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Why am I cooking grape leaves?
Michelle Nasrine Kemp
by Michelle Nasrine Kemp
June 18th, 2014 (4 Comments)
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Like all good Arab daughters, I too have dabbled in the realm of Arabic cooking. So what food did I decide to make that would be my signature dish? Warak Dawali (stuffed grape leaves) and Kusa Mihshi (stuffed squash), of course! Not only are these my favorite Arabic meals of all time, they looked super easy to make. Even though my mom lived 2 hours away, I said to myself, “I got this!”

My husband and kids are picky eaters, so I did not even try to make them eat this. I was going to make them for me and for any friend that dares to try them. I would impress all my neighbors and relatives with pictures of my big pot of grape leaves and stuffed squash posted on Facebook. All of my cousins would be wishing that they lived closer for a bite to eat.

Every once in a while, I get a craving for them, and when I eat Kusa and Warak Dawali, it feels like I am home again. I can remember driving around Flint, Michigan when I was a little girl with my Teita.  She pulled over to park under an expressway yelled at me to help her. “Yella Nasrine! Ti-alley hone! (Come here!) Help me pick these leaves!” I’d think, “Ok, so I guess we're having grape leaves from the abandoned highway tonight. Yum!” Whatever it took, I would find the ones that passed my Teita’s inspection.

Since I didn’t want to drive around looking for wild grape leaves, I ventured out to my nearest Arabic food market. The grape leaves that I picked for dinner were pre-packaged in a jar. Sorry Teita, but it’s a matter of convenience.

Next, I picked out some fresh Kusa squash. Not too big, not too small. I already have a tool that carves out the inside of the squash from my mom. If you don’t have one, you should ask your parents, because they probably have 10 of them in the utensil drawer.

After I got the ground meat, rice and 7-spice, I headed home to prepare. Now, this is when I made a call to my mom. She loves Skype, but usually I call her and Skype at the same time because it takes 10 minutes for her to figure out how the computer works. But that is another story!

Anyway, she told me to boil the leaves really well and rinse them a few times. Then she explained how to mix the rice, spices and meat.  Then she said I should taste it. What? I am not doing that.   My mom would taste it and season it before cooking, but the thought of tasting raw meat and rice was unappealing to me. But, this is old school cooking, and that’s what they did.

Next, it was time to stuff and roll the leaves up into what I think looks like cigars. As a kid, I used to pretend I was smoking them like cigars before taking a big bite.  Hey, you did it too!

I had high hopes that maybe I inherited the tricks of the trade for rolling a tight (but not too tight) dawali. My mom and Teita had me doing this since I could remember, so it all came back to me. Well, some of the memory is fuzzy, but I think I did pretty well. I carved the Kusa and rolled leaves like a champ. I also covered the pot with a plate (even though I had a lid) and filled the right amount of water like how I remembered my mom doing it. I let it slowly simmer for hours.

After I saw that the leaves turned darker, I thought about biting into one. So I took one out.  It unraveled in my hand! Where did I go wrong? Another one was bursting, with rice and meat coming out of the sides. And then the spices were off and the rice was mushy. I just spent all day making a disaster!

So I called my mom back and she said to wait until she came over to visit and she would make me some. But that was not the point. I wanted to make it perfectly. So I kept trying, and the next time it was a little better. I was the only one who ate them, so I didn’t care if it was a little off. No one would notice in the pictures, and I could brag to my family and friends that I did it myself.

Now, when I get a craving for Warak Dawali and Kusa, I know just what to do. I learned how to make it over time with practice and patience. I learned that you have to make Arabic food with love and care. You have to make sure all the ingredients are just right and taste-test it to know what to add. I will remember all the little things, like not to roll them too tight or too loose. Also, I will not to forget the Laban (yogurt) for dipping. Yes, when I get homesick and want some comfort food I’ll know just what to do. I’ll go to the Arabic food market and order some from Mary, because she makes it just like my mom.

Here's a recipe for those who want to experiment.

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* Michelle Nasrine Kemp is a wife, mother of 2, advertising sales rep, and writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Comments (4)
  1. Love it! Warak anib is one of my all time favorites.

    Love the part about cooking with love and care. My wife claims that the love she puts into her cooking is her secret ingredient…just like her mom did.

    But c’mon. You were hesitant to try the raw meat? Have you not been exposed to kibbe niyeh? That’s in the Arab food hall of fame for me.

  2. Ha Ha!! Grapes leaves from the abandoned highway, that was spot on, and honestly they are the only grape leaves one should eat. Those jar ones look like they were injected with hormones or steroids. lol

  3. Thanks! And I love kibbe…. but baked or fried are my favorites. I appreciate the time and work that is put into making these dishes after trying to make them myself. I remember my neighbors had grape leaves growing by their pool and I picked them and cooked them….for some reason they came out tough and chewy that time. I really think I’ll keep trying but going to the market, picking up a dozen from the deli is so much easier!

  4. I just got a nice email:
    Hello and thanks for your fun article about cooking grape leaves.

    Many years ago in Palestine, I met another foreigner who also was married to a Palestinian and we often shared “sames” and “un-sames” of the culture and our respective origins, usually as we sat making grape leaves or kibbee. (My family’s matriarch had 7 children, and always cooked enough for the next day’s main meal, as well.)

    She told me the story of the FIRST-ever foreign lady (i.e., woman) to come to the Middle East to live. Regrettably, she was No Lady and was caught seriously criminally misbehaving and she was eventually sentenced to life in prison –

    Sadly pondering her fate and how to spend her remaining years in prison, she finally perked up: “I have it!” She ‘eureka’d’. “I SHALL INVENT ARABIC COOKING!” and did.

    So perhaps we have her to thank!

    Loved your article. Many thanks!

    (Tried to leave a comment but my computer has a mind of its own and disconnected me.)

    Best wishes

    Lane Pope


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