ras al asfour

ras al-asfoor

My grandfather was a hilarious and warm man who passed away six years ago—he was defined by his laugh, his jokes, and his far-reaching community of friends and family. Whenever he went on vacation somewhere far away, like Australia or Europe, he would find a phone book, look up the name “Yonan” and call whoever he found to say shlama. When he passed away, we spent months sorting through the thousands of family photos he left behind, and my mom and her brothers divided them up in manilla envelopes with people’s names written on the back, and sent them out to grandkids, cousins, second cousins, third cousins, old neighbors, old friends, old colleagues.

In the hour before the funeral started, our immediate family gathered for a small, private viewing. My grandmother and the children and grandchildren stood around his casket and spent a long time there together, just crying and hugging, not saying much.

Toward the end of the private viewing, just a little while before guests were supposed to arrive, a man walked into the room, nodded at us silently, walked over to the casket, and broke down sobbing, as if he had lost a close family member. We all looked around at each other, and our mournful faces turned puzzled. We started mouthing questions to each other— Who is he? Have you met him before? Did they work together? Is this a long-lost friend from Baghdad? Does he look Assyrian?

This went on for about five minutes, until the man finally leaned in and kissed my grandfather on the forehead, at which point my grandmother walked over to introduce herself and to figure out who on earth he was. But as soon as the man said he was the brother of the deceased, it became clear that this poor guy was at the wrong funeral. When he realized his mistake (after a little back and forth of “This is Peter Ishu,” “No, this is my brother!”), he apologized, explained that he hadn’t spoken with his brother in decades and had no idea what he looked like these days, and all of us, including the interloper, fell out of our grief, just for a moment, like actors at the end of a scene. And as soon as the guy left, we shared a laugh, not exactly at his expense, but just at the ridiculousness of mistaken identity at a funeral, and the fact that my grandfather would have appreciated the situation more than anyone.

ras al asfour
ras al-asfoor

Ras al asfour always makes me think of that time in our lives, and of the community that gathered around us. The private viewing was the only time that whole week we would be alone as a small family, and I’ve never seen a more crowded wake or funeral. So many people stopped by my grandmother’s house to bring her big pots of food, the whole place was completely packed for an entire twenty-four hours. The dining room table was covered with pots wrapped up in kitchen towels, delivered by people who I knew and loved, and cousins I had never met.

Auntie Helani brought ras al asfour, which my grandmother explained means “birds’ heads,” a description of the teeny tiny size of the meatballs. I remember being touched by the care that went into making this dish—it takes so long to shape each one, and it’s such a thoughtful gesture to show someone that you were thinking of them. It always makes me think of my community, and the people who embody the same joyful spirit as my grandfather.

ras al-asfoor

Ras Al Asfour

sweet and sour stew with petit meatballs and potatoes
active time: 35 minutes
total time: 1 hour
serves: 6
download a PDF to print
(or try my
sheet pan ras al asfour)

the meatballs

  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef *

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

  • 1 small jalapeño, seeded, pith removed (keep some pith in if you want more heat), and finely minced

  • 1/3 packed cup finely minced parsley leaves

  • 1/3 cup finely minced onion (from about 1/2 1 small onion)

  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed with a garlic press

  • 3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

  • 2 teaspoons baharat **

  1. Combine the ground beef, pomegranate molasses, minced jalapeño, minced parsley, minced onion, salt, and baharat. Stop mixing once it's well-combined.

  2. Shape into very small meatballs, about a heaping teaspoon (not tablespoon) each. To shape them, squeeze one in the palm of your hand, and then use both of your palms to gently roll the ball around to smooth it out.

the stew

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 1/2 cup small diced onion (from the rest of the onion)

  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed through a press

  • 1 teaspoon baharat **

  • 2/3 cup water or stock

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

  • 28 ounce can of diced tomato

  • Salt to taste

  • 10 ounces of medium-diced yukon gold potatoes (about 2 small potatoes)

  • for serving: samoon, or another bread

  • (optional) additional minced parsley for garnish

  1. Preheat a stockpot or dutch oven over medium heat for a couple minutes. Swirl the tablespoon of olive oil around in the bottom of the pot, followed immediately by the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes, just until they soften a bit. Add the baharat and cook, stirring constantly for 30 seconds. Immediately add the water/stock, followed by the lemon juice, pomegranate molasses, and diced tomato. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer.

  2. Once it comes to a simmer, taste it and adjust the seasoning (it will depend a lot on how salty your tomatoes and/or stock were). Turn off the heat momentarily, and add the potatoes. Use a wooden spoon to distribute them into an even layer on the bottom of the pot. Carefully add the meatballs. The first layer of meatballs will be mostly covered by the liquid. the second layer will poke out a bit. Nest them in as well as you can.

  3. Bring back to a simmer over medium-high heat. Once a few bubbles break the surface, cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook undisturbed for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, use a large wooden spoon to carefully mix everything together with a folding motion (the meatballs will be fragile, but much less fragile than when they're raw). Cover and continue simmering for about 8 to 10 more minutes (13 to 14 total). The stew is done once the meatballs and potatoes are cooked through and the flavors have melded. Serve with bread and garnish with parsley.

* Choose a higher fat ground beef—if it’s a leaner blend, add some softened butter into the meatball mix.
** If you don't have a baharat blend and don't feel like making one, feel free to use the following: For the meatballs: 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon coriander, 1/2 teaspoon paprika, a pinch of cinnamon, and a pinch of cardamom. For the stew: 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon cumin, 1/4 teaspoon coriander, 1/4 teaspoon paprika, a pinch of cinnamon, and a pinch of cardamom.

ras al-asfoor

okra stew | shirw'it bamiyeh

shirw'it bamiyeh

This post isn't here to convince the okra haters that really they should give it another chance. It's for the okra lovers, the ones who can't get enough "slime," who don't care if it is stewed, grilled, or pickled, as long as it's piled high. If you read the blog posts and articles with headlines like "how to cook okra so it's not slimy" (I even wrote one once!), it might seem like we're on a mission to convince the world to eat more okra, but the truth is, we love it so much that we don't care whether you do too. More for us!

This summer, my grandmother taught me how to make her okra stew (in Assyrian, shirw'it bamiyeh/bamieh), and I'm so happy to be sharing it. We're right at the beginning of okra season, so it's the perfect thing to make right now, but that shouldn't stop you if you're catching this post another time of the year, because we most often make it with frozen okra and canned tomatoes anyway. My grandmother is on a constant mission to hunt down certain frozen veggies to use in her stews, like flat beans for her riza shirw'it fasouliyeh, and (in this case) baby okra for her bamiyeh stew.

shirw'it bamiyeh
shirw'it bamiyeh

You might ask, why baby okra? Because when you simmer whole okra, instead of cutting it into bite-sized pieces, they get this wonderful chewy almost "Q" texture, which okra lovers will appreciate. There are plenty of incredible stews made with chopped okra, like gumbo for instance—chopping first thickens the broth and adds a ton of body and flavor to the finished dish. But this method is just another wonderful technique, which results in a slightly thinner broth and pleasantly chewy okra.

If you can't find baby okra, feel free to cook fully grown okra and then serve the stew with a knife and fork, on a plate over basmati rice. Either way, no one will complain. (I mean, yes, the okra haters will complain, but they're going to complain no matter what). If you're using fresh instead of frozen, make sure you prep them as listed in the recipe—it takes a few extra minutes, but is important for ending up with the right consistency. You can find frozen baby okra in most Middle Eastern markets, and lucky for us they're already prepped that way.

shirw'it bamiyeh

okra stew | shirw'it bamiyeh

yield: 6 to 8 servings
active time: 20 minutes
total time: 1 hour 30 minutes
download a PDF to print

  • 2 pounds stew meat, in large chunks

  • 3 cups water

  • Salt

  • 2 tablespoons butter or olive oil

  • 1 medium onion, chopped

  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed through a press

  • 26 ounce container diced tomatoes

  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

  • 1 red bell pepper, medium diced

  • 2 jalapeños, seeded and pith removed, small diced

  • 28 ounces frozen baby okra, rinsed under cold water to melt away any frost *

  • 1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon lemon juice

  • Cooked basmati rice, for serving

  1. Rinse the meat (or skip the rinsing if you prefer). Place the meat in the bottom of a large saucepan, and cover it with the water and 3/4 teaspoon of salt (or to taste). Bring to a simmer over high heat, then cover and reduce to medium-low. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle boil. Wipe down the sides of the pot once or twice while it cooks, and/or skim any scum that forms on the surface. Cook for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until the meat is very tender.

  2. While you're waiting on the beef, place a large dutch oven or stockpot over medium-high heat and add the butter. Once the butter melts, add the onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 to 7 minutes, just until the onion softens and takes on a little golden color around the edges. Add the garlic and cook for about 1 minute, just to take the raw edge off the garlic.

  3. Immediately add the diced tomatoes, black pepper, and salt to taste (my diced tomatoes didn't have much sodium, so I added 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt). Bring to a simmer, cover, and reduce heat to low. Cook for about 10 minutes, just to allow the flavors to meld.

  4. Add the red pepper, jalapeños, okra, and the braised beef with the braising liquid. Increase the heat to medium-high, stir everything together and wait for it to come to a simmer. Once bubbles break the surface, cover, reduce heat to low, and cook for about 5 to 15 minutes, just until everything softens to your desired consistency. I like the veggies a little al dente, and not totally soft, so I usually do just 5 minutes, but my grandmother likes to cook them for the full 15. It's a preference thing, and you can even cook them longer if you want them really falling apart.

  5. Once the stew is done to your liking, add the lemon juice, and carefully fold everything together without mashing the okra.

* Baby okra is hard to find fresh, but you can find it frozen in some Middle Eastern markets. If you can't find baby okra, you can use regular-sized okra, but read the notes above the recipe if you want to know why you should leave them whole instead of cutting them into smaller pieces. If you're using frozen baby okra, it should already be prepped, but if you're using fresh, you'll need to stem and pare them. Here's how: cut the tough part of the stem off, but leave the tender part of the stem intact (you should definitely not see the inside of the okra). Then use a paring knife to shave away the bumpy ridge where the stem meets the body (check out this very helpful photo from my friend Tony’s instagram stories if you’d like a visual).

shirw'it bamiyeh