June 25, 2014

Zrir and the story of Alexander's birth

Every now and then, I lack the motivation to post on this blog, and I forget why I started Kitchen Vignettes in the first place. I sometimes need to be reminded by others, and Food Riot's recent article did a great job of that, articulating it so simply: blogging is a way to share stories through food. Because the recipes we make tell the stories of our lives, the people we love, where we've been, the adventures we've had... And so behind the recipe I'm sharing with you today is a story about the magic of giving birth, and also about a marvellous friendship that spans across many years and a great big ocean. It's a story I began to tell you in my last post, and which I'll continue here.

There are times when life presents you with an opportunity to live something different, something really special. Something to crack your heart open a little wider. These past two months spent as my dear friend Synda's birth companion will always stand out in my mind as one of the most precious periods of my life.

Synda and I met on a cross-cultural exchange programme 18 years ago, young and eager to get to know each other's countries. We lived and worked together for close to 7 months in Quebec and then in Tunisia. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, and little did we know our adventures together had just begun! 

A couple months ago, Synda bravely arrived all by herself from Tunisia with a big pregnant belly and the hope of giving her baby the gift of Canadian citizenship. She arrived in Nova Scotia when the cold April winds were still blowing strong, and the first thing we did was crack open her giant suitcase full of every imaginable Tunisian food staple: from dates to exquisite Sfaxian pastries, from dried octopus to black pine nuts, homemade harissa to wild mountain thyme. Together, we cooked, ate, laughed, walked, and danced our way through the last weeks of her pregnancy, waiting impatiently for spring to truly arrive, and for Alexander to make his grand appearance. 

He finally decided to come at the end of an endless grey spell of cold and rain, and like a true Tunisian, he brought the warm glorious sunshine with him on the day he arrived. 

Synda was in active labour for close to 24 hours. She had made the firm choice to have a natural birth with no medical interventions, even though her previous birth to twins had been by C-section. 

With the support and gentle hands of her amazing doula, and a crew of incredibly supportive friends, she was able to have the birth she wished for, spending all but the last 2 hours of labour at home. I have rarely seen such strength, bravery, love, and ecstasy all in the same room.

It's almost impossible to find the words to describe the joy that Synda and I shared and how strong the bond between us became after living such a grand experience together. But I believe that's what pictures are for. To tell a thousands words when actual words fail you. 

A couple weeks before his birth, Synda prepared a traditional Tunisian recipe to welcome Alexander into the world. Zrir is a nutritious dessert that was traditionally given to new mothers in Tunisia to help them regain their strength and also to help with their milk production after childbirth. The tradition evolved into a special treat that is served whenever a visitor comes to meet a newborn baby and congratulate the new mom. The sesame seeds, hazelnuts, honey, and butter that Zrir is made of are very nourishing so it is preciously served in small elegant glasses with tiny spoons. 

Synda says that in Tunisia, each family's Zrir is quite different. Her version is creamy and caramel-like though still very thick, but others make a harder, quite compact and crumbly Zrir, which is also delicious. The recipe for Zrir is therefore very adaptable. It contains 4 simple ingredients but you can vary the amounts based on personal preference. For instance, if you prefer a sweeter and softer Zrir, you can add more honey.

When I've made Zrir myself, I have not been able to achieve the fine smooth, caramel-like consistency of Synda's Zrir. I think there is a little magic in the way she prepares it. It also takes a lot of patience to grind hazelnuts and sesame seeds into such a smooth paste. And I believe therein lies part of the secret to a good creamy Zrir: the hazelnut and sesame pastes must be as smooth and buttery as possible before the honey and butter are added. Because this can take so long if you don't have a solid food processor, I am inclined to try substituting  store-bought tahini for the sesame seeds next time I make it. I'm not sure Synda will approve, but I'll keep you posted!

Makes enough for about 10 servings

2 cups whole hazelnuts
2 cups white sesame seeds
1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup honey (more if you wish)
1/4 cup pine nuts (optional garnish)

In a heavy skillet toast the hazelnuts on low heat for about 5 to 10 minutes or until they get golden and fragrant. Cool them and then rub them between your hands to release their skins. Don't worry if some of the skins remain, just try to release and discard as much of the skins as you can. Toast the sesame seeds as well for about 3 to 5 minutes on low heat or until fragrant. Watch them carefully so they don't burn! 

In a small saucepan, melt together the honey and butter. Remove from heat as soon as they've turned to liquid. 

Place the toasted sesame seeds in a food processor and grind until they begin turning into a paste or nut butter consistency. This may take quite a while, depending on how strong your food processor is. If your processor isn't powerful enough, you may want to try using a coffee grinder, as Synda did in the video. It is painstaking but necessary to achieve the right consistency. Repeat this process with the hazelnuts. Pour the hazelnut and sesame butters into a smallish heavy-bottomed pot. Place on low heat and add half of the honey-butter mixture to the sesame-hazelnut mixture. Stir until a homogeneous cream starts to form. Add the remaining butter and honey and continue stirring until the whole thing is creamy. As soon as it starts to bubble, remove from heat and allow to cool slightly before serving in small cups. As the Zrir cools, it will harden. Garnish with pine nuts if you wish. Zrir will keep for several weeks in a glass jar. Enjoy!

At the airport, just before they boarded the plane for the first leg of their journey home (I cried a river!)
Synda and Alexander are now happily returned home to Tunis and reunited with their family. It makes me tear up every time I imagine them all meeting little Alex for the first time. Putting this blogpost and video together was a wonderful way for me to remember how special our time together was. I plan to visit them this winter, inshallah, and I already can't wait to hold a somewhat bigger Alex in my arms again.