The way I cook Middle Eastern food in Hong Kong is slightly different from the way I cook Middle Eastern food in Chicago. When I'm in Hong Kong, I bake all my own flatbreads and I tend to find inspiration in fresh produce and seafood. When I'm in Chicago, I tend to use a lot more dairy, especially Middle Eastern yogurt and labneh, and I tend to cook a lot more with beef.
I think this has a lot to do with what's most available to me. There's so much overlap between Cantonese produce and Middle Eastern produce. For instance, the expensive Lebanese zucchinis that my family normally has to search for are easy to find in just about any wet market in Hong Kong. While I sometimes buy my grandmother a pricey case of persimmons as a Christmas gift, they're a much more everyday fruit in Hong Kong during the winter. These foods, which are special treats in Chicago, still feel like special treats in Hong Kong, but I get to eat them all the time, whenever I want, which kind of feels like having birthday cake every day, but without it getting tiresome. I've heard that it's going to be the same deal with jarareng in the spring, and I'm so unbelievably excited.
This is one reason that I felt a kinship with Pomegranate Kitchen a couple weeks ago, when I attended their Cook for Syria event. Chef Maria Bizri and her team cooked a delicious, thoughtful meal that reminded me of the food I grew up with, but with an even more intentional focus on the fresh flavors of Middle Eastern and Asian produce. Pomegranate, carrot, jade melon, and eggplant all featured prominently. There were also several delicious meat courses, my favorite being the barramundi, which was perfectly battered and fried, and whose lemoniness reminded me of my great grandmother's masgouf.
Maria's generous spirit inspired me to create and share my own Cook for Syria meal plan, inspired by her masterpiece. But while Maria is an incredibly talented chef who makes hosting an eight-course benefit look easy, the idea of organizing a supper club might sound a little overwhelming to the uninitiated, so I planned this suggested menu specifically with a potluck in mind. Collaborating relieves a lot of the burden on the host and makes everything feel so much more possible.
On the other hand, if you'd rather do it all yourself (which is much more in the spirit of Middle Eastern hospitality anyway), this particular menu is also perfect for working ahead. Everything can be finished ahead of time, except for the masgouf, which the host can prep and assemble in advance and then broil at the last minute.
green and herby masgouf | lemon-curry-marinated white fish, broiled with tomato, onion, and herbs
red lentil soup | with lots of carrots and warm, fragrant spices
muhammara | sweet and sour red pepper dip
manakish za'atar | flatbread with sumac, dried thyme, sesame seeds, and olive oil
crispy lentil and carrot salad | with quick-pickled lemon, toasted pine nuts, mint, and parsley
chocolate féve and pine nut cookies | sprinkled with sea salt, chewy, crispy, and as big as your face
notes on the menu
- The herby masgouf is best made by the host, since it doesn't travel well.
- Here is the easiest way to wrap a stockpot to transport the soup. Feel free to instead make a second salad, if no one can manage transporting the soup.
- The only specialty ingredients that can't be replaced are pomegranate molasses (in the muhammara), and za'atar (in the manakish za'atar). Both are available in Middle Eastern grocery stores, as well as many supermarkets with large imported food sections. If you can't find these ingredients, hummus would be a good alternative to the muhammara, and plain old pita bread works great in place of the manakish za'atar.
- Let your friends know whether their recipe needs to be multiplied when they sign up: Buy 3 pounds of fish for the masgouf (quadruple it); use a sheet pan to broil them all at once. Double the manakish za'atar. Double the muhammara. You can get away with a single batch of the lentil and carrot salad (which yields small portions), but you might want to double it.
- vegan / vegetarian: This menu is very vegetarian friendly, and somewhat vegan friendly, with the exception of the fish and dessert. To make it completely vegan:
- make flower water fruit salad for dessert
- Instead of fish, make vegan stuffed grape leaves, or if you can't find the ingredients, make piquant lentils and rice (even though 3 dishes contain lentils, they're all done completely differently and the end result is anything but monotonous, especially because red lentils taste and look nothing like brown lentils).
- gluten free: There are 3 gluten-containing dishes here, 1 with hidden gluten, so be mindful.
- The muhammara can be made without breadcrumbs. Here's how to adapt my recipe: after chopping the peppers in the food processor, remove them to a fine mesh strainer, and let them drain for 10 minutes over the sink before returning them to the food processor. Leave out the breadcrumbs entirely, and proceed with the recipe as usual.
- Whoever is in charge of manakish za'atar should bring some gluten free crackers or veggie slices along with it.
- Instead of the cookies for dessert, make a flower water fruit salad.
- Message ten of your friends at least two weeks ahead of time. Ask everyone to RSVP in one week, so you can send a couple more invites if some can't attend.
- Say a few words about the cause, and link them to Cook for Syria so they can read more. Explain that you'd like to collaborate to do a collaborative fundraising supper club.
- Put together a suggested menu featuring six dishes (feel free to simply use the menu above), and ask everyone to partner up with one other person to sign up for an item (let them know you've got the masgouf). Also let your friends know that they can change up the menu, and link them to some resources (like my archives or the Cook for Syria recipes page). Also include links to the suggested recipes so your friends can decide which one they want to make (or link them directly here if you're using this menu).
- Explain how the donations will work. Give a suggested donation range, so that your friends don't feel pressured to contribute more money than they can afford. The easiest thing is to set up a fundraising page, as described on the Cook for Syria website, and have your friends donate to UNICEF there.
- Serve the soup in individual bowls, and serve everything else family style. Split each dish up into three portions and distribute them around so that everyone can easily reach everything. It's okay if you don't have room for everyone to sit at the same table; a likely scenario is 8 people at a dining table and 4 people at a smaller table, or around a coffee table. Just do your best to make sure everyone is comfortable.
- If space is crowded, use juice glasses for wine, like in old school Italian restaurants. Also skip the flowers, or use little tiny bud vases like you'd find in a bistro or café (as pictured above). If you don't have little tiny bud vases, feel free to repurpose kitchen stuff. I used a 1-oz ramekin for the one above. Tea lights are great because you can usually sneak them onto even the most crowded table.
- Don't forget to make a playlist!
- Remind everyone to tag their photos #cookforsyria. Sharing photos of the evening will spread the word and encourage others to get involved.
- Check out Cook for Syria's list of hosting tips for more.