When Faith Gorsky married her husband in the Middle East, she was introduced to a cultural and culinary world that would forever change how she experienced food and cooking. After her wedding, Faith spent six months in the Middle East and had the opportunity to learn traditional Middle Eastern dishes from her Syrian mother-in-law. During these cooking lessons, she faced language barriers and the lack of standardized measurements (“a small coffee cup of rice” or “some milk”), but eventually mastered several basic recipes and techniques and started cooking for the extended family.
Faith started her blog “An Edible Mosaic” in 2009 as a place to encourage experimentation in the kitchen and to share the wealth of information she had learned about Middle Eastern cuisine, making what were traditionally orally-transmitted recipes into attainable recipes that American home cooks could attempt. “An Edible Mosaic,” like her blog of the same name, is a collection of these homestyle Middle Eastern (particularly Syrian) dishes. One important note is that “An Edible Mosaic” (the cookbook) focuses solely on Middle Eastern cuisine, while “An Edible Mosaic” the blog includes a range of international influences. If you’re looking for some of Faith’s other recipes, you won’t find them here. Also, many of these recipes are new to the cookbook and have not been previously featured on the blog.
Because the book is written from a Syrian perspective, the names of some dishes may be different from the ones you are used to seeing in Middle Eastern cookbooks or restaurants (shakshouka is listed as “juzmuz,” basbousa = “harissa,” etc.). A handy list of Middle Eastern grocery stores (and websites) will allow you to stock up on supplies like apricot leather, cardamom pods, dried limes, mastic, and flower waters that may be difficult to find locally.
Gorgeous color photos illustrate every page, starting with basic cooking tools and ingredients (the photos of making perfect rice and how to hollow out veggies were particularly helpful), and draw you into the stories behind each recipe. Each chapter features distinctive borders printed with colorful Middle Eastern tiles. I loved the staging of the photos as each photo includes a uniquely Middle Eastern touch, from gold-embroidered runners to dainty fenajeen (demitasse cups).
The book is a miracle of compactness, managing to fit nine lavishly illustrated chapters into only 144 pages. A basic section on cooking tips and techniques introduces sidebars on basic cooking tips as well as putting together maza platters and coffee the Middle Eastern way. Basic cooking tools are also explored, including some that are likely less familiar to American audiences (ma’amoul molds, della, hafara). There’s a buyer’s guide to Middle Eastern ingredients and several basic recipes (clotted cream, taratoor, basic savory pie dough, scented sugar syrup, basic spice mixes) before launching into breads and pies, which includes Middle Eastern flatbreads, sesame seed breads, spiced meat flat pies, and spinach turnovers. The salads chapter gave me many quick and tasty new additions to my maza, including chickpea salad with lemony mint salad dressing, colorful cabbage salad with lemony mint salad dressing, beet salad with tahini dressing (I love beets and tahini in all shapes and forms, and had never thought to combine the two before!), and standards like Middle Eastern salad, tabbouleh, and fattoush.
Vegetarians will find much to enjoy in the salads chapter and the vegetable and rice side dishes, including the herbed potato salad, fried cauliflower with sesame parley sauce, saffron rice with golden raisins and pine nuts, and the many appetizers (zucchini fritters, juzmuz (shakshouka), herbed omelets, spiced cheese balls, vegetarian stuffed grape leaves. Protein can be found in the form of foul mudammas, hummus, tissiyeh, and falafel. I particularly enjoyed the lentil and bulgur pilaf with caramelized onions.
Meat-based classics like kibbeh (including a recipe for raw kibbeh), shwarma, kabsa, and sheesh taouk are also represented, as is seafood. One of my favorite discoveries was the shrimp in aromatic tomato sauce, which was spiced with cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and paprika, which complemented its suggested accompaniment of saffron rice with golden raisins and pine nuts.
I found the desserts chapter a particular delight, as I’ve long appreciated the Middle Eastern desserts that my students from the Gulf would bring to go along with Saudi coffee. There’s a very helpful illustrated guide to ma’amoul (date-filled cookies traditionally shaped with a wooden mold; one of my Iraqi students introduced me to these), and several variations on puddings (the gorgeous layered apricot and milk pudding makes a stunning finale to any meal). I have a basbousa/harissa recipe from Australia that I normally use that calls for copious amounts of melted butter and yogurt, but Faith’s version made with milk was every bit as moist (and no doubt healthier). I also followed her direction to put the harissa under the broiler to brown the top; that’s the one step I was never able to get right in the past, and it came out looking every bit as gorgeous as the cookbook photo (see photo).
As Faith says in the introduction, her goal for “An Edible Mosaic” was to introduce home cooks to traditional Middle Eastern recipes that are delicious and attainable as well as to teach a bit of Middle Eastern culture along with the cuisine as the two are so closely intertwined. Even if you already have other Middle Eastern cookbooks, you’ll be sure to find new and memorable recipes here (most of my Mediterranean / Middle Eastern cookbooks focus on Lebanon, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, so some of the Syrian dishes were new to me). Overall, “An Edible Mosaic” is a great entry into the world of homestyle Middle Eastern cooking that is perfect for any level of home cook!
(Review copy courtesy of Tuttle Publishing – thank you!)