The Middle-Eastern way in cooking is to use simple, natural ingredients grown (or raised) close to where the cook lives. And in the village communities of the Galilee, traditional recipes – the ones passed down intact from mother to daughter, from one neighbor to another, over centuries – are cooked the same way each time.
You won’t see fusion cooking or dishes jazzed up to suit modern trends in Arab, Druze, or Circassian village homes. The families would simply refuse to eat them. That’s not how they remember their mother’s food. Memories preserve culture, so we’re grateful for those stubborn husbands and kids that resist innovative cooking. Original recipes would get lost otherwise.
With Rosh HaShanah approaching, you might consider cooking Sinyeh for one of the festive meals. It’s rich but not cloying, and almost a complete meal by itself. Just make a simple rice, mix up a leafy salad, and there, you’re done. A traditional dish borrowed from the Druze might become a welcome innovation on your yom tov menu.
Although the name in Arabic is sinyeh, in Israel, Sephardic families who learned it from Arab neighbors call it sinyah. Either way, the word means baking pan. This way of cooking ground meat with tahini seems to be particularly Druze and Armenian.
You’ll see that the recipe calls for ground lamb fat, if you can get it. Here in Israel, many butchers sell ground beef with lamb fat in it.When I made sinyeh at home, that’s what I used. If you’re determined to grind your own lamb fat, you can find round disks of it in Middle Eastern supermarket freezers. Apart from the way fat binds ingredients together, lamb fat gives a characteristic, Middle-Eastern down-home flavor. Still, olive oil substitutes just fine. We do what we can with what we have, which is really the principle behind traditional recipes like this anyway.
Sohweelah uses a stand-alone grill for the kebab’s first cooking phase.
Adding only a very little olive oil to the tray, she begins to grill.
While the kebabs are browning, she slices colorful fresh vegetables.
When the patties are browned and releasing a little juice,
she layers the vegetables over them,
gently pours the prepared tahini in,
and shuts the grill. The kebabs will continue cooking for another 15 minutes, until the sauce turns golden at the edges. That’s the signal that the sinyeh is ready.
I assume that most of us don’t have such a grill in our homes, so I’ve adapted the recipe Paul Nirens gave me, which uses a skillet and then the oven.
Sinyeh – Kebab Patties Baked in Tahini
Ingredients for kebabs
1 kg/2 lbs ground lamb, beef, turkey or chicken, coarsely ground
2 tablespoons olive oil or, if available, 25 gr./1 oz. ground lamb fat
1/2 onion, chopped fine or grated into the meat
1 heaping teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1/2 bunch fresh parsley, chopped fine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper.
2 cups (use unprocessed tahini paste straight from the jar, preferably whole-grain)
Juice of 2 lemons
1 cup of cold water (important that it be cold)
1 large clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
Note: do not use store-bought ready-to-eat tahini. It will separate in cooking and look awful. Mix your own as described above.
1 onion, sliced
1 bell pepper, any color, sliced
1 large tomato, sliced
1 lemon, sliced thinly
Mix all the kebab ingredients. Cover and put in refrigerator to mellow for 1/2 an hour at least.
Prepare the tahini. Mix all the ingredients, stirring with a whisk. The mixture might be lumpy at first. Don’t worry; keep stirring. If it is too thick, add a little more cold water. The consistency should be thin. It will thicken with cooking.
Correct taste. It should be lemony.
Preheat oven to 180˚C. – 350˚F.
Roll kebabs into 5 cm/2″ balls. Sauté, in batches, in olive oil until browned on both sides but not cooked through. Remove to a platter.
Add the onion and bell pepper to the hot oil used for frying the kebabs. Fry 2-3 minutes until onion just starts to change color.
Place kebabs on a clean frying pan (or oven tray). Cover with fried onion and bell pepper slices. Scatter sliced tomato and lemon over all.
Pour tahini over the kebabs and jostle the pan a little so it seeps between the kebabs and spreads evenly. Place the frying pan over medium heat or oven tray in oven.
Cook for 5 minutes, until the tahini thickens and changes color from white to light brown. Look for the golden-tinged edges.
Serve with plenty of pita to mop up the delicious sauce.