With the difficulties in Iraq so constantly in the news, I was pleased to discover that there are vibrant, established communities from that country in the United States, one not far from my home. As my husband and I drove around our Los Angeles neighborhood, I spotted a banner announcing an Assyrian Food Festival.
Assyria was a place we had heard of as children in history class. We had no idea that there are Assyrians today. Many are of the Eastern Orthodox religion and are descendants of the people who built the Assyrian and Babylonian empires in an area that is now Iraq.
After their kingdoms fell, they were scattered around the Mideast and other parts of the world.
We met Assyrians from Iran, Iraq and Russia. For us, the highlight of the festival was the tasty food prepared by the women of the church. Their seasoning styles reflected their origins. We tasted fried meat-filled pastries similar to Russian pirogi.
These were made by Assyrians who had come to California from the former Soviet Union. Iranian Assyrians made use of two hallmarks of Iranian cooking: saffron to marinate grilled lamb kebabs and fresh basil sprigs to accompany them.
When we sampled two stuffed grape leaves side by side, we inquired why one was spicy, the other subtly flavored. "It depends who cooked them," was the answer. Iraqi Assyrians like hot chilies in their rice stuffing. Persian Assyrians opt for a delicate mixture, sometimes studded with raisins.
The Assyrians were especially fond of the age-old specialties they considered uniquely theirs. One was a barley and meat stew enlivened with a sprinkling of hot melted butter and coarsely crushed coriander. Some serve it for breakfast topped with sugar and cinnamon. I preferred a version that contained coriander.
Both yogurt and grains are utilized in one of the oldest Assyrian dishes, a peppery pottage of chard and bulgur wheat that's perfect for today's busy cooks. We were delighted to sample this soup, and I created a similar version I call creamy green vegetable soup with bulgur wheat and yogurt. Healthful, quick and easy to prepare, this soup owes its texture not to high-fat cream but to yogurt.
When using grains, Assyrians have several tricks for making speedier suppers. They use wheat in several forms, from flour to bulgur to whole berries. When preparing whole wheat berries, they use light-colored peeled ones, which cook more rapidly than the unhulled kind.
They turn soups, such as a meatball and tomato soup, into entrées by adding barley, wheat berries or, for a quicker alternative, coarse bulgur. Because bulgur is made from wheat that has been boiled before being cracked and dried, it cooks in a few minutes. It is one of the world's oldest fast foods.
Creamy green vegetable soup with bulgur wheat and yogurt
2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
6 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 poblano chili or 3 jalapeño chilies, chopped, or 1 diced green bell pepper (for a milder version)
6 scallions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
About 1 pound chard (1 bunch), rinsed and chopped
½ cup chopped Italian parsley or cilantro or ¼ cup each
2 tablespoons chopped mint, optional
1 (14.5-ounce) can vegetable or chicken broth
½ cup bulgur wheat
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1½ cups plain yogurt, room temperature
1 tablespoon plus 1½ teaspoons cornstarch or flour
Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add celery, chili or green pepper, scallion and garlic and cook over medium-low heat for 2 minutes. Add chard, half of parsley, cilantro or parsley-cilantro mixture, and half of mint. Cover and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add broth and 1 quart water and bring to a boil. Add bulgur and a pinch of salt. Cover and simmer over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes or until vegetables and bulgur are tender.
Mix yogurt with cornstarch or flour in a bowl until blended. Slowly stir in 2 cups of hot soup. Remove soup from heat, stir in yogurt mixture, and mix well. Return to medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly, until soup is hot but not boiling. Cook over low heat for 3 minutes, stirring, until soup thickens. If soup is too thick, slowly stir in ½ cup hot water, or more if needed to obtain the consistency you like. Stir in remaining parsley, cilantro or parsley-cilantro mixture and mint. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Assyrian Food Festival was celebrated for the first time ever in Bet-Nahain Cultural Center in Ceres, California eight years ago. We invite our readers to participate in this annual event which is on September 24-25th, 2005.