Lebanese Hushwe, and from the kitchen, a family farewell for my father

The Lebanese cook their grief. Illness and death call the Lebanese to their kitchens, to their lists on the fridge, to their huge pots and pans that they can lean on, sighing, stirring, spicing, clicking their tongues over the need to make this food now, so heartbreakingly rich and warm.

Other cultures have their responses. But for the Lebanese, the crosses pressed into platters of kibbe are a little deeper, the Arabic blessings over the hands of the cook more fervent. It’s our way of saying: We will not go without a proper send-off, without this day spent in the kitchen kneading the sadness into the dough, boiling the sorrow into the milk, and preparing a full stomach for the journey.

For weeks after my father was diagnosed with terminal illness, family, friends and neighbors crossed our threshold bearing gifts of food. Relatives whose exact connections I have never been sure of came to the house in a steady stream, whispering “hello, honey” with their Arabic accents, and giving a kiss on each cheek.

One day when I went out for the mail, I found a loaf of banana bread in the mailbox. Our cousin Suaad rang the doorbell one quiet early evening and marched in with Tupperware containers of cookies, red Jell-O with whipped cream and freshly baked fatayar. The scent of these golden brown little triangles of dough filled with meat transported me to Sitto, my grandmother gone many years by then. I could see her pushing rosary beads through her fingers like worry beads, and praying, dear God, this should never happen.

There was so much food that our neighbors—Italians who know how to handle large quantities of anything—rented a refrigerator for our garage. Every shelf bulged with containers. The showstopper in this procession was the largest ham I have ever seen. Uncle Fred baked the 28-pound hunk of meat in his own huge oven, slowly and with plenty of basting. For every major family event, from nuptials to burials, large cuts of meat are a typical Abood response. The bigger the emotion, the more enormous the cut of meat.

Uncle Fred struggled as he hoisted the ham, covered in aluminum foil, onto our kitchen table, with the look of accomplishment behind the tears running down his cheeks. My father’s illness and death had brought about a kind of reconciliation among his brothers, who for years had a fractious and mercurial relationship. They had inherited their mother’s passionate temperament, one that refused to be stifled in anger or in love. The brothers’ success in their family law firm was the happy backdrop to the drama of their disputes, ending in an explosive dissolution of their partnership.

In the weeks of his short illness, my father’s two living brothers could not stay away. They came to our house with an outpouring of love—and food. Faduluh, Uncle Fred said, as he walked in. “Come to the table.” He pulled back the foil, letting the savory scent fill the kitchen, and asked for a sharp knife. Slicing away the juicy pink pieces, he offered whoever stood or passed by a piece to sample, enumerating the steps one takes to perfect such a ham.

“You go to Goodrich’s,” he began, looking my sister Peggy right in the eye. “Goodrich will get you whatever cut of meat you want, and it will be the best. “Then you have to get one of these foil baking pans. This makes it easy to take to someone’s house. No pan to retrieve. Pour your pineapple juice over top,” he demonstrated this with an imaginary container of juice. “Every half-hour or so, you’ve got to baste it good with the juices. And, sweetheart, add some more when you see it getting low.”

Uncle Dick, the youngest brother, came to my father’s bedside again and again and sat for hours. He brought groceries, including quantities of thick strip steaks from the butcher. My grandfather had been a butcher, and the Abood brothers knew and loved meat without apology. Their father taught them to grind the reddest, leanest lamb for raw kibbe, eaten in our family on all special occasions.

Before we grilled Uncle Dick’s steaks, he cut off a corner just as my father would have and ate it with a slice of onion. The raw meat was not unlike the brothers, and their sisters, too, in their approach to life: They must taste it raw, to be sure it’s genuinely good.

Father’s Day fell during the last week of my father’s life. He was fighting the weakness caused by cancer but still wanted to eat with the family at the table. He asked for Lebanese chicken and hushwe for his Father’s Day meal, a dish he knew would fill the house with the comforting scent of roasting chicken and the hushwe’s buttery mixture of rice, toasted pine nuts and ground beef. We sat together to eat—my three brothers, my sister and me. My father came in on my mother’s arm and sat at his place quietly, slowly. He looked over the table of steaming Sunday dinner and seemed to be recalling the history of meals placed before him just like this one.

That long, narrow cherry kitchen table and its chairs make up the one set of furniture in our house that never underwent a major facelift or replacement. The table has many leaves and stretches its thin muscles when we’re all at home together. The chairs are bentwood, their cream paint chipped in places to reveal my mother’s love of yellow years ago. You can fit eight easily around the table when it’s not in full leaf, and you don’t much notice the chairs. Their role is simply to hold up the family and the food.

Mom filled my father’s plate with small portions of everything. He listened to us all talking and never did raise his fork to his mouth. After a short time, he whispered, in a most somber manner, that he needed to lie down again. We shared his sorrow in leaving the table; he would not sit with us at the table again. Once he was settled on the couch, without speaking, we each took our plates into the family room and sat together, eating, around him there.

This essay was my first food-related publication, which happened to include a recipe for hushwe. It appeared in the Washington Post in 2004. The Association of Food Journalists awarded the essay first place in one of its competitions that year, and the essay won me the Greenbrier Scholarship to the Symposium for Professional Foodwriters. So among other things, hushwe brings good luck.

Lebanese Roast Chicken and Hushwe
The chicken can be made in a number of ways—roasted, poached, baked pieces. A store-bought roasted chicken also saves the day when necessary. Chicken broth can be poured off from the roasted chicken (spoon off excess fat), or the broth from a poaching chicken can be used. Or, you can use the chicken stock you’ve made and keep on hand in your freezer. If that is a hilarious thought, purchased chicken broth is your friend. According to the hunters at CASS Prairie Farms in South Dakota, pheasant hushwe is just as delicious as chicken.

For the chicken:
3- to 4-pound chicken, giblets and neck removed
1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
Olive oil
Garlic powder
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ cup water

For the hushwe:
1 pound lean ground beef or lamb
½ tablespoon cinnamon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup long-grain white rice
6 tablespoons butter
2 cups chicken broth
3/4 cup pine nuts (may substitute slivered almonds)

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Pat the chicken dry. Place it in a large roasting pan with ½ cup of water surrounding the chicken. Stuff the onion in the cavity. Rub a couple of tablespoons of oil over the skin to coat and season lightly with paprika, garlic powder, salt and pepper.

Roast the chicken until it the juices run clear when the chicken is pierced, and the meat reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 1 hour. Meanwhile, baste the chicken every 15 minutes.

To toast the nuts, in a small skillet over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon of butter. Add the nuts and cook, stirring constantly, until golden brown. Remove from the heat. Salt lightly. Try not to eat all of the nuts now—you’ve made them for the hushwe.

While the chicken is roasting, make the hushwe: In a large dutch oven or sauté pan over medium heat, cook the ground beef, using a wooden spoon to crumble it, until no trace of pink remains.

Season the beef with cinnamon, salt and pepper to taste and stir to combine. Add the rice and 2 tablespoons butter and cook, still over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the butter melts and the rice kernels are completely coated. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Do not stir while cooking.

Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and set aside until cool enough to handle. Remove and discard the skin. Shred the chicken into bite-size pieces.

Add the chicken, 1/2 cup of the toasted nuts, remaining 5 tablespoons butter (or more, if you prefer) and plenty of salt and pepper to the hot rice mixture and stir to combine. Sprinkle with the remaining nuts and serve immediately.

Hushwe is excellent served with a romaine salad dressed with lemon vinaigrette, thin pita bread, and labne.

Find a PDF of this recipe here.

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34 Responses to Lebanese Hushwe, and from the kitchen, a family farewell for my father

  1. Celine says:

    What a beautiful article and such a sweet picture of you and your dad! Brings tears to my eyes.

  2. Gena Sandy says:

    I remember reading your poignant and so touching Washington Post article, and reading it here again brought just as many tears. Chicken and hushwe is an expectation whenever my children and grandchildren come for dinner. Your Aunt Pat, (Mrs. Fred Abood) gave me her recipe many years ago (in the 1970s). Just as your brother Tom likes to use pheasant in his hushwe, I sometimes substitute wild turkey breast for the chicken, and I always use ground venison rather than beef (simply because the wild turkey and deer hunters in my family keep my freezer full). Thanks for the memories, and for the reminder about the cinnamon, and for suggesting it’s okay to use nuts other than or as well as pine nuts.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      How great that your family loves the hushwe, and that you make it with the meat from the hunt!! Thank you for reading and commenting Gena. It’s so nice to know you are here.

  3. Diane Nassir (My maternal grandmother was an Abowd) says:

    Dearest Maureen,
    This brought tears to my eyes. You evoke so beautifully our Lebanese culture through our food and emotions. I am sending to my beautiful family (sister, nieces, nephews and their children–all Abowds on my mother’s side–my maternal grandmother was from Ammun. Lebanon).
    Blessings Always.
    Diane Nassir

  4. The interweaving of compassion, love of family, food-as-love and stunning writing make this my favorite of your writings, Maureen. As I recall, the original story floated you to the Symposium for Professional Food
    Writers, too. May good luck and compassion be yours all the days of your life. Love, Toni

    • Maureen Abood says:

      And yours to Antonia. Your editorial eye on this essay is what brought it all together, plus your wise advice all of these years on the path to…joy. Yes! This essay did win the Greenbrier Scholarship!!! I will add that to the post….I was very proud of that and still am.

  5. Geralyn Lasher says:

    I have kept this article in my drawer ever since you were first published in the Post all those years ago and I read it often. It again brought tears to my eyes as I read it today thinking of the similarities betweeen my Dad and yours.
    Love–g or as your father called me “geraldine”

  6. Karine Keldany says:

    Your essay is so heart felt and so warm. It brought tears to my eyes. I so relate to your stories. Loved the picture of you and your dad. He has a very sunny smile. May he rest in peace and his memories linger for decades to come. I always say, God choses the best next to him. Right?
    In our family we call this recipe “roz bel khalta”. :)

    I lost my dear Grandmother (Mémé as we called her) 3 years ago and had written a similar essay about family and food in Siro-Lebanese families. I wrote about her and how food united us. I had joined the recipe of Molokheye and our way of making it. I then had sent it to Saveur magazine, as they were publishing some of the articles of readers. Sadly, my article was not chosen. Could I send it to you for our opinion?

  7. Sofia Perez says:

    Like everyone else, I also cried when I read this (even though I was sitting in a conference room waiting for a work meeting to start!..I quickly dabbed my eyes before the others arrived). Your dad was surely a wonderful person, and I know you miss him terribly, but what a wonderful homage. I never knew him, but between this piece and the one about the “coosa” nickname, I’m starting to form a beautiful image of him.

  8. Roger Toomey says:

    I’ll try to pass on the emotion and give a roasted chicken/turkey idea since it is the turkey time of the year.

    Have you tried preparing the bird and then putting it in a brown paper grocery bag, then in another bag going the other direction so it is totally covered, and then on a rack in the roasting pan? The paper bag seems to baste the turkey and brown it just right. Don’t peak until the time is done for it to be cooked. It seems to work every time and no work constantly watching it.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Roger, you are the second one to tell me about roasting in the paper bag!! I’m going to have to give it a whirl. I’m amazed that there is no fire hazard involved!!

      • Roger Toomey says:

        I have an electric oven and bake the turkey at (I think without looking it up) 375 which is below the burning point of paper (and the burning point of the oil which is there under normal conditions) (the bottom and sides of the bag are obviously soaked in oil) . (22 minutes per pound) But I wouldn’t want it to touch the heating elements so don’t turn on the broiler. I worried about it the first time I tried it also, but slathered on a pound of butter with all of the herbs and spices mixed in (make sure to put some under the breast skin) putting the extra inside the bird. And it came out great. The biggest problem today is getting a paper shopping bag. But I noticed at self checkout at my local grocery they were available so before each holiday I use a couple for my groceries.

        • Maureen Abood says:

          This is so interesting Roger…thanks for all of the tips on roasting in the bag. I will give it a whirl!!

        • Judy says:

          You can also use a large brown envelope. That’s what us ‘girls’ at work used as we had plenty at work. It’s amazing how well it turns out.

  9. What a sweet story. Isn’t it amazing how food conjures up memories, and really lives from generation to generation. I’ve noticed that especially in my family, food is what really keeps us together. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I will defnitely try your hashweh recipe out.

  10. Rachel Rabideau Lipinski says:

    This is such a beautiful story. I saw your picture of hushwe on my old babysitter Holly Nakfoor’s facebook page and had to look at your website. Our good family friends, the Farhats, brought us hushwe when my grandfather died and it truly was the most comforting food. Although I don’t have an ounce of Lebanese blood in me, I can’t wait to try your recipe and add it to my repertoire of comfort food! Thanks for sharing!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Rachel, that is so neat. Thank you for reading and for sharing your memory of hushwe! I’m sure when you make it you will enjoy it as much as you remember. All the best to you.

  11. Alberta says:

    Wow Maureen !! What a beautiful story can’t hold back the tears yourDad was the King of all Kings a remarkable man. Miss and love him too your amazing Maureen keep up the great cooking and stories. Love you.

  12. Maurenn you are right about our food bringing us all together wether in times of celebration or great sadness. I never saw this until today and it brought tear’s to my eye’s. Not only for your sadness but my own as well. God Bless.

  13. G'dette Izzen says:

    Truer words were never spoken that the Lebanese cook their grief. I’ve just finished baking 36 loaves of bread, all done in tribute to my father on this 22nd Father’s Day that he has been gone. Your words will remain with me today and beyond, dear one. And thank you for such a beautiful expression of love!

    (Hushwe was the first dish I learned to make as a young girl. It was always my favorite and remains so to this day!)

  14. Diane Nassir (My maternal grandmother was an Abowd) says:

    Maureen, eyes stinging from hot tears–you speak for us all. Memory eternal to our Fathers–our guardians, our first teachers, and, our first friends!

  15. michaela says:

    what a beautiful post…thank you for sharing. I have been thinking about you and your family all day, and I cant wait to try this recipe.

  16. lisa kargatis scalzo says:

    I loved your article. My father was also taken by cancer and when he was hospitalized I would always make him his favored dishes such as hushwe grapeleaves, kibbee,etc. The night he passed, we had a large spread of our ethnic foods right in his hospital room. I make these dishes frequently, and when I do, I can feel my father and my Sitti right by my side!

  17. Steve says:

    Your post regarding your father is very emotional and inspiring. It truly epitomizes the Lebanese traditions. Thank you for sharing.

    On a side note, hushwe makes an excellent base for Lebanese Green Beans, the fully caramelized ones. There is an adequate amount of meat (ground lamb) in the hushwe so that cubed lamb is not needed for the beans.

  18. Judy says:

    Your beautifully written piece on your father reminded me of when I lost mine. 21 years ago I was amicably divorced and decided that at the end of the year I would go to England for my parents to see I was fine. I eas to fly out on the 30th December. On the 26th my mother phoned to tell me my father had had a massive stroke. She phoned me the next day to say he’d passed away that night. I felt almost angry with him for not waiting for me. The tears have just started. The funeral was delayed until I got there. I still feel so – I
    don’t know how to put it – that I wasn’t there to say goodbye and always felt if I hadn’t got divorced maybe he wouldn’t have died but I know that’s not the case. I see your father was special to you too.

  19. Tara Boutross says:

    Hi Maureen,

    I just love your site. How many people will this serve approx?

    With thanks,

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Thanks so much Tara! This makes about 8 servings, but in terms of people, I’d make this amount for 4 people to have plenty, double it for eight.


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