The Complicated Comfort Of Syrian Grape Leaves

Grape leaves stuffed with rice, onions, herbs, pine nuts and raisins. (kennejima/Flickr Creative Commons)

Only half a degree of latitude separates Damascus, Syria, from Los Angeles, California. Yet when speaking of my family's history, no measurement can explain the distance between the two.

My great-great-grandfather grew up near a city that has been inhabited for more than 11,000 years, while I live in a metropolis that never stops reinventing itself. I don't regret leaving behind most old world customs. It's refreshing to live like an individual — not a woman whose life choices were mapped out for her before she was conceived. But there are times when I find the relentless change of Los Angeles alienating. Establishing traditions here is difficult as gentrification bulldozes more and more of my beloved places. In a city and an era of dislocation, I find myself returning to the comforts of the past: specifically, my mother's stuffed grape leaves.

Stuffed grape leaves are a staple of my family's traditional Syrian diet. They are hand-rolled and filled with a small balls of rice mixed with lamb or beef, also prepared by hand. The consistency and texture of the leaves is crucial. If they haven't been stored properly, they can become too thin and tear. But they must also be tender and moist. There's nothing worse than a rubbery grape leaf. Finding a great supplier who packs the leaves so that they're all usable is rare. In a further quirk, regardless of the brand, grape leaves in 8 ounce jars are generally less tender than those in 16 ounce jars.

When my mother was growing up in Detroit, her mother always bought the Yergat brand, known for its ample leaves, from the local market. My grandmother, who had four children and demanding Syrian in-laws, would spend most of the day cooking the lamb then rolling the leaves.

The author's mother prepares stuffed grape leaves. (Julia Ingalls for LAist)

The lengthy preparation time was vital to the experience. The house would slowly fill with the aroma of buttered rice, meat spiced with cinnamon, salt and pepper, and the laughter of those of us who had been put to work rolling the leaves, i.e. as many people as could fit in the L-shaped kitchen. By the time the leaves were cooking in the pot, the soul had already been fed.

My parents now live near San Luis Obispo, a fairly white city. Its downtown once had an Arabic market that stocked superb grape leaves. The shop closed about seven years ago, around the time my Syrian grandfather died, an insult heaped on an injury. My mother, along with her siblings, took over caring for my grandmother, who died last year.

My mother has struggled for years with the weight of her personal and political history. She had been a rebellious teenager and something of a pioneer in the family, breaking free from tradition so she could live her best life. At the start of the 1970s, she was an independent young woman. Her father, although born in the United States, was still very much of the old world. He often discouraged her from pursuing a college education because she "was just going to get married anyway." Caring for her ailing parents all those years revived old conflicts. It also reinforced how irreplaceable family and its rituals are.

Each time my parents visit me in Los Angeles, my Mom and I go on a mission to acquire grape leaves and other obscure provisions she has trouble finding back home. We thought we had found a great market in Westwood's Little Tehran neighborhood but it didn't carry pita bread and the jarred grape leaves looked worn and unappealing. We found another promising market in Mid-City but their product selection was sub-par.

This last time my mom came down to L.A., she was worn from grief and didn't want to make specific plans. So my parents sat in my car as I drove them "around," which they enjoy because they can relax and take in the esoteric urban scenery. Mom loves to visit Amoeba Records but on this particular day we happened to be driving down Santa Monica Boulevard in West L.A. when she spotted a store called Record Surplus.

The author's family (Julia Ingalls for LAist)

"Pull over," she said. Within minutes we were browsing stacks of blues and soul vinyl. Although she's 66, mom vibed seventeen again as she bundled records under her arm.

When we emerged from the record store, we saw a place down the block called Star Market. I felt the anticipatory shiver that accompanies any potential adventure with my mom. Would she love it? Would she hate it?

In my family, we refer to it as "the mouth," the thin, downward curve that takes over mom's lips when she dislikes something. My formative years were spent trying to avoid the mouth's appearance. All these years later, I still dread invoking it. But there we were, in the doorway of a dusty kosher market. There was no turning back.

Star Market, a kosher market in West L.A. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

Only a few feet from the door, we spotted jars on a packed shelf. Although it was peak June Gloom, it felt like sunshine had cut through the smog-streaked window and lit up the room. Star Market carried the Orlando brand, which mom prefers over the competing Yergat variety. Other brands trade in old grape leaves that fall apart easily, according to my mom. "But these are always fresh. And they hold together. And they're great," she said.

The Orlando brand, launched in 1976, has been her preference for most of her adult life. At Star Market, the leaves were resplendent, packed tightly enough to retain just the right amount of moisture but not so tight they were damaged from their journey. Better yet, each 16-ounce jar cost only $6.49.

Jarred Orlando grape leaves from Star Market in West L.A. (Elina Shatkin/LAist)

As we stood in the checkout line, the mouth was absent. In its place, I saw my mother smile. At last, we had found a cherished part of our old world in my new town.