The table was set when I arrived. Two crisp white square plates, significant silverware on either side. A salad of mixed greens with deep purple beets warm from roasting, sliced thick.
A white rectangular plate held colorful divisions of vegetables: thick cucumber chunks, soft ripe tomato halves, slithery sweet roasted red peppers, tangy olives and neat white chunks of hearts of palm, drizzled with a balsamic homemade vinaigrette.
There were two other plates – one with four neat symmetrical curry-meat pies wrapped in homemade soft dough and another filled with round fried potato chop balls – exquisite mixtures of the best meat ground by hand at home and Idaho potatoes cooked soft with parsley, salt and pepper for flavor.
We sat. We talked. We ate. Our flavors combined and intertwined, our backgrounds similar but different.
It was a Saturday in fall and I sat at the round table in Samira Cholagh’s home. The “Chaldean Martha Stewart,” as she is known by friends and family, had concocted the most delectable and gorgeous lunch I’d had in a long time. And the conversation was true.
She told me of growing up in
She told me how she tested soil as a career while raising three children as Americans with the rich cultural legacy she’d brought from Iraq and she told me how every inch of her house, her pantry, the clothes hanging in her closet, the drapes adorning her windows – were devised by her eye and her hand.
And now, years later, as her children are grown and she works in the schools, Samira has compiled her hand-hewn recipes into a cookbook for everyone to enjoy.
American-born Chaldean brides get the book as a wedding gift so they can recreate the flavors of their ancestry. Her Arabic-language cookbook was created lovingly so that non-English-speaking emigrants can learn the recipes their children request.
With every dish, she is bridging cultures and making a name for herself in the world of food.
“My kitchen was a lab,” she says of the journey she has almost finished, creating her third cookbook. The photographs for this book were taken by Jewish photographer
The key to Samira’s food is its simplicity. “It’s always flavorful because we don’t play with it so much,” she says, pointing to recipes with a handful of ingredients – mostly vegetables and herbs.
Before I left, Samira placed a thick piece of buttery cake on a glass plate and poured me a hot cup of tea. I slipped the fork into the creamy heft and extracted bites of candied lemon peels (homemade, of course) and pistachio hunks.
We are a generation apart but we are living the same story. “The children will leave you,” she said. “They will go on to their own lives. To this day, I still worry for mine. And I am about to be a grandmother.”
Starting Oct. 6, you’ll find several of Samira’s recipes at Hiller’s Markets in the prepared foods department. 100% of profits from sales of her dishes will go to the Chaldean Foundation’s Refugee program.
It takes a community to build a life.