Immigrant Kitchen: Live Music and a Tablespoon of Rose Water


By Lindsay Sterling

NEW BRUNSWICK, Maine — When my physical therapist, Amin Saab, in Brunswick, Maine heard about my quest to learn a dish from every country in the world, he connected me with his Armenian mother in Cape Cod. In August, she and I sat together on her back porch, overlooking a beach packed with orange parasols. Over the sounds of distant waves crashing and kids playing, Maggie Saab told me the story of the foods she was about to teach me how to cook.

The first dish was called itch in Armenian. It’s a tangy vegetarian paste eaten with mint and fresh lettuce, cabbage, or grape leaves. To make itch, you sauté diced yellow onion in oil and then add tomato paste, water, generous salt, and a couple tablespoons of sumac. Once the liquid is boiling, then you stir in fine-grain bulgur wheat, cover the pot, and let the wheat soak up the liquid.

Maggie’s parents, who lived in the small Armenian town of Kilis (which is today part of Turkey), made this dish when they cleaned the house and did laundry because it was easy to prepare and eat for lunch. “During the Armenian Genocide in 1915,” Saab explained, “They escaped through the hot desert to Aleppo, Syria, where I was born.” When Saab was 18, her aunt helped her get a scholarship at a nursing program at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. At school she got on a bus to go skiing with some classmates. There were a handful of medical students in the back of the bus playing live music. “I go crazy for music,” Saab explained, “I love to sing.” The musicians called out to her group, “Come and sit with us!” Saab did. The young man who was playing the oud, an ancient stringed instrument, would become her husband.

As the bulgur wheat dish was resting, Saab showed me how to make cheese burek, a collection of flakey triangles of cheese-filled pastry, and baklava, a dessert of crushed walnuts and cinnamon. She prefers to make her baklava in long rolls, which she slices crosswise at a diagonal into bite-sized, rounded nuggets. She also likes to add a tablespoon of rose water to the cooled syrup before pouring it over the hot pastry.

Saab laid platters of the itch, burek, and baklava on the table on the back porch along with plates of sliced farmer’s cheese, olives, pita bread, and fresh garden herbs. Her husband, Dr. Ali Saab, joined us for a lunch. I asked if her being a Christian and him being a Muslim was ever a problem, and they said it never was. When they got married, though, she was worried about one thing: “I didn’t even know how to cook rice!” Ali Saab had worked in his parents’ restaurants in Lebanon and helped her learn how to cook. As they lived in the Boston area for almost 40 years, Maggie picked up cooking secrets from Armenian friends and family, too.

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Through the years Dr. Ali Saab has continued studying and practicing the oud. It seemed fitting to ask him to play something, considering his music was responsible for bringing us together. He played a song form called samai. Its changing time signatures and microtones (notes between Western music notes) opened my mind and heart to the vastness of the beauty inherent in our world.