Friday, February 12, 2016

Shopping for comfort food in Paterson, I can't help but cry for Aleppo

In June 1978, I made a brief visit to Aleppo, the city in the north of Syria where my parents were born. I saw many things and places familiar from the conversations I overheard when my parents invited their many friends to our house in Brooklyn, and I took lots of black-and-white photos. Here, Syrian bread puffed up like a pillow as the loaves baked in an oven before being offered for sale.

In the summer of 1978, you could stop on the streets of Aleppo for a cup of hot tea or a yogurt drink.

Editor's note: In 2013, I described my emotions after I heard the news about a government assault on Aleppo, Syria, the city where my parents were born. Now, the situation has gotten even more hopeless.

By VICTOR E. SASSON
EDITOR

Since the start of the Syrian civil war, my occasional trips to buy bread, spices and other food in Paterson's Middle Eastern bazaar have been anything but routine.

I'm a first-generation American born to Jewish parents who emigrated from Aleppo, Syria, in the 1920s.

This week, government forces, backed by the Russians, began an offensive to take back Aleppo from the rebels -- a development that once again turned my thoughts to the city of their birth and its rich food tradition.

Today, The New York Times, quoting a new report, said 470,000 Syrians have died in five years of war -- almost twice the 250,000 counted a year and a half ago.

If that doesn't bring tears to your eyes, I'm not sure what would.


In 1978, I visited a Jewish yeshiva in Aleppo, and met teachers and an excited group of students.
Jewish life

My father's father was a pastry maker in Aleppo, and my mother's father was a rabbi and shochet, who was certified as competent to kill cattle and poultry in the manner prescribed by Jewish law.

My parents met on the Manhattan's Lower East Side, married, sailed to Cuba for their honeymoon on the Morro Castle, and eventually settled in Brooklyn, where my mother self-published the first edition of her Syrian Jewish cookbook in the 1950s.

When I moved to northern New Jersey in the late 1970s, I began visiting Paterson to shop or eat in bakeries, markets and restaurants opened by Syrian Christian immigrants in the South Paterson neighborhood bordering Clifton.

They began arriving in the late 1800s and early 1900s to work in the city's silk mills.


In 1968, Michael Fattal, a baker from Aleppo, opened Fattal's in Paterson. Today, you can find hundreds of items, including store-baked spinach pies, pastry, cheese, yogurt drinks, imported extra-virgin olive oil, spices, tea and chewy pocket bread, or order a Syrian specialty and enjoy it in a small dining area at the back of the greatly expanded bakery, butcher and grocery store.

A mildly spicy Aleppo pepper is the perfect accent for fish and egg dishes or you can use a pinch or two when you make hummus.

Fattal's on Main Street

My first stop on Thursday was Fattal's, one of the few South Paterson businesses with is own parking lot.

I made the trip because I had nearly run out of crushed red Aleppo pepper, which I sprinkle liberally on fish and egg dishes.

I bought a little more than a half-pound of crushed pepper ($6.99 a pound), a quarter-pound of ground cumin ($4.99 a pound), and a pound of Fattal's own grape leaves stuffed with vegetables ($7.99 a pound).

A 3-liter bottle of La Ziza Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Lebanon was $20.99 or just under $7 a liter. A half-gallon of Merve Ayran Yogurt Drink was $10.29.

A half-dozen freshly baked Spinach and Cheese Pies were $8.99, and 13-ounce cans of Libano Verde Hommos Tahina from Lebanon were 99 cents each.


Easy hummus

All you need to do make creamy hummus is empty the contents of a can into a bowl, and add fresh lime juice, extra virgin olive oil and plenty of minced or ground garlic to taste.

I garnish hummus with Aleppo pepper, crushed mint leaves or both.

In Paterson, after dashing over to Salah Edin, a restaurant on the next block, for two bags of freshly fried falafel, I went back into Fattal's for a package of medium Syrian breads (12 for $1.50), the only ones I could find without preservatives.


South Paterson

Even as Aleppo is being slowly destroyed, South Paterson is prospering, with the opening of new cafes, pastry shops and restaurants.

Over the years, Syrian businesses have been joined by numerous Turkish, Lebanese and Palestinian cafes, bakeries and restaurants. 

A new strip mall has opened on Main Street, and a new building is going up near Salah Edin Restaurant.

The big farmers' market off of Crooks Avenue is open year-round. And a large McDonald's has opened on the Paterson side of Crooks Avenue.


At Salah Edin, $1 buys a bag of five freshly fried falafel.

On the drive home, the smell of fresh Fattal's bread teased me. At my kitchen counter, I immediately made and ate two small sandwiches with hummus, one with a cold stuffed grape leave and the other with a warm falafel, above and below.

Fattal's bread keeps beautifully in the refrigerator or freezer.
The dining room of Aleppo Restaurant at Main and Thomas streets in Paterson.

What's still standing

On Thursday, I put my groceries in the car, left it parked in Fattal's lot, and walked two blocks to visit Mohamed K. Jello, a devout Muslim who owns Aleppo Restaurant.

The terrific Syrian food there reminds me so much of my mother's cooking.

I embraced Mohamed, and he served me a glass of hot ginger tea.

He said relatives still are living in the northern part of the city, and so far are safe.

We talked about the destruction of the minaret in the Great Mosque, but he said the old clock tower is still standing.

Click on the following link to my 2013 post on Aleppo, written almost 35 years to the day after my 1978 visit:

My heart goes out to Aleppo, Syria


Details

Fattal's, 975-77 Main St., Paterson; 1-973-742-7125.

Aleppo Restaurant, 939 Main St., Paterson; 1-973-977-2244. No alcohol allowed.

Salah Edin Restaurant, 995 Main St., Paterson; 1-973-225-0575.

In 1978, a clock tower known as Bab al-Faraj was a major landmark in Aleppo, and I often heard it referred to when my parents and their friends reminisced about their lives in the city, said to be the oldest in the world. 

The minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo, shown in June 1978, was destroyed during fighting in April 2013. The building dates to the 11th through 14th centuries.

In 1978, I explored the cobblestone streets and alleys of Aleppo's old city, where I was surprised to see Star of David motifs in a metal door, upper left.

Even in 1978, parts of the old city were being cleared for the construction of apartment buildings, above.

Residential buildings in Aleppo near the clock tower.

Stalls selling brooms.

A March 2015 report on The Guardian.com said troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were using the ancient citadel of Aleppo to rain down destruction on enemies below, and that the 13th century fortress had suffered "untold damage."

8 comments:

  1. Victor, if you weren't a mizrahi Jew, you'd be a litvak. You sure know food. I share your love for South Paterson. As kids we used to go to that neighborhood to get "Syrian" bread. We were already familiar with The halvah, turkish delight,and sesame candies from visiting our grandmas and great aunts.

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  2. Thanks. You know I've never heard the term Mizrahi Jew, and always thought of myself as Sephardic, with my ancestors expelled from Spain and landing in Alexandria, Egypt, on my mother's side and Aleppo on my father's.

    South Paterson is more vibrant than ever, and spills over into neighboring Clifton.

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  3. Great photos Victor - Chuck

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    1. Thanks, Chuck. Have you tried any of the new places in South Paterson?

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    2. Victor I haven't gone to any of the restaurants in quite a while, I have been largely cooking for myself lately. I did go to Taskin Bakery the day before the big snow storm to stock up on some premade stuff like cheese, spinach and meat pies. They were quite fresh although the $20 credit card minimum was puzzling to me. I also discovered Grandma's Bakery in Bayonne which is Egyptian and makes some unique items such as kaak, breadsticks, baklawa and other items. I also have made a few treks to Queens Pita on the Flushing/Kew Gardens border for some pita and zaatar pies. It is a Kosher bakery and has a great assortment.

      - Chuck

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    3. Sounds like you've found some great places, Chuck.

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  4. Of course, sephardic. I should have known by your name!!

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