Rasha AlMahroos thinks of her Thanksgiving table and chuckles: A big turkey sits in the center, and right next to it, as if hiding under its wing, a very small chicken.
“My mother-in-law cannot get used to turkey, so she always stuffs a tiny chicken with hashweh,” said AlMahroos, a lawyer who was born in Bahrain and now lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
Rare is the Arab Thanksgiving table in America that does not include some version of hashweh, which means “stuffing” in Arabic.
In the Arab world, the rice-based dish is used to fill a whole lamb or chicken — meats that are often the centerpieces of celebratory meals. For more casual occasions, hashweh is also served on its own, generously topped with fried nuts. The fragrant rice, flavored with warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice, combines with tender meat and crispy nuts for a dish of comforting contrasts.
Fadi Khayyat, a Palestinian American who immigrated to the United States from the city of Ramallah, in the West Bank, as an 8-year-old in 2003, remembers the first Thanksgiving his family celebrated. “My mom thought she could stuff turkey the way we do chicken,” said Khayyat, who lives in New York City. “Then she heard it’s not safe because of temperature issues, so now she just makes hashweh on the side.”
Over the years, Khayyat’s family has started to include more American dishes, but “hashweh is always the real star,” he said. Eating any large cut of meat without rice is baffling to him.
“The turkey always has to be next to hashweh topped with pine nuts and yogurt,” he said. “If anybody ends up with dry turkey, just serve it with hashweh and yogurt, then nobody will complain about it.”
In the same way, AlMahroos, 39, cannot fathom having an azoomah — a feast or gathering of people over food — without rice. Taking a cue from her native Bahrain, AlMahroos’ hashweh rice is flavored with cinnamon, cumin and turmeric, and has raisins alongside the nuts. “A large cut of meat has to come with rice to be presentable to guests,” she said.
Hospitality is the bedrock of Arab culture, most often manifested through food. Rice-based dishes happen to be the ones that extend the most to feed a large crowd, making them the perfect choice for an Arab Thanksgiving table. Just as Arabs blend these traditions with American ones, local and seasonal ingredients are also making their ways into classic Arab hashweh.
Omaya Atassi, 35, a Syrian American food writer and photographer in Dubai who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, makes hashweh, or riz mtabal (spiced rice) as Syrians sometimes refer to it, year-round. For Thanksgiving, though, her hashweh gets a face-lift: “We use chestnuts instead of the fried nuts because of the holiday season,” she said. “Their sweetness contrasts perfectly with hashweh’s warm spices.”
For Marguerite Lian-Hajjar, hashweh is a symbol of continuity and connection to the past. A third-generation descendant of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, Lian-Hajjar, 60, still makes hashweh the way her “sitti,” or grandmother, did, out of her 2-by-4-foot kitchen in Brooklyn.
“Hashweh is a symbol of our mothers and their mothers before them,” she said. “There’s fewer and fewer ties to our past. Food is the strongest one that keeps us connected.”
Hashweh (Spiced Rice and Meat With Yogurt)
By Reem Kassis
Hashweh means stuffing in Arabic, hence the name of this dish that is used to fill chicken, lamb, pigeon and almost any other poultry or meat that can be stuffed. The combination of warm spices, fluffy rice and tender meat with the crispy, fried nuts is so delicious, it has become a meal in its own right. For a more elaborate presentation, you can top it with shredded chicken or lamb. Whichever way you serve it, you’re in for a real treat, with a recipe so simple it can easily make its way into your weekly dinner rotation. Hashweh pairs perfectly with a salad of finely chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and onions dressed with lemon, olive oil, salt and some dried mint.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Total time: 1 1/4 hours
For the Rice:
- 2 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 2 3/4 cups calrose, jasmine or basmati rice
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or ghee
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for nuts
- 1 1/2 pounds ground or minced lamb or beef (see Tip)
- 4 scant cups homemade or store-bought chicken stock
- 1/2 cup/3 ounces pine nuts
- 1 cup/4 ounces slivered almonds
For the Yogurt:
- 2 Persian or other mini cucumbers
- 1 1/2 cups plain Greek yogurt
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1. Make the rice: Mix together allspice, cinnamon, black pepper and nutmeg and set aside. Rinse rice in a colander until the water runs almost clear, then soak in cold water for 15 minutes. Drain and let stand for 15 minutes.
2. While rice soaks and drains, heat butter and olive oil in a large Dutch oven or nonstick pot over medium-high. Once the butter starts to sizzle, add half of the spice mixture and fry for a few seconds until fragrant. Add meat and cook, breaking the meat up finely with a wooden spoon, until any released water evaporates and the meat is nicely browned, 10 to 15 minutes. (It is important for the meat to be in small even-size pieces.)
3. Add drained rice to the pot, along with remaining spices, and stir to combine and coat with the oil. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Taste for seasoning: the stock should be saltier than you would like your finished dish to be, so add more salt to your liking, but do so generously.
4. Once the mixture boils, lower the heat to maintain a simmer, cover the pot and cook until the liquid has mostly evaporated but the rice is still easy to stir with a spoon and not sticking to the bottom, 8 to 12 minutes. Give the rice a final mix, turn off the heat, then wrap a clean tea towel or paper towels around the lid and cover again. (The towel will absorb excess moisture.) Let sit to steam in the residual heat for 20 minutes.
5. While the rice cooks, prepare the topping: Place a small skillet over medium-high and pour in enough oil to thinly coat the bottom (1 to 2 tablespoons). Add pine nuts and stir to coat evenly with the oil. Reduce heat to heat to low and continue to stir until nuts are a light golden color, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain nuts on a plate lined with paper towels. Repeat with slivered almonds.
6. While the rice rests, make the yogurt: Coarsely grate the cucumber and place in a colander in the sink. Sprinkle with salt, mix and set aside for 10 minutes to allow juices to drain. Give the cucumbers one final mix, pressing on them with the back of a spoon to ensure any excess liquid drains. Transfer to a bowl and add the yogurt, garlic and lemon juice and season with salt. Whisk until well combined, taste and add more salt if you’d like.
7. Fluff rice with a large fork, transfer to a serving platter and top with toasted nuts. Serve, passing the yogurt around for each person to place a dollop over their rice.
Tips: Hashweh is perfectly delicious with either ground beef, lamb or a combination. But if you have the time, the texture of hand diced meat is preferable. Any cut of meat will do since it will be chopped very finely: beef flank, brisket, sirloin, even stewing cuts as well as leg of lamb. Chop it small — no larger than a dry chickpea. The easiest way to do this is to freeze your meat until almost fully frozen but still sliceable with a knife, then you can easily cut through it like you would a root vegetable.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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