In this beautiful essay, Jasmine Attia recounts her experiences growing up as the American child of Egyptian immigrants as she and her mother make waraa eynab (stuffed grape leaves), a hand-made dish made with experience, tradition, and love.
But my hands must still learn what the right amount of meat feels like between my fingers. There is no recipe in my family, nothing written down, no measurements. Measurements are for the inept. This is my mother’s mantra. We, the proud women of the family, we feel and smell and taste and touch and create. We know when it is good because we know when it is good. But some of the clan is gone, and they are only echoes now. My mother and I don’t speak of the deceased, but we understand why I must be the one to roll. I am soaking in the instruction. It is a heavy responsibility.
My mother and I roll about a hundred grape leaves. They are now ready to be cooked. We lay them in a pot one layer at a time, one arranged horizontally and the next vertically. Garlic cloves are inserted throughout. A soup is made. You must put in sumac. No sumac, no waraa eynab. I understand this. My mother grabs a handful of the crimson powder, its lemony scent filling the air around us, and she drops it into the pot. The soup can’t be too loose. She stirs the unready soup with a spoon. It must be just the right thickness, and not too salty.
She shows me what is right. I must taste it to know. I must see it. I pour the soup over the precisely arranged grape leaves so that I can see just how much of them should be covered with soup. Too much soup and you get mush. Too little soup and you get cardboard. Both very bad outcomes for an Egyptian apprentice like me.