I was welcomed into the beautiful home of Karima and Mamdoh Suleiman the evening of July 19 for a homemade Palestinian feast. On that same night, as zucchini stuffed with rice and meat bubbled in a bright red tomato soup, blood was being spilled as war boiled over again between Israel and Palestine. Me being Jewish, it was ironic. I felt awkward until Karima grabbed me and hugged me and said, “Between us, peace.”
She’d prepped until 3 a.m. the morning before, then woke up early and started preparing again; 14-hour work days are the norm for Karima and Mamdoh. Born just outside of Ramallah with very little material wealth, Karima married Mamdoh at 19 and moved with him to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, to join family working there. A brief period followed in Saudi Arabia, which wasn’t easy (she couldn’t leave the house unless her husband was with her).
They landed in Baton Rouge, and then finally settled in New Orleans, where they raised four kids. They worked their butts off for 30 years, running and owning neighborhood shops, a gas station, and then later developing commercial real estate. From the west bank of Palestine to the West Bank of New Orleans: Their beautiful home is a reflection of the years of hard work and of how far they have traveled.
So back to the food. We started with the best hummus ever. No chickpeas out of a can! Karima soaked dried chickpeas (Goya brand) overnight, cooked them in salted water, and drained them, reserving some of the cooking liquid and some of the whole chickpeas for garnish. The rest went into the food processor with lemon juice, a clove of garlic, a big scoop of Tahini, the whole blended until smooth, adding some of the reserved cooking liquid to get the right texture. The mixture is poured out onto a big platter, then garnished with a generous slathering of olive oil, whole chickpeas, chopped parsley, and exotic spice Sumac. She served it with delicious crispy Barbari bread that she orders weekly from Dallas, perfect for scooping up the hummus and tabouleh salad and putting regular pita bread to shame.
For the tabouleh, Karima covered the cracked wheat in water and let it soak at room temperature while she chopped cucumber, tomato, and a ton of parsley. The drained cracked wheat was added to the vegetables and dressed in lemon juice and olive oil. Parsley is the main ingredient here … very different and a lot less fattening than my version, where the cracked wheat takes center stage and the vegetables have bit parts.
Karima’s grape leaves differ in a big way from the ones we buy in stores. Instead of having the circumference of a cigar, they were more the size of a cigarillo, more stringbean than hot dog. What this means is that proportionally there’s a lot more grape leaf to filling than what we’re used to, so you get a lot more of the taste and texture of the grape leaf, my favorite part. It’s a long process. She cooks the meat, this time with lamb, adds it to raw rice, and seasons with Middle Eastern (and some Cajun!) seasonings. She places just a scant teaspoon of filling onto a flattened grape leaf, rolls from the bottom a little way, then folds from the right and the left to enclose the filling, then rolls up the rest of the way. The little tubes are then placed in a pot, several layers deep, and cooked in chicken broth, lemon juice, and seasonings that have been brought to a boil; then the heat is reduced and pan covered for about 4 hours.
Cornish game hens were cut up, seasoned, and baked. Karima sauteed chopped onions with the interesting, sour, Middle Eastern spice Sumac and sprinkled it over the top of the roasted game hens.
Dessert was sweet tea served with beautiful domed cookies called Mahmul. The dough, made from cream of wheat, was pressed into Karima’s decorative wooden forms, taking on the carved patterns, then filled with a purée of dates and chopped walnuts. The filled domes are baked until golden and they have the texture of a crunchy, sweetened polenta. These cookies are always on Karima’s to-do list; her local daughters Summer and Nina insist, and I’m guessing her daughter in Manhattan misses them. Mamdoh is thin as a rail, maybe because he exercises two hours a day. He loves it; how is this possible?
Renee Peck, Nolavie’s fearless leader, was there with her husband, stalwart Stewart; Hannah, photographer; Summer, lovely baby daughter of Karima and Mamdoh, who writes about healthy living in New Orleans for NolaVie; her sister Nina; and Joy the Baker, blogger and cookbook author, who recently transplanted to the French Quarter from Los Angeles.
We had fun, were treated to great food and hospitality, and found out for the millionth time, we are all the same. Peace.