Legacy of Egyptian Rose, In Time for Passover

FOR the Misrie family, the Passover seder may start with the story of the Jews’ flight from Egypt, but it always ends with tales about one larger-than-life personality, a woman known as Egyptian Rose.

The late Rose Cohen Misrie was not Egyptian at all. Born in Tripoli, Libya, of parents from Syria, she moved to America in 1906 when she was 8.

She was married at 14 and had her first child at 15. With her husband, Israel, she opened the Egyptian Rose, a kosher Syrian restaurant, on the corner of Allen and Grand Streets on the Lower East Side in 1919.

”The restaurant never had a menu,” recalled her daughter Esther Grosswald, 87, who now lives in Atlanta. ”All the customers would come into the kitchen and take off the covers of the pots on the stove and point, ‘Rose, I want a bit of this and a little bit of that.’ ”

Another daughter, Millie Liniado, 83, now of Richmond, Va., added, ”The bosses would pay 35 cents for a full meal and the workers 15. If they didn’t have a job, the meal was free.

”My mother’s place was like a home for Syrian, Turkish and Greek Jews, especially for the men who came to make a living without their wives.”

The menu was strictly kosher, and strictly Syrian. On dairy days, Monday and Thursday, Mrs. Misrie would make 25 pounds of yogurt, pots of mujeddra, rice with lentils, and piles of sambusak, pocket pastries filled with kashkeval cheese.

The restaurant was only closed for the sabbath and Passover. Then Mrs. Misrie cooked at home.

While Jews of European descent do not eat any leavened foods during Passover, Syrian and some other Sephardic Jews consider rice kosher for Passover. It is washed at least three times to remove any trace of other grains that might have come in contact with the Passover rice. Some is ground with meat for meatballs, and the rest is steamed and served as a side dish.

They also eat meat stews with fresh peas and fresh beans at Passover. Their haroseth, the ceremonial fruit and nut paste, is made with dates, cooked slowly until they are reduced to a syrup, the biblical ”honey,” and sprinkled with nuts.

Mrs. Misrie was an instinctive cook who never learned to read or write. She learned Yiddish from Ashkenazic neighbors, who taught her to make gefilte fish and matzo balls. She served those dishes at home, but never at the restaurant.

At Passover and throughout the year, Mrs. Misrie made vegetables stuffed with rice and meat, called mahshi, served sweet and mostly sour, often flavored with a sauce made from tomatoes and tamarind paste. She made stews of kofte, meatballs with tart lemony artichokes or cherries, pizzalike lahmajoon, and all kinds of kibbe, or meat mixed with cracked wheat or matzo meal.

”She could make 200 kibbe in 20 minutes,” said her son-in-law Morris Liniado, 85. ”We called them buzz bombs or torpedoes.”

Like many immigrants, Mrs. Misrie saved money to bring over her siblings. Her sister Esther, who came in 1921, worked in the restaurant. She married a co-worker and when the restaurant closed in 1949, they became caterers to the Syrian Jewish community as it moved from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn.

Esther’s granddaughter, Sarina Roffe, has preserved the family recipes in a private archive to be handed down for future generations.

It is a Syrian Jewish tradition to thread the past into children’s lives. At Passover, children carry matzo in a white sack and act out the Exodus story.

Egyptian Rose’s descendants then weave in the tale of their family’s personal exodus to the diaspora, their own journeys from the Middle East to Brooklyn and beyond.

SYRIAN DATE HAROSETH Adapted from Sarina Roffe
Time: 1 1/4 hours, plus 2 hours’ soaking time

1 pound pitted dried dates
2 tablespoons sweet kosher wine
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts.

1. Place dates in a bowl and soak in about 3 cups water, or to cover, for 2 hours.
2. Pour dates with their soaking water into a medium saucepan. Cover, and cook over a very low heat for about an hour, until dates are very soft, stirring often.
3. Push dates and any remaining liquid through a food mill so that they are smooth. Stir in the wine and cinnamon. Store in a jar and refrigerate until serving. To serve, sprinkle with chopped walnuts.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups.

Adapted from Sarina Roffe
Time: 1 1/2 hours

3 large onions, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 15-ounce can tart dark cherries (pitted)
1 pound ground beef
2 tablespoons matzo meal
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon allspice
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons tamarind paste
1/2 cup dried apricots.

1. In a large frying pan, saut? onions in oil until golden. Add cherry juice, reserving cherries. Simmer for 30 minutes on very low heat.
2. In a bowl combine ground meat with matzo meal, salt, pepper, cumin and allspice. Form 1-inch balls.
3. Stir lemon juice, brown sugar and tamarind paste into onion and cherry sauce. Add meatballs and cook over very low heat, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Add apricots and reserved cherries, and cook on low heat for another 20 minutes. Serve the meatballs with the sauce.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.


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