Grace Sasson’s Riz el Halib

A Multi-Generational Syrian Rice Pudding Story

During my last visit to the stacks at the American Jewish Historical Society, I found Kosher Syrian Cooking, a book originally self-published in 1958 by Grace Sasson. I was drawn to the personal way the recipes are written, without specifics like timing or temperatures, instead giving more vague instructions like “simmer until it’s done” and measurements in “glasses” as well as cups. Another personal touch was perhaps most striking of all - after a list of Grace’s favorite grocery stores, including the iconic Sahadi’s on Atlantic Avenue, is the following: “If for any reason you do not understand how to prepare any of the dishes in this book, or where to get some of the ingredients, send me a self-addressed envelope and I will be glad to answer your questions.” Below is listed the address of one Mrs. A. Sasson. That’s right – she printed her home address in the introduction. Certainly, it was listed there as a generous act, sacrificing privacy in the name of helpfulness, but from a research perspective, that address and her husband’s first initial were a stroke of luck.

 

With that name and address, I began to piece together the written record of Grace Sasson’s life in New York. I was lucky to find several archival documents that, as I investigated further, I felt more and more certain belonged to the Grace Sasson of Kosher Syrian Cooking. I gleaned from them that the ‘A’ in “Mrs. A. Sasson” was Abood Sasson, who arrived from Aleppo, Syria in 1920. Grace, born in Syria, arrived with her mother and siblings a few years after her father, Samuel Ashkenazi, a rabbi, came to New York. In 1930, according to the census, Grace was 22 and working in a factory that manufactured ladies’ dresses. She had 3 siblings: a sister and two brothers, one of whom was born in New York. Grace and Abood were married in 1932, according to Abood’s petitions for citizenship. By the 1940 census, they had two sons and lived in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. I knew Grace wrote the first edition of Kosher Syrian Cooking in 1958, but after 1940 the paper trail went cold. That’s the trouble with the written historical record – not only do we have to have a certain amount of skepticism that the pieces of information we’re connecting are accurate, there is also so much about a person that we can’t know just from the names, occupations, and dates on government documents.

 

One source of information that I couldn’t get from the 1940 census ended up being the most vital of all: Victor Sasson, Grace’s youngest son, who currently lives in New Jersey and carries on his mother’s passion for cooking through blogs and social media. I was lucky enough to speak with Victor, and he was essential in filling in the gaps of this story and confirming the details. Through Victor’s oral history, Grace’s story lifts off the page and begins to come to life. He told me about helping out by wrapping packages and sometimes working the register at his father’s dry goods store on Grand Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which sold linens like sheets and pillowcases. He told me about playing stickball in the yard of the junior high school in Bensonhurst. He told me about a family vacation to Florida, and the difficulty of finding kosher food there at that time. His stories helped me understand a little bit about life in the Sasson household.

 

Victor told me that Grace was not his mother’s given name. Her Syrian name was Karaz, the Arabic word for cherry. When Grace Sasson, then Karaz Ashkenazi, arrived at public school in Manhattan, she was told by her teacher that, as Victor recounts it, “you’re American now, so we’ll call you Grace.” School teachers at the time were tasked with ‘Americanizing’ immigrant children, a process which often included changing names, languages, and diets. ‘American’ food of the era was a far cry from the recipes in Grace’s book, a testament to the cultural preservation work of Sephardic and Syrian immigrant communities. Victor described community get-togethers called hafl (Arabic for ‘party’) in Patterson, NJ, which were “basically outdoor music festivals” with Arabic music and food for Syrians of any religion. Grace’s cookbook was not titled Kosher Syrian Cooking until its third printing – it was titled simply Syrian Cooking in the first two editions. Adding “Kosher” to the title was Victor’s attempt, shortly after his graduation from journalism school, to interest publishers in the cookbook and expand its appeal to a Jewish audience, though no publishers ever picked it up. The book was sold by the family, out of the house, mostly within Brooklyn’s Syrian community. Victor told me that these days, he visits Syrian bakeries and grocers in Patterson to enjoy traditional cuisine.

 

When Victor remembers his mother, he notes that “she cooked all the time,” Victor told me that “she would entertain a lot,” always preparing coffee and pastries for visitors, of which there were many. “There was always someone coming over, there was somebody there every day.” Abood Sasson’s father was a pastry maker in Syria, and Victor said the family story was always that it was Abood, actually, who taught Grace how to make Syrian pastries like baklava. Victor described a traditional, short-legged dining table in the basement of their house in Bensonhurst, where she would lay out a maza of twenty to thirty different small plates of food that would be enjoyed by guests including her brothers, Victor’s uncles, who also enjoyed arak, an anise-flavored liquor popular in the Middle East. Victor spoke warmly of these memories of a house full of food, family, and hospitality. When I look through Kosher Syrian Cooking now, I can imagine the different dishes being served in Grace’s home to her family and friends, and the recipes take on new significance.

 

When I mentioned to Victor that I had made riz el halib, Grace’s rice pudding recipe, he instantly remembered it. “Oh, I loved her rice pudding…She would make it, and she’d put the cinnamon on top, and she’d put the little glass dishes that she’d pour them into sometimes into the refrigerator, and you could just reach into the refrigerator and grab one.” Though my ramekins are porcelain, not glass, I had done just that – I had dusted the puddings with cinnamon, and for a late-night snack, I reached into the refrigerator and grabbed an extra one.

 

The riz el halib recipe in Kosher Syrian Cooking doesn’t indicate a particular kind of rice to use. I used long-grain, as it’s what I had on hand, and the result had structure and stickiness that firmed up considerably in the fridge. It tasted great, but for a smoother (and, I believe, more accurate) texture, use short-grain rice, like arborio. The measurements and method will remain the same, but the rice will break down more for a more custardy result. My adaptations to Grace’s recipe here are limited to that specificity that we tend to look for in modern recipes – Grace’s original version measures the rice in glasses rather than cups, and does not advise about cooking times.

 

One of the most exciting things about historical research is that sometimes, you start with something like a cookbook and then you get to reach across time and connect, however limitedly, with a real person. It has been a truly affecting experience for me to get to know Grace Sasson through the written record and my conversation with her son, and I’m proud to share this recipe, and her story, with you. 

 

Riz el Halib (Syrian Rice Pudding) 

By Grace Sasson, Adapted by Aurora Clare 

 

Yields enough for 4 7 oz. Ramekins 

 

Ingredients 

1 cup rice 

3 cups milk, plus more if needed 

1 cup water 

⅓ cup sugar 

Cinnamon, for dusting. 

 

Method 

1. Rinse rice in cold water several times, until water begins to clear.

 

2. Pour rice into a medium-sized saucepan with a cup of water, and cook over medium-low heat until the water is mostly absorbed. Keep an eye on it, stirring occasionally. This could take 8-20 minutes, depending on your rice.

 

3. Add the milk and sugar, stirring to dissolve sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.

 

4. Lower heat and maintain a low simmer until the mixture reaches a thickened, soft and custardy consistency. You’ll want to make sure you’re stirring regularly, scraping along the bottom of the pan with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to make sure nothing sticks. Add milk if your pudding begins to look dry. My best advice is to check on the pudding in 5-minute increments, stirring and adjusting liquid as needed. For my pudding, I added an extra ¼ cup of milk after 15 minutes, and simmered everything for a total of 20 minutes.

 

5. Taste and adjust sugar to taste if necessary.

 

6. Spoon or pour the pudding into ramekins or saucers and top with a dusting of cinnamon.

 

7. Let cool and place covered in the refrigerator**

 

8. Enjoy!

 

**Food safety note: allow your ramekins to cool fully to room temperature on the counter, uncovered, before covering them with clingfilm and refrigerating them

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Images listed in order of appearance: 

1. Front cover of "Kosher Syrian Cooking," a third edition of Grace's book with her son's modified title.

2. 1940 census that lists Grace living with her family in Bensonhurst

3. Grace Sasson age 12. Photo courtesy of her son, Victor Sasson

4. Grace Sasson making pastries in her Brooklyn home, 1979. Photo courtesy of her son, Victor Sasson.

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*Aurora Clare is a historian and educator based in New York City. She completed a Master’s Degree in History from New York University in 2016, with a thesis on domestic space and public housing in twentieth-century New York. Aurora has worked with institutions including the Tenement Museum and New-York Historical Society. Her food history project, History Bakes, is cataloged on Instagram at @historybakes. More information about her work can be found at www.auroraclare.com! 

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