Finding Passover Spirit in Brooklyn

Carla Haibi

Souad Nigri, a 74-year-old Lebanese Jewish cook, is a spirited woman who won't let a recession dampen her commitment to tradition. The founder of Lebanese Cuisine, a store and catering company in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, New York, Nigri is known for preparing traditional fare like zesty, parsley-laden tabbouleh and other various mezes. For just over 30 years, Nigri has also been making kosher meals for such holidays as Passover, but for one person the kosher process, which involves sweeping, scrubbing, and scouring in an effort to eliminate any trace of leavened products from the kitchen, can be overwhelming. This year, facing a tighter budget and limited help in the kitchen, Nigri improvised and kosherized only a fraction of her kitchen. Now, she's happily cooking Passover-friendly fare on a smaller scale—just enough to keep herself and her customers happy and well fed during this holiday season.

How and when did you start your business?

I needed to work. In Lebanon and later in Israel when I moved there in 1967, I used to work in sewing. But I felt that there was a lot of competition in this business in the U.S., so I worked in shops as a salesperson first. I did not speak English. I spoke only French and Arabic. I also learned some Hebrew in Israel, but working helped me learn some English. I was also cooking Lebanese kosher foods on the side for friends and family when I moved to the U.S. in 1977. I received a lot of positive reviews, and people loved my food, so I decided to make a business out of it.

When did you open this catering store on Avenue U in Gravesend, Brooklyn?

I first started working from home, but then when the business picked up, I rented a store on Kings Highway in 1990. There was a fire there, and I lost everything, so I moved to this location on Avenue U in 1994 and started over.

What would a typical Lebanese kosher catering menu be like?

I'll make typical Lebanese salads such as tabbouleh and fattoush and mezes like hummus and baba ghannouj, an eggplant paste. I pickle vegetables as well. I make stuffed turnovers [fatayer], and also kibbeh [ground lamb and bulgur wheat paste that is mixed and shaped into small balls and fried]. There would also be flat dough topped with ground meats and spices [lahm bi ajin] or za'atar [manakeech], the traditional Lebanese thyme mix. And there are fancy rice-based dishes with truffles as well.

What about sweets?

All my sweets are kosher and parve, which means they contain no dairy or animal fats. They are made only with vegetable fats, oil, margarines, and shortening. Baklavas and Arabic sweets are all made with margarine and shortening. I cannot use any dairy products in the store, because my kitchen is a meat-based kosher kitchen.

And how does the menu differ for Passover?

No bulgur or cracked wheat is used; I use rice instead. I don't make turnovers or dough. We eat a lot of eggs and special unleavened bread.

Lebanese Jews are Sephardic Jews, who are descendants of the Jews who left the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 15th century. How do their food practices compare to or differ from Ashkenazi cooking?

Lebanese Jews have preserved their own cultural traditions. I make traditional Lebanese fare according to the kashruth, the Jewish dietary guidelines. Everything is cooked kosher style. Like Ashkenazis, we don't mix meat and dairy. For traditional Lebanese meat dishes that are usually served with dairy in Lebanon, we serve them without dairy. We don't eat pork, and the ingredients we use are kosher. But it is not common for Lebanese Jews to eat challah bread, which is the typical bread for Shabbat in Ashkenazi traditions. We used to have those foods in Israel from time to time, and we can have them in New York, but I would say they are not widely adopted by the Lebanese Jews, because we have preserved our traditional food culture.

For Passover, how do the Lebanese traditions differ from those of the Ashkenazi?

For Passover, Jews refrain from eating any leavened products. Ashkenazi Jews refrain from rice and beans as well, but Lebanese Jews don't do that. We have less stringent customs in that sense.

What are your plans for the future? How do you see your business evolving?

In this economy, it is very difficult. I did a costly renovation of the store about two years ago, and now I can barely pay my employees. It would be very ambitious to hope for growth in this financial crisis. The competition is high. If I have more clients, I will continue doing what I am doing because people love my food. But what I really want to do is to have a cookbook with my own my recipes in it. The entire community knows me through my food. The cookbook will help keep the name and the culinary traditions.