A Long-Ago Childhood In A Bowl Of Soup
Fri, 04/03/2009
Staff Writer

For some, hamed — the lemony, garlicky, minty staple of Sephardic cuisine — has mystical powers. For this author, it is a taste of home.

I have lost weight, and I think it is simply because I don’t each much anymore.

I have grown tired of my Manhattan eateries, my takeout meals, even my gourmet Glatt Kosher emporium on the East Side, which sells classical Eastern European fare such as cooked brisket and stuffed cabbage.

One day last month, a day when I felt hopelessly sentimental, I made the journey from my home on the Upper East Side to Ocean Parkway to meet an old friend, Marlene Ben Dayan, who is a significant figure in Brooklyn’s Syrian-Egyptian Jewish community. Marlene had been like an older sister to me and to all the little girls in the women’s section of Young Magen David, our immigrant shul on 67th Street.

My mom never taught me how to cook, and so I was never able to reproduce her wonderful dishes when I grew up. She was already ill by then, and helpless. As we drive around Ocean Parkway, I mention to Marlene how much I miss the food of the community, the food of my childhood.

Marlene seems rather surprised, but then, with the can-do attitude that characterized her even as a young girl, she replies that she will teach me how to cook — that she will teach me that afternoon. She will show me how to make hamed.

It is my turn to be surprised. Hamed, or kebbe hamed as it is more formally called, was a staple of my upbringing. I have not eaten it in years. I have rarely even heard the term used, this marvelous dish made of meatballs and vegetables simmered in a lemony, garlicky broth, fragrant with mint. I would eat it a couple of days a week, especially on the Sabbath. My mom always seemed to have a pot of it brewing on the stove.

Yet it is virtually unknown in American Jewish circles, not the kind of dish I can buy in my prepared foods outlets. Even my most inventive friends, those who are gourmet chefs and cook as a hobby, seem not to be familiar with hamed.

Marlene drives to a small street on Kings Highway where we race into Seuda, the Sephardic caterer that has managed to build a popular business catering to a community that prides itself on home-cooking. It is a balancing act, but Seuda has caught on, and these days, it is not uncommon for the community’s stay-at-home moms and housewives to shop there. I mention to the owner that I am from Manhattan: Would he ever deliver? He assures me that he would. Nearby is a small kosher supermarket where Marlene spots what she wanted — packages of kebbe balls — small miniature kosher meatballs that she says are essential to our cooking lesson.

At Marlene’s home, we head into the kitchen. My cooking lesson must begin.

My friend takes a big pot, and begins squeezing lemons by hand: fresh lemons are essential to this dish, she says. One by one she takes out different vegetables from her refrigerator — potatoes, carrots, celery — and begins chopping them up. I mention that my mom would always put artichokes in her hamed, so she brings out a box of frozen artichokes.

All of the vegetables get placed in the pot of boiling lemony water, to which she has added mint and mounds of pressed garlic.

There is a certain fundamental mystery to hamed, Marlene tells me. While all women make it essentially the same way, using identical ingredients, no hamed ever tastes the same; every woman’s hamed tastes slightly different.

Marlene points out that the Bikur Cholim in the community even makes hamed for the sick and takes thermoses of it to Syrian patients around New York to give them sustenance. Marlene tells of a community rabbi, so ill that he couldn’t eat, who was so grateful simply that he could smell the hamed:

“Bring it to me so I could smell the Shabbat,” he said.

Poopa Dweck, author of the celebrated cookbook, “Aromas of Aleppo,” and a member of the community, concurs. Though hamed uses the same ingredients, some women use more lemon, others make it more garlicky. It is, she declares, the most basic dish of a Sephardic household, the one that every young bride must learn how to make.

Dweck believes hamed is imbued with magical powers: it can heal a person, cleanse a body, kill germs. Indeed, it is even considered an aphrodisiac: A wife anxious to conceive is advised to make her husband a steaming pot of delicious hamed.

At some point, I am not sure when, Marlene decides to throw in the actual kebbe balls, the little round meatballs that form the centerpiece of the meal — dozens of these delightful little balls we had purchased earlier from the supermarket.

It is time to make the rice that is the base of any hamed meal. The soup-like concoction is traditionally eaten with rice. Somewhere in the course of the afternoon, Marlene has learned that I make only instant rice at home — the boil-in-a-bag variety — and she seems genuinely shocked, but also completely determined that will change.

If I get nothing else out of my journey to Ocean Parkway, she would like me to learn how cook a pot of basmati rice.

Marlene has kept assuring me throughout that what she is teaching me is simple, that I will be able to do it myself, again, maybe even the next day: prepare an identical meal and have it on the Sabbath table for my husband and me.

She serves me a large bowl of steaming rice and seems to enjoy watching me eat it. But the main course — the enormous pot of hamed — goes directly into a large Tupperware container, which she wraps so that I can take it home.

Back on the East Side later that night, I reheat the hamed and my husband and I begin to eat. Nothing somehow has ever tasted so delicious as Marlene’s hamed.

For one precious evening, I am back, back at my mother’s house, back in her kitchen, back in the community.

Lucette Lagnado is the author of “The Man in a White Sharkskin Suit” (HarperPerennial), a memoir of her Egyptian-Jewish family.

PQ: ‘While all women make it essentially the same way, using identical ingredients, no hamed ever tastes the same; every woman’s hamed tastes slightly different.