An Arab American Reflects on Sitto and her Syrian-Aleppo Heritage
Sitto and Giddo’s, Wedding Picture, 1915
By: Janice Jweid Reed/Arab America Contributing Writer
I grew up in the vibrant and diverse community of Syrian and Lebanese families in Paterson, New Jersey. It was here that I was steeped in the foods and Arab cultural traditions that my own grandparents had brought with them from Aleppo, Syria.
My grandmother, Naima, had arrived through Ellis Island as a Syrian immigrant in 1912 and later built her life with my Syrian grandfather, Bashir in 1915. All of the traditions, our culture, foods, religion, and Arabic language were gifts given to our family by their nurturing spirit.
Fortunately for me, my parents were close to my grandparents and so, my life took on a very ethnic childhood and adolescence, immersed in our Syrian community. I didn’t realize it, but many years later, this had a profound effect on my own young life.
In 1966, I started compiling my grandmother’s recipes in a little spiral notebook. I knew that the wonderful Syrian foods that I had watched my grandmother make for our family would be something I needed to record. And so, as I grew up and married, I would consult with her on this or that recipe and even while living in the Midwest with my own young family, I’d call her for recipes or tips on what I was trying to do.
Four Generations of Syrian Women
These were dishes I knew so well, but the actual cooking or baking of them was new to me. I realized that no written recipes were ever created. Mothers traditionally taught their daughters these kitchen secrets through the generations. I also realized these cooking treasures, taught to my grandmother in Aleppo, Syria, comprised more than 100 years of traditional Arab cooking.
Years later, as my worn and food-stained notebook captured the fruits of my own labors, I realized those previously unwritten recipes were really a testament! I thought of all those Arab cooks before me who faithfully preserved their heritage, mother to daughter, by learning these dishes at the right hand of their own family’s grandmothers, aunts, grandfathers or uncles.
After moving to the West Coast, I began to reflect on my heritage, my Arab upbringing and the Syrian culture of hospitality and warmth that I had left behind. I don’t know if any writer begins by knowing they will create something. It usually starts with an idea or a goal. For me, it actually began as an informal family cookbook which I created in 2000, simply printed and bound for my own children. Later, the spark hit me! It may have been a whisper by my own dear grandmother, long gone, who reminded me again of my own precious heritage. In 2009, I began writing my first published cookbook, Sitto’s Kitchen.
Sitto in her kitchen, 1956
My own family has since grown, but my grandmother’s heritage has been a cherished gift that I’ve wanted to pass on. In fact, as I spoke to younger Arabs, the common thread was that they wished they had learned to cook those dishes they knew and loved. That was the impetus I needed to create the cookbooks you may now read. My goal was to keep our traditions intact but to allow for a modernization of some of the old techniques, so that young cooks would not be intimidated by Middle Eastern cooking.
I hope that the next generations of young Arab cooks who long for these traditional foods will be drawn into Sitto’s Kitchen. For thousands of years, the distinctive cuisine of Aleppo, Syria, has relied on the freshest of vegetables, fruits, and nuts of the region. The accent on these foods and grain-based dishes will appeal to vegetarians as well as those wanting a unique adventure in Middle Eastern cookery. Those exploring new cuisines will find that these Aleppo spices and fragrant herbs will carry them to back to those lands.
Sitto’s Kitchen and Sitto’s Kitchen II cookbooks are Middle Eastern cooking with no mystery, simply prepared and traditionally preserved by generations of cooks who lovingly served these humble dishes to their families. Ahlan! To all who wish that they too, had a grandmother, “Sitto,” in their kitchen!
Janice Jweid Reed grew up in the vibrant Syrian-Lebanese community of Paterson, New Jersey. Her grandparents, having emigrated from Aleppo, Syria, instilled the Middle Eastern traditions, foods, and Arabic language as an integral part of her upbringing. Through her cookbooks, Sitto’s Kitchen, A Treasury of Syrian Family Recipes, Jweid Reed has preserved the legacy of her grandmother’s 100-year-old recipes. Her story and cookbooks can be found on Facebook and at SittosKitchen.com