My name is Arikhia, not Rita, she said. They say Rita in this country.
That was the first thing my Aunt Rita said when I interviewed her one afternoon several years ago. I was there to ask questions, to listen. And, as it turned out, to eat. There was an unexpected—yet I should have expected—huge lunch set out on the dining room table, just for the two of us. She had been cooking all morning, and yesterday too. Rita is my father’s aunt. From among the many gold-filled transcribed pages of our visit, here are a few little gems:
This is delicious! I said.
You eat, Aunt Rita said, and I’ll talk.
Everyone kept saying Oh Rita, this man wants to meet you and take you to America. His cousin brought him over to the house. He couldn’t speak Arabic, I couldn’t speak English. He was visiting his uncle in Dier Mimas. He was playing it cool. They showed him around to other villages and other girls, but he said no, he wanted the one he saw in Dier Mimas, Arikhia. So they came and asked my hand in marriage. And my mother said well ask her, do you want to marry this man and go to America? He was seventeen years older than me, and I was a teenager. I wanted to go. This was America! Your grandmother Nabeha was my sister, and she was already there and she used to write to us.
What was she like?
She was very emotional, that’s in the family, and she was such a beautiful person. Everyone loved her. In fact I have a picture of her and her sister Adlee. Her blood pressure was high. They didn’t have the medication they have now; she would have lived longer now. Please help yourself to more food.
Please, I’ve had so much.
Honey—you’ve gotta eat.
I’ve had about ten of those cabbage rolls.
No you didn’t have ten.
No no. I’ve had ten. It’s obscene how much I ate. That’s the best cabbage roll I’ve ever eaten. It’s garlicky. Did you put lemon juice on it?
No, I like it just like this. My kids like lemon juice. Do you? Want some more?
No, I have this, and this. What was your dad like, my great-grandfather?
I was daddy’s little girl. And he loved me. My brothers and sisters got jealous of me, because I was his youngest daughter. And I was energetic. And he liked people that were energetic. We talk about it once in a while, my brother Fawaz and Amad and I, how he cared for me. I used to sleep on his arms. He was an old man and I used to sleep on his arm here. He always bragged about me and they hated me for that. He died when I was twelve.
My dad in his old age, he couldn’t travel, and he sold his horse. He had an Arabian horse that he used to ride to go out into the land he owned. The horse was blueish. Blue was the color of the horse, see. We called him blue. Zarha. Then my father’s rheumatism got so bad, he couldn’t do much walking. So he was home most of the time so people came to our house to have coffee and visit with my dad. My dad, he was a historian. He remembered things. He knew things that he used to talk to people about. Telling stories about things that happened in the 1800s, 1860s, 1870s, 1890s, of wars and of massacres or whatever he knew. He was wealthy, self-made, and had a lot of friends in south Lebanon, all of the big shots. He leased land to them, the whole village and the cows. Then when he couldn’t go out, they came to our house. We served coffee, always coffee, and prickly pears on platters like this. And whatever else we had.
We cooked every day. My mother used to make the big bread. Our house was always full of people. I really learned how to cook when I came to this country, from one time to another, one time to another, no recipes, just from memory, how my mother used to do it.
Garlicky Cabbage Rolls
Cabbage rolls are not our most beautiful food, but they are so savory and delectable that their looks are quickly forgiven. Cabbage rolls can be cooked in water, chicken stock, or tomato juice. They can be as garlicky as you like, or not at all. Lemon can be added to the broth or served alongside the rolls, or both. The way to create the best flavor in the rolls is to coax many layers of flavor—by salting the blanching water for the leaves, soaking the rice in the spices for the stuffing, and salting the cooking water. A little butter doesn’t hurt anything, either.
1 head of cabbage leaves, blanched
1 cup converted rice (such as Uncle Ben’s)
4 oz. (1 stick) butter, melted
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for cooking
½ teaspoon pepper
1 lb. ground sirloin
¼ cup water
8-10 garlic cloves, peeled
Prepare the leaves:
Blanch the head of cabbage and remove the leaves one by one. In order to roll the blanched cabbage leaves, the thick rib must be cut out of the center of each leaf. On the small leaves, the rib can simply be shaved down rather than cut out entirely. Then trim the leaves to remove any torn edges and to make some of the larger leaves a more manageable size. Each leaf should be about six inches long. Some will be shorter, and some will be longer. This is fine. Place the trimmings and any very large, dark leaves in the bottom of a medium-sized heavy pot.
Make the stuffing:
Rinse the rice twice to remove some of the starch. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the uncooked rice with the melted butter, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Let this mixture sit for about 10 minutes for the rice to absorb the flavorings. Taste the rice and adjust the seasoning, keeping in mind that the seasoning will also flavor a pound a meat, so it should be strong. Add the meat and mix with the rice mixture until combined. Add the water to loosen the mixture, and combine. To taste the mixture for seasoning, place a small ball of meat in boiling water (use the cooking water from blanching the cabbage) for a minute, then taste and adjust seasoning.
Stuff and cook the leaves:
Lay about a tablespoon of the stuffing on a cabbage leaf and spread the stuffing into a long row lengthwise along the leaf. Roll up the leaf around the meat (no need to tuck the edges). Stuff each leaf in this manner, then place each roll in the prepared pan snugly against one another. Run each layer of rolls in opposite directions. Scatter the garlic cloves over the rolls throughout the pot. Place a small plate over the rolls to hold them down while they cook. Cover with cold water (add lemon to the water if using, or use chicken stock or tomato juice instead of water). Add about 2 tablespoons of salt to the water. Make small meatballs with any leftover stuffing and place those in the pan.
Place the pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Taste and add more salt if needed. Reduce heat to simmer, cover the pot, and cook the leaves until the rice and meat are fully cooked, about 30 minutes. Serve warm with the cooked garlic cloves and labne.
Find a PDF of this recipe here.