At Sindbad, the Iraqi Market on Forest Avenue near Woodford Street, I was looking for fine bulgur. It’s a pre-cooked, ground form of wheat used for making tabbouleh. I asked the cashier with black hair and big square black glasses: “Do you have bulgur?” He looked at me quizzically. He took in my brown hair, light skin, American accent, and absence of headscarf. He asked around to fellow customers in Arabic what they thought I might mean. “Ah!” He then said, motioning for me to follow. He opened up the chest freezer and pointed out a package of frozen burgers.
“Not burgers,” I laughed. “Bulgur!” I tried to pronounce it the way my Lebanese cooking teacher had. “Bergool?” “Ah!” he said again, smiling and leading me to another part of the store. In the bulgur aisle I got my stash of Number 1 fine ground bulgur. As we were both smiling at our mutual success, I asked the cashier if he happened to know a Syrian cook who could teach me how to cook a dish. He said he didn’t, but his Iraqi wife would be happy to cook with me. They’d come here a year and four months ago because Iraq had become too dangerous to raise a family. She was home all day without a car and wanted to practice her English, so she would probably enjoy my company in their kitchen.
When I met his wife at their home, she was wearing a nightgown and pink slippers. She wore dangling gold earrings and a necklace carrying a cursive word in gold: “Asraa,” her name. The couple introduced me to their young boys and baby girl, and then Asraa and I cooked an Iraqi pastry together, called klejeh.
First, she proofed active dry yeast with a little warm water and sugar. In a large bowl she mixed flour, oil, sugar, the yeast, milk, vanilla, and ground green cardamom. She kneaded this into dough with her hands until the dough pulled cleanly away from the side of the bowl. Then she covered the bowl with plastic wrap and a towel. Next she made the filling. She took the pits out of dates with her fingers and kneaded the dark date meat with a little butter and white sesame seeds until the date mass was evenly speckled. She rolled the date mixture into cylinders about the thickness of a pencil — just as you would make snakes out of Play-Doh.
She rolled out the pastry dough into a big circle, about an eighth of an inch thick. She rolled the top of the dough over one of the date pieces and then rolled over another. Then she cut off the rolled, date-stuffed strip. She made diagonal slits on it for decoration and brushed on egg wash so the sprinkled nigella seeds would stick on. They looked like black sesame seeds but tasted like mild cumin. They’re from a flower in the same family as the buttercup, and have been cultivated for at least 4000 years. Funny to be learning about them just now. She cut the roll into bite-sized pieces and baked the klejeh until golden. They tasted, according to my daughter who tried the batch Asraa sent home with me, “Peppery but sweet.” I liken them to a homemade, non-industrial Fig Newtons, only prettier, peppier, and made with dates. They’re great with coffee or tea. When they were done, she asked when I would come to cook again. The cashier chimed in, “Anytime. Anytime.” I’m looking forward to it already.
For this recipe and live cooking class info, visit immigrantkitchens.com.