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 the US for almost 40 years now, my mind often goes back to those days back home, especially my coveted Syrian summers, which really weren’t that different from many American kids’ vacations. My friends and I played football for hours in worn out shoes. We rode bikes with no gears, just a loud and lonely bell. We pedaled as fast as we could, flying over homemade ramps and crashing into the dirt. It hurt, of course, but we laughed and repeated until our elbows and knees begged us to stop.
Upon my return home, my mother sought a bathroom while I tried every excuse known to mischievous boys whose aversion to hygiene is the stuff of legend.
“But I’m clean, Mom,” I’d say, showing her my hands that I’d just washed. Unmoved, she ran her fingers along my neck and revealed the dirt spot. Talk again! After the dreaded bath, I would head out ready to eat something that I and most kids regularly take for granted: 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’lubaj, an eggplant casserole also spelled maqluba, which means “upside down” in Arabic. The funny name comes from its preparation, which requires an act so precarious that only the bravest of cooks (or an incredibly strong guy) would ever attempt it.
To cook ma’lubaj, my mother cut the eggplant into slices, coated it with flour and fried it with olive oil. In another pan, she browned vermicelli and basmati rice, then tossed that mixture over the eggplant. Then the spices: salt and pepper, of course, then a secret blend of cumin, sumac, cardamom, turmeric, saffron and coriander – all her favorite Arabic touches. Finally, she covered the pan with water and cooked it until done (no timer needed).
Here I came in, ready to execute the step that only a minor hero could do. Mom would yell “Karim!” and I would run into the kitchen beaming with impatience. At her nod, I took a deep breath and grabbed the pot covered with a serving plate on both sides. My lips tight, my muscles tight, with all my might, I turned the pan and placed it on the table.
Mom would smile and take away the serving plate while I was beaming with pride, like I had just killed Goliath. The steam would rise, revealing chunks of eggplant now on top—think upside-down pineapple tart—to be sprinkled with toasted almonds and, occasionally, pine nuts.
Mouth watering, I would dump a large portion onto a plate and inhale every last bit of that magical food.
Yes, it’s magical, mostly because only my mom seems to be able to cook it right. Since I came to this country in 1984, I have tried to repeat this dish hundreds of times. The results have been satisfactory, but never the same. I tried everything, using the same spices in roughly similar amounts (Mom never measured). I have even bought eggplant from an Arab shop, but my dish always falls short.
I tried again earlier this week. To my credit, it tasted pretty good. However, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that mom was and is much better.
Whenever I ask her what she does differently, she laughs, “Just add some love, some soul, and mix it up.”
However, my kids adore my version of this dish and ask for it every time they visit. My now grown daughter thinks I’m the best cook on the planet because of my ma’lubai. She posts it on Instagram, sends it to Snapchat, and texts her friends photos with comments: “OMG! Ma’lubay of Babba (father). Best dish ever!! THAT’S IT.”
Seeing her reaction, not unlike mine a generation ago, I’m beginning to realize how little our love of ma’lubay has to do with the dish itself. It’s about the memories we hold and cherish, of growing up in a world with plenty of playtime and no grown-up problems. A world where others love you and hold you dearer than themselves. A world that fades away all too quickly as we mature, and a world we hope to one day pass on to our children and theirs.
I know my daughter will make ma’lubay for her own children one day and I can’t help but think: Will she think mine was better?
Mom, who still lives in Damascus, is now 90 years old and in poor health. I recently asked my sister to photograph her with ma’lubaj, which she still cooks. Looking at her picture, my heart skips a beat begging the universe to give her a few more years. The universe sometimes listens, doesn’t it?
No matter what happens, I’ll keep trying to recreate her perfect dish, even though I know it’s a fool’s errand. And I’m at peace with that. May that thin ma’lubaj remain with my golden memories, except for my soccer shoes, my broken bike, and my mother, who realized that dinner with her son was much more than the food she served .