I spent my childhood in Damascus, Syria, before immigrating to the United States as a teenager for college, work and freedom.
Even though I’ve lived in America for nearly 40 years, my mind often goes back to those days back home, especially my iconic Syrian summers, which really weren’t that different from most American kids’ vacations. My friends and I would play soccer for hours on end in broken shoes. We rode the bike with no gear, just a big and lonely ring. We pedaled as fast as we could, flying up homemade ramps and crashing into the dirt. It hurt, sure, but we laughed and repeated until our elbows and knees begged us to stop.
When I returned home, my mother would demand a shower while I made every excuse known to naughty boys, whose aversion to cleanliness is the stuff of legend.
“But I’m clean, Mom,” I told her, showing her the hands I’d just washed. Undeterred, she ran her fingers down my neck and pointed out the dirt marks. Failed again! After a grueling shower, I’ll be ready to eat something that I, and most kids, eat regularly: a real home-cooked meal.
Mom was (and still is) an experienced cook, and everything that came out of her kitchen was exceptional, in my completely unbiased opinion. One of my favorite dishes was ma’lubay, an eggplant casserole also spelled maqluba, which means “flip over” in Arabic. The funny name comes from its preparation, which requires such a precarious task that only brave chefs (or an incredibly strong boy) would attempt it.
To cook maloobé, my mother would cut the eggplant lengthwise, dust it with flour and cook it in olive oil. In another pan, she browned the vermicelli and basmati rice, then tossed the mixture over the eggplant. Next, the spices: salt and pepper, of course, then some secret blend of cumin, sumac, cardamom, turmeric, saffron and coriander – all her favorite Arabic touches. Finally, she covers the pan with water and cooks until done (no timer required).
Here’s where I come in, ready to execute a step only a minor hero could possibly pull off. Mother said “Karim!” And I ran into the kitchen, aglow with anticipation. At his gesture, I take a deep breath and grab a pot covered with a serving plate on both sides. My lips pursed, my muscles clenched, with all my might, I flipped the pan over and placed it on the table.
Mom would smile and take away the serving plate as I beamed with pride, as if I had slain Goliath. The steam will rise, now revealing hunks of eggplant on top – think pineapple upside down cake – sprinkled with roasted almonds and, on occasion, pine nuts.
Mouth watering, I scoop a large serving onto a plate and inhale every last bit of that magical food.
Yes, it’s magical, mainly because it seems like only my mom could cook it right. Since coming to this country in 1984, I have tried hundreds of times to replicate this dish. The result is satisfying, but never the same. I have tried everything using almost the same amount of the same spices (mom never measured). I have also bought eggplant from an Arabic shop, but my dish is always small.
I tried again earlier this week. To my credit, it tasted pretty good. Yet I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Mother’s League was and is good.
Whenever I ask her what she does, she laughs, saying: “Just add a little love, a dash of soul and a stir.”
However, my kids love my version of this dish and request it every time they visit. My now grown daughter thinks I’m the best cook on the planet because of my malubey. She posts it on Instagram, posts it on Snapchat, and sends pictures to her friends with comments like: “OMG! Baba’s (Dad’s) Malube. Best dish ever!! Tee Tee Y L.”
Seeing his reaction, no different from the generation before mine, I’m beginning to understand how little our love for malube actually has to do with the dish. It’s about the memories we hold and cherish, growing up in a world with plenty of time to play and no adult problems. A world where others love you and hold you dearer than themselves. A world that quickly disappears as we mature, and we hope that one day we will pass it on to our children and to them.
I know my daughter will make malube for her kids one day, and I can’t help but wonder: Will she think mine was good?
The mother, who lives in Damascus, is now 90 years old and in poor health. I recently asked my sister to take a photo with malube, which she still cooks. Looking at her picture, my heart pleads with the universe to give her a few more years. The universe listens sometimes, doesn’t it?
Regardless, I will continue to try to recreate her perfect dish, even though I know it’s a fool’s errand. And I’m at peace with that. May that great Malubay remain with my golden memories, next to my football boots, my battered bike, and my mother, who understood that dinner with her son was more than the food she served.