The kitchen is the heart of any home. When you gather three chefs—all experts in preparing their respective cultural cuisines—you have a delicious outcome that is full of friendship, connection and soul. That’s exactly what happened when Rebecca Sassouni hosted a meaningful event on behalf of Temple Israel of Great Neck (TIGN).
For one hour, a group of 30 attendees prepared a four-course meal, each led by one chef. Sassouni prepared a Persian dish of green dill rice with tahdig; Rabbi Daniel Schweber of TIGN prepared Eastern European matzo ball soup and challah rolls; and a trio of women from the Great Neck Chinese Association (GNCA), Jing Wang, Else Yung and Alice Ngai Tsang, prepared Chinese vegetable dumplings and vegetable rice. Desserts were also multicultural and included Persian chick pea cookies; noghl, sugared almond slivers; faloodeh, Persian lemon-ice sorbet; and rugelach.
The guests included TIGN synagogue members, as well as members of Great Neck’s Chinese community, who came as part of GNCA. In addition to the Persian, Jewish and Chinese cultural groups represented at the event, several attendees also had connections to Great Neck Public Schools, including Sassouni, a Board of Education trustee, and Kevin Sun of the United Parent-Teacher Council.
The first cooking demonstration was by Sassouni, who warmly greeted the guests and showed them how to prepare the dish with layers of basmati rice, caramelized onions, lima beans and cardamom. She explained that Persian food is democratic, designed to feed large groups and served family style.
Great Neck is home to a number of Persian restaurants, which attract appreciative diners from all over Long Island and New York City. One of the most beloved dishes is tahdig, the crispy crust at the bottom of the rice pot, prepared with turmeric, oil and potatoes. At the event, Persian and Chinese attendees connected over the shared appreciation for rice dishes.
“We have crispy rice in Chinese cooking, too. It is very popular with children,” remarked Sun.
Sassouni agreed, “Tahdig is a delicacy in our cooking, too. Many a tooth have been lost because of love of crispy rice.”
She went on to discuss the overall message of cooking together as a community in her kitchen.
“It is often noted that the demographics of Great Neck are changing, but what often goes unsaid is that there are so many opportunities for us to reach out to one another, learn from one another and welcome the changes,” said Sassouni. “As a first-generation American of Persian and Jewish heritage, I spent many of my formative years feeling like an outsider from American culture. It is only now, as an adult, that I appreciate there are many, many ways to be an American. The more I get to know my Chinese-American friends, the more I realize we have in common concern for our families, education and, yes, great food.”
Schweber then led the demonstration for preparing matzo ball soup and challah, which are mainstays of Eastern-European Jewish cuisine. He explained that he truly loves to cook for his family, including his wife and two daughters, and he is often called upon to feed them because of his wife’s career as a physician.
Due to time restrictions, the rabbi explained that although the ingredients and utensils used in the Sassouni home were strictly kosher, he was not going to cover all of the rules of kashrut or keeping kosher.
“Kosher rules are for holiness, not to separate Jews from non-Jews. In this small gathering with GNCA, we can connect more easily. We can share our hearts and souls together,” he explained. “In a few days, the Jewish people will mourn the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which led to 2,000 years of exile. Jews have always had to wrestle with the question of how to assimilate in their new countries but, at the same time, to preserve their heritage. This is something we have in common with the other cultural groups that are new in Great Neck.”
Food Is a Bridge Between Cultures
The third cuisine featured was Chinese vegetarian dumplings and rice, prepared by Wang, Yung and Tsang. After the ingredients were monitored for kashrut, the women spent hours expertly preparing them. Wang demonstrated the technique of folding the dumplings, which were filled with shitake mushrooms and carrots.
“That’s so similar to how we make Jewish kreplach,” remarked Toby Katz, a TIGN trustee.
Wang explained the significance of dumplings and noodles in her family.
“When I arrive at my mother’s house for a visit, she makes long noodles, in the hopes that my stay will be long,” explained Wang. “When it is time to leave, she makes dumplings, because they are short.”
Attendees asked many questions about the ingredients and different types of dumplings, and Wang offered to distribute printed copies of her recipes. Great Neck is home to a number of popular Asian restaurants, including a kosher Chinese restaurant.
Before the meal, Schweber led the group in a Hebrew recitation of the hamotzi, the blessing over the challah bread. Saying a blessing or “grace” before eating is a common custom bridging many cultures.
Other event participants included Lisa and Jeff Goodwin, Elliot and Dr. Renee Fleischer, Suanne and David Scher, Dr. Andi Katz, Susan Chin, Mandy Xiao, Dorothy Feng, Rebecca Chu, Shuna Luk and GNCA President Nathan Fong.
Founded in 1995, GNCA is a nonprofit organization that serves the Great Neck Chinese community by helping members integrate into the community, advocate for the common good, promote understanding of its culture and people, as well as community services and social involvement to create a harmonious and happy living environment for all.
In the past 20 years, GNCA has worked with schools and community leaders to encourage better understanding and acceptance of its culture and residents. It hosts activities that bring community members together and organizes entertainment and educational events to promote cultural exchange with other communities, as well as a venue for networking and exchanging ideas, and a platform to interact with other organizations, local leaders and Great Neck residents on issues of interest. Learn more at www.gnca.org.
The Great Neck Cultural Exchange
During the past year, the Great Neck Cultural Exchange between TIGN and GNCA has had four well-attended events, including an outing at Steppingstone Park in August 2017, a bowling gathering in November and an ice skating event at Parkwood in March 2018. The cooking event was the first one held in a private home.
Of the bowling event, attendee Dr. Andi Katz, a TIGN trustee, remarked, “Over 100 people attended from all the communities in Great Neck and we had some competitions going. It was multigenerational, with grandparents and grandchildren. A 92-year-old woman was one of the bowlers.”
Everyone who has attended the group’s events was enthusiastic about the connections made among the members. Friendships and mutual understanding have grown. Plans are underway for future events that will bridge Great Neck’s diverse communities. Learn more by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Chu was among the smiling attendees at the cooking event, who took and shared many photos.
“I am sure we all learned a lot from each other, how to make food and the history behind it,” said Chu. “You can feel people’s interest, appreciation and the friendly atmosphere.”
Jacqueline Harounian is a trustee of Temple Israel of Great Neck and a frequent contributor to the Great Neck Record.