During the last week of August, I had the privilege of assisting a cooking workshop at the Karam House in Istanbul. Anissa Helou led groups of teenagers through her various international recipes. Anissa, a world-renowned chef and food writer, shared techniques for different marinades, bread from all over the world and a variety of biryanis. One of the days, she also organized a recipe exchange with the mothers of Karam’s Sponsor a Syrian Refugee Family (SSRF) program.
After we briefly introduced ourselves, everyone got to work. 8 women divided the tasks of making their 3 chosen dishes: sweet and sour lentils with pasta (horaa osbao), dumplings in yogurt sauce (shish barak) and semolina coconut cake (h’risseh). The kitchen immediately erupted in a flurry. Dough work began for the 2 savory dishes. Someone else cooked the lentils. Another 2 started on the dessert.
All of the experienced home cooks were at the Karam House because of SSRF. They were living in extreme poverty. While some had more favorable situations in Syria, everything changed when they fled due to the ongoing conflict. The SSRF program gave these families a monthly stipend as long as they enrolled their children in school. Many of these kids were forced into child labor, not by the choice of the family, but for survival. SSRF and the Karam Foundation allowed them to have a different outcome.
Most of them were from Damascus and the surrounding areas, while a few came from Aleppo. Like any dish from Damascus, cilantro played a star role in the shish barak. The dumplings were filled with tons of it (along with ground meat), marking the signature flavor of the region. Some debated as to whether they put the herb inside or on top of the dish, while the consensus was that in Damascus, it goes inside.
One explained how for Ramadan, after stuffing the dumplings, she bakes them in the oven for a short while so they don’t puff up in the yogurt sauce, and then she freezes them. She also freezes batches of kibbeh so she can make basha asakro (dumplings and kibbeh in yogurt sauce) in a pinch.
Cilantro made another appearance in Sweet and Sour Lentils with Pasta. It’s affectionately called horaa osbao, which means “he burnt his finger” because he couldn’t wait to eat it, it’s that good! Lentils were made into a thick stew and seasoned with tamarind paste and pomegranate molasses. 2 women whipped up the simple pasta dough of flour and water and cut the dough into tiny squares. They were cooked and combined with the lentils. While I’ve often seen this dish topped with fried pita croutons, the women cut the excess dough into tiny circles and fried them (which also made a delicious snack while watching everyone cook).
We all broke bread with the 3 prepared dishes and Anissa’s fragrant Iranian saffron rice, polow. Watching these women cook served as a reminder that no matter where we are in the world and what circumstances take us there, food will always bring us close to home.
Below you’ll find my family’s Sweet and Sour Lentils with Pasta (Horaa Osbao) recipe! It’s herby, tangy and hearty. It’s a wonderful vegetarian meal that is great any time of day. Give it a try and let me know what you think!
If you’d like to donate to the Karam Foundation and learn more about their programs, please visit karamfoundation.org.
Sweet and Sour Lentils with Pasta (Horaa Osbao)
A hearty vegetarian meal that's sure to delight the tastebuds. It's tangy, herby and super addictive. You'll keep coming back for more!
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 2 hours
4 c all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 c warm water
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 heads garlic, smashed
4 bunches of cilantro, washed, dried and leaves chopped
1/3 c olive oil
Sweet and Sour Lentils:
6 onions, sliced
3/4 olive oil, divided
2 c French lentils
2 tsp salt, plus more to taste
1/3 c pomegranate molasses, plus more to taste
1/4 c lemon juice, plus more to taste
2 pita rounds, cut into squares and fried
- Make the dough by combining the flour, salt and vegetable oil in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook attachment. Gradually add water until a smooth dough forms. Alternatively mix by hand, gradually adding water. Knead until a smooth dough forms. Rest for about 30 minutes.
- Transfer dough to a floured surface. Roll until about 1/8 inch thick. Cut 1/4 inch squares with a pizza cutter. Line a baking sheet with plastic wrap and generously flour. Transfer the cut dough to the baking sheet and freeze until the dough is hard, about one hour.
- Meanwhile, make the cilantro/garlic mixture. Measure 1/2 c of smashed garlic and add to a medium saucepan with the olive oil over medium heat. Cook until garlic begins to turn golden, being careful not to burn. Remove from heat and immediately add 4 c chopped cilantro.
- In a large skillet, add 4 sliced onions with 1/2 c olive oil set over medium heat. Cook until onions turn light golden, about 15 minutes. Set aside.
- Add remaining 1/4 of olive oil and 2 sliced onions to the same skillet. Cook until browned but not burned, about 30-40 minutes. Set aside separately.
- In a large stockpot, add lentils, 2 tsp salt and 12 c of water. Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer. Cook until lentils are soft, about 20-30 minutes.
- Remove the dough from the freezer. Measure 1 c and shake off the excess flour. Transfer the rest of the dough to a zip-top bag and freeze for later use. Add the 1 c of dough to the lentils. Simmer until dough is cooked through, about 10-15 minutes.
- Add the pomegranate molasses, lemon juice and 4 lightly golden onions. Add as much onion olive oil as you like. Add 1/3 c of the cilantro/garlic mixture. Adjust seasoning.
- Transfer lentil and dough mixture to a casserole dish. Top with 1/3 of remaining cilantro/garlic mixture in a line. Place 1/3 of the fried bread in another line next to it, then 1/3 of the fried onions. Then add half of remaining cilantro/garlic, fried bread and fried onions. Continue with the remaining components. Serve immediately.