According to Ana Sortun and Maura Kilpatrick, sofra refers to “everything you prepare for the table: food, place settings, glassware, décor, linens.” In Iran, it refers to the cloth spread on the floor that the food is placed on when people eat. To me, there really is a special kind of satisfaction and fellowship eating that way.
I remember when a lovely Urdu couple from Iran invited me to an Eid celebratory dinner. I was the only Anglo, so I asked my hostess if we were sitting at the table on my behalf. She smiled and confessed they thought I would be uncomfortable with a traditional Persian dinner. I assured her that with the many friends in college and living for a time with three Malay women, I was used to it. We quickly shifted the dishes to a sofra on the floor, settled down without the plates and silverware and enjoyed our meal in new camaraderie. As the meal was ending, she said, “Food eaten with silverware is never as satisfying and never tastes as good.” I thought of her and that relaxed and abundant hospitality while reading Soframiz, a cookbook celebrating the delightful foods of the Middle East, focusing on breakfast, mezzo, and baked goods.
Soframiz opens with Shakshuka, eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce, a dish I make once a month at least. They call for three special ingredients, Maras Pepper (special red pepper flakes), Hawayej (a Yemeni spice blend), and Zhoug (a Yemeni spice sauce with recipe in the book). I make delicious shukshuka without them and so do many other places. I am curious, perhaps if I find some Maras pepper without having to order it online, I might try it, but already they have made me unhappy because I know this recipe can be delicious without insisting on special ingredients unlikely to be in the home kitchen. Why couldn’t they write Maras Pepper or red pepper flakes? It’s really not sacrilege to use an alternate ingredient.
I expect there to be some specialty ingredients in a cookbook, particularly in a cookbook that features ethnic cuisine, but these chefs go beyond that. They specify specific Calasparra rice or Baldo rice and Cubanelle peppers instead of rice and peppers and so on throughout the book. They even suggest specific onions such as Ailsa Craig or Vidalia instead of simply saying a sweet onion. There is no recognition of the limitations of home kitchens and non-metropolitan grocery stores. If they would only suggest alternatives for those of us with more ordinary pantries, I would find their specificity less troublesome.
Soframiz is full of beautiful pictures of delicious looking foods that get me thinking, I want to make this, I want to make that, and I have to make this one now. But then I read the recipes and see some ingredients that I would have to mail order and move along. What can I make now? Thankfully there are quite a few that I can manage. I already have tahini and zaatar and sumac, so I am not without some of the ordnance I need for this culinary battle. There are also a few recipes that do not require special ingredients. For future cookbooks, they should let home cooks know when we can make a perfectly fine dish with other options (such as in the shukshuka recipe).
I love the pictures and the idea of this cookbook. I would love to go to their bakery and try everything on the menu. I will also be trying some of the recipes that I lack the ingredients to make. I am a confident cook, sure enough to know that I can approximate the flavors with spices I can blend myself. I will blithely use red pepper flakes instead of Maras pepper and the dish won’t be a disaster. It won’t be perfect, but it will be good. That flexibility to allow us to make something close by simply allowing that while red pepper flakes won’t be perfect, they will be tasty is sorely needed.
There are some delicious vegetarian dishes as well as meat dishes. The Pantry section has a recipe for Shawarma spice that I will have to try. This is a good cookbook. I think it could be better with a more flexible mindset that recognizes the realities of home kitchens.
I was provided a copy of Soframiz by Blogging For Books.