
(One of our chef's is making kibbee in the above video)
For parties or larger gatherings, she would often make them even smaller (requiring more time and labor) because finger food is easier to eat. To this day when Mom and I host parties — which we do a few times a year for anywhere from 40-100 people — I leave the kibbee making to her. We still use my grandmother’s kibbee recipe at the Atlantic Avenue store, where Mom taught our first chef to use her mother’s recipe, baking them instead of frying them because they are healthier (and so, you can eat more of them!).
They are such a part of our family culture that if you ask my children what they want for dinner at grandmas, they will often say kibbee and eggs. Our family way is to scramble some eggs with leftover kibbee and eat it with Syrian bread. The only difference now that my children are adults, is that they will drizzle harissa on top. It is a family classic, and I think every generation of our family treasures memories of this delicious dish. One day, I hope to introduce my own grandchildren to this great comfort food.