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Shedding Light on Shephardic, Mizrahi and North African Jewish Food and Culture

“Kitchen Radio” was released by Reboot Studios on April 3
[additional-authors]
April 13, 2023
Hosts Nathalie (l) and Regine Basha (center) with the Sephardic Spice Girls. Photo by Regine Basha

When Regine and Nathalie Basha, creators of the “Kitchen Radio” podcast, started talking about doing a show together, they wanted to find a way to share their heritage and history. The duo, who happen to be aunt and niece, respectively, decided to do that through food.

“We’ve been finding that so many people out there … besides our own interest, have been creating food blogs and reviving their Arab Jewish history through food,” Regine  told the Journal. “We thought the best thing to do is just start interviewing people who are doing this as well.”

“Kitchen Radio” was released by Reboot Studios on April 3. In each episode, hosts Regine (Founder of “Tuning Baghdad”) and Nathalie Basha (The Travel Muse) feature a dish and a conversation to introduce the still little-known Jewish culture of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. 

Tannaz Sassooni making the Persian rice and poultry dish Gondi Kashi kicked off the season. Jewish Journal columnists The Sephardic Spice Girls, as well as cookbook author Claudia Roden and artist Rafram Chaddad also appear  on Kitchen Radio’s first season. New episodes will be released every Tuesday in April.

When we would tell people that we are Iraqi Jewish, most people would say, ‘What does that even mean? How can you be both?’”– Nathalie Basha

“When we speak about Jewishness and Jewish food, at least here in the U.S., we automatically go to Ashkenazi Jewish,” Nathalie  told the Journal. “When we would tell people that we are Iraqi Jewish, most people would say, ‘What does that even mean? How can you be both?’ So we thought that would be a really interesting way to start this conversation.”

Food has been an integral part of the hosts’ upbringing. Regine and Nathalie remember the open houses  “Aunt Daisy,” a family friend from the Iraqi Jewish community, would host every Saturday.  

“Basically, it would just be a smorgasbord of food,” Nathalie said. “Anybody who wanted to come from  10 a.m. until whenever would just come.” 

There would be tea flowing, cheese, fruits and platters of Iraqi delicacies, along with the sharing of stories and history.  

“It was such a positive, happy moment in both of our childhoods and even going into early adulthood,” she said. “When it stopped, we were like, ‘Who’s going to do this? Who’s going to keep this tradition?’” 

Regine and Nathalie are thrilled to share the little known foods they grew up with and the history behind them. 

“Getting this information out there is like inviting everybody else into this really colorful, beautiful world of Arabic Jewish food,” Nathalie said. 

Nathalie’s favorite dish is a dessert called Konafa, which is featured in episode four with Claudia Roden, an Egyptian-born British cookbook writer and cultural anthropologist of Sephardi/Mizrahi descent.

“It’s a kind of ubiquitous Middle Eastern dessert,” Nathalie said. “Everyone, meaning every country, tries to claim that they were the originators of Konafa.” 

Made with white cheeses — depending on your family’s region or country, the cheese mix changes —- sandwiched between pressed down vermicelli-like noodles, drenched in butter and cooked until it’s “really crispy, and the cheese inside gets very, very melty,” Nathalie said. 

When the dish comes out of the oven, you spoon a simple syrup, usually enhanced with rose water or orange blossom, all over it.

“I can’t even describe how good it smells,” Nathalie said. “But it hits all the notes that you want in a dessert: it’s crunchy, it’s salty, it’s sweet, it’s chewy.” 

Just like that dessert, Regine and Nathalie hope their podcast enhances all of the senses, while giving listeners a delicious taste of history.

“What we tried to do is really focus on one dish [per episode],” Regine said. “In most cases we were in the kitchen with our guests, and they were making and talking through that dish.”

“At the end of every podcast, you’re going to want to eat everything we talked about,” Nathalie said. 

Go to Rebooting.com/kitchen-radio to learn more and get the Companion Cookbook. Subscribe to Kitchen Radio on your favorite podcast platform.

Konafa (Tamer Soliman/Getty Images)

Konafa A La Creme with Claudia Roden

“This crispy vermicelli-like pastry with a cream filling, which is eaten hot with fragrant syrup poured over, was an important party dish in our community in Egypt, as it was in Syria. Muslims made it with a bland white cheese, Jews favored a cream filling with ground rice.” — Claudia Roden, “The Book of Jewish Food”

1/2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups water
2 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp orange-blossom water

For the Dough
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon rice flour
5 1/2 cups cold milk
4 tablespoons sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream (optional)

For the Pastry
1 lb konafa (kadaif)*
8 oz unsalted butter, melted
2/3 cup pistachios,
coarsely chopped, to garnish

*Konafa/kadaif pastry may be difficult to find. Check a local middle eastern market or Mediterranean bakery.

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2. Make the syrup first. Boil the sugar, water, and lemon juice for 10-15 minutes, then add the orange-blossom water. Let it cool, then chill in the refrigerator.
3. For the filling, mix the rice flour with enough of the cold milk to make a smooth paste. Heat the rest of the milk to a boil. Add the rice flour paste, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon. Leave on very low heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring constantly at first until the mixture thickens, being careful not to scrape the bottom of the pan as it usually burns a little. Add the sugar and stir well. Let it cool before adding the heavy cream and mixing well.
4. Put the konafa pastry in a large bowl and pull the strands apart to loosen them. Pour the melted butter over it and work it in very thoroughly with your fingers, pulling out and separating the strands and turning them over so they do not stick together and are entirely coated with butter.
5. Spread half the pastry at the bottom of a 12-inch pie pan. Spread the cream filling over it evenly and cover with the rest of the pastry. Press down and flatten with the palm of your hand. Bake at 350°F for about 45 minutes. Then raise the temperature to 425°F for about 15 minutes until the pastry colors slightly.
6. Just before serving, run a sharp knife around the edges of the pie to loosen the sides and turn out onto a large serving dish. Pour the cold syrup all over the hot konafa, and sprinkle the top with chopped pistachios.

Go to Rebooting.com/kitchen-radio to learn more and get the Companion Cookbook. Subscribe to Kitchen Radio on the Reboot Presents podcast channel on your favorite podcast platform.

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