It’s the Saturday evening of Easter weekend, and I’m sitting on the living room floor watching the Arabic version of Cartoon Network. It’s an imperfect translation of the "The Powerpuff Girls," but as always, I’m transfixed by the colorful visuals. My attention starts to drift from the superpowered trio of Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup as I hear the drawn-out sprays of my grandmother applying her hairspray and perfume.
It’s almost time.
Her freshly applied perfume creeps into the room, pulling my gaze away from the television right as she walks in. Carrying a small black bag, she looks at me and asks if I have a dollar to donate to the church. Knowing the answer before I can say anything, she hands me a dollar and we're off to service.
I hate going to church on this night, the longest service of the year. My grandmother sits in the third bench from the front, and has me sit beside her. All I want to do is play in the back benches with the other kids, but every time I glance back she gives me a slap to remind me: that’s where the devil belongs.
“Al-Masīḥ qām,” the congregation chants. Jesus is risen. We're then handed a red egg that symbolizes the blood of Christ. This marks the start of our feast and the cracking of eggs.
Sitting next to my grandmother at the feast, I overhear endless disputes between her and her girlfriends, the most notable being how to properly plate the riz a jej, a traditional Lebanese chicken and rice dish. It's so close I can almost smell it: basmati rice spiced with bahārāt, a special seven-spice blend of black pepper, paprika, cumin, coriander, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cardamom, then cooked in homemade chicken stock and finished with a smattering of toasted nuts.
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To refrain from cooking meat on Good Friday, Grandma Odette would always begin on the Thursday prior. She'd roast the chicken, then shred the meat and make a stock with the bones. I'd come home from school to the smell of chicken stock and know immediately that riz a jej was on the horizon.
I'd sit in the kitchen at her blue-and-white tablecloth-lined table and watch as she fried the medley of nuts in separate batches, starting with the pine nuts. She'd catch the oil while it wasn’t too hot, so as not to burn their delicate nature. Then came the pistachios, walnuts, cashews, and almonds (in that order). She'd have a big metal tray lined with paper towels where she'd lay out all the nuts. I'd snatch a handful, and she'd yell at me, "At this rate they'll never make it to Sunday!"
Then, my kitchen privileges would be revoked (but only for a while).
Easter Sunday. Photo by Edouard Massih.
At 4 a.m. on Sunday morning, walking back from the late-night feast at our church, bellies and hearts full, we'd all grab a bit of rest before meeting Odette to ready for our Easter feast. She'd sauté the onions, beef, and spices and maneuver her wooden spoon like a wand, as I sat mesmerized by the aromas and the pristine condition of her still-perfect hair. Finally came the rice, bay leaves, and chicken stock. I'd be torn, running between playing games with my cousins and checking on Odo and her rice.
Eventually, it'd be time for the plating. Everyone has a specific tradition for plating riz a jej. I’m a little biased, but my grandmother’s was the best. It was perfectly proportioned and maintained its crunchy texture from the nuts. When you put your spoon through it, you'd get the ideal amount of chicken, rice, and nuts in every spoonful. Odette called her plating mechanism “the ultimate cake, due to the masterful layering.
Photo by Edouard Massih.
The unmolding was a ritual in and of itself. Odo would ask us all to step away from the kitchen table, kicking everyone out but me. I'd sit on the countertop and watch as she mumbled her prayers under her breath, ready to flip the rice cake. I'd hold my breath, listening to her continuous prayers as she shimmied the rice from the mold. Finishing off with the perfect layer of shredded chicken, she'd toss the nuts on luxuriously, creating a ring all over and around the riz e jej. It was always served with Greek yogurt for tang. Bringing this masterpiece to the table, amongst the plethora of her other incredible dishes, was the okay for mouths to water, and for the feast to begin.
Today, I stand in the basement kitchen of my home in Greenpoint, and am taken back to those Easter feasts as my kitchen fills with the aromas of the bahārāt and fried nuts. Odette’s riz a jej now travels across dinner tables and events that I cater, spreading her passion for food and flavors. It has wowed me to see the response my grandmother’s cooking has garnered from all those who have tried it, and it makes me gleam with joy to think that she is still alive, here and now, through her cooking.
Riz a Jej (Lebanese Chicken & Rice)
Serves: 4 to 6 people
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup onion, chopped
2 pounds ground beef or lamb
2 cups long-grain white rice
2 tablespoons salt
4 tablespoons bahārāt (seven-pepper spice)
4 cups shredded rotisserie chicken
5 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup cashews
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup slithered almonds
1/4 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup pistachios