For the members of Brooklyn’s Aleppan Jewish community, the tinier the meat- or cheese-filled pastry, the better the cook.
At Hanukkah, which this year begins on the evening of Dec. 7, they take as much pride in their distinctive tradition of using two candles rather than one to light the menorah — representing both the miracle of light and the welcome they received from Syrians after fleeing the Inquisition — as they do in those small meat- or cheese-filled pastries.
Rachel Harary Gindi, 92, who was born into this close-knit community, based in Bensonhurst, remembers her mother gathering with her friends to make sambousek, served at holidays. Ms. Gindi especially adored the ones filled with cheese, reserved for Sunday evenings when her family traditionally ate a dairy meal.
“You couldn’t order them from anywhere,” she said at a recent sambousek making session at her Century City apartment, overlooking Los Angeles. So the only way to get them was to make them yourself.
In 1941, Ms. Gindi’s family moved to New Orleans. “It was pure culture shock for me,” she said. “Until then, I ate everything at home. I didn’t even know what French fries were.”
But still, her family maintained a connection to the past, traveling to Bradley Beach, N.J., every summer where the community gathered. It was there, at age 16, where she met her husband, Jack. They married and moved to Los Angeles the next year.
Because she was so young when she married, Ms. Gindi really learned to cook from watching her mother-in-law, who was born in Aleppo.
“She was an old-fashioned cook,” Ms. Gindi said. “I was just a kid when I got married and helped my mother but really didn’t learn.”
The dishes her mother-in-law passed on included kibbe hamdeh, a sour salt soup with potatoes, carrots and tiny meatballs, and edja patate, a potato pancake flavored with allspice. (If they didn’t learn from their mothers, many Syrian Jewish cooks in the mid-20th century followed recipes from Grace Sasson, another member of the Brooklyn Aleppan Jewish community. She gave her address in her self-published book so that people could write her with questions.)
Sambousek, which means “triangle” in Persian, were popular from Spanish Andalusia to India during the Middle Ages.
The food historian Nawal Nasrallah believes sambousek was one of the dishes that traveled eastward to India from the 10th century. Four recipes even appear in a 13th-century Aleppan cookbook, “Al-Wusla Ila al-Habib fi Wasf al-Tayyibat wa al-Teeb,” according to Poopa Dweck’s magnificent “Aromas of Aleppo, the Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews.”
All these years later, cheese sambousek has remained a staple of Ms. Gindi’s dairy meals, even during Hanukkah, though she’s made some changes: Miller’s Muenster cheese (the only kosher one available, other than processed American) gave way to shredded mozzarella and kashkaval once they came on the kosher market. About 50 years ago, her dough came to include only flour, first out of necessity (she couldn’t find the traditional semolina), then preference.
Although there are more modern ways to make these flaky pastries, Ms. Gindi still uses a memorial Yahrzeit glass to cut the dough, which she pinches closed with her thumb and second finger, fluting the edge like scallop shells. And, of course, they are tiny, just a couple of bites apiece.
Cheese sambousek was naturally one of the first recipes Ms. Gindi taught Mercedes Borda, her housekeeper of 39 years, ready in the freezer or just baked for the eager appetites of the Gindi children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In her kitchen, Ms. Gindi watched as Ms. Borda pinched the dough, but when she veered from custom, pressing the tines of a fork into the dough, the way she learned to make empanadas in her native Bolivia, Ms. Gindi got out of her chair and took over.
Traditions in the Syrian community die hard.