Making traditional Chaldean foods healthier - one dish at a time.
By Monique Mansour
Chaldean food, there is nothing quite like it. It’s flavorful, delicious, and labor-intensive but worth all of the effort. On the whole, Chaldean food can be quite healthy –plenty of dishes call for fresh vegetables, beans, and wholesome nuts, seeds, and grains, but there can be room for improvement with some of our most cherished dishes. With the holidays around the corner, Chaldean cooks Clair Garmo Konja and Samira Cholagh offer us timely and sound advice when it comes to reimagining our favorite Chaldean foods in a new, more nutritious way.
Clair Garmo Konja of Commerce Township is the Director of Office Management at the Chaldean American Ladies of Charity. She takes great pride in cooking Chaldean food and putting a healthy spin on particular dishes. “I got married at the young age of 18, so I had no choice but to learn how to cook.”
For Konja, healthy Chaldean cooking has been a philosophy passed down to her by her mother. “My father had a heart attack when I was young. After that, my mom completely changed her usual ingredients –she swapped them out for healthier alternatives.” Konja’s mother began to use chicken and wheat dough in the traditional Chaldean dish Takhratha ‘d Pusra.
She also swapped gurgur for rice and chicken for beef in dolma. “Because my mom cut out quite a bit of starches and red meat from our diet, all of her children eventually learned to be creative with Chaldean cooking.”
As for Konja’s all-time favorite Chaldean dish made healthier? Hands-down, it’s her dolma. “I’ve added a twist to my mom’s healthy version of dolma. I use quinoa instead of rice, and chicken instead of beef. I line the base of the pot with coconut oil and I stay true to all of the traditional spices,” said Konja. “Nowadays, we’re so fortunate to have many healthier options to choose from and many health-food stores to visit… substituting ingredients is not as hard as it used to be.”
Chaldean food goes beyond nutrition for Konja. “Growing up in the United States, I was fortunate to have parents that kept the Chaldean traditions alive at home through language, food, attending Chaldean Mass, and many other traditions,” said Konja. “These practices really gave me the true feeling of our culture. It’s a shame about what is happening in our homeland. We really need to preserve our traditions of food and language.”
For anyone interested in cooking healthier Chaldean dishes, the Chaldean American Ladies of Charity/United Community Family Services offer classes on healthy cooking to new arrivals to the center. “The classes are for six consecutive weeks. We just wrapped up our fall class, which began on September 18. Our goal is to educate families on healthier choices so that all may live a healthy lifestyle,” said Konja.
Samira Cholagh, of West Bloomfield, has been cooking Chaldean food for as long as she can remember. Having been born and raised in Baghdad, some of her fondest memories revolve around the family kitchen. “I remember being 10 or 11 years old and begging my mom to allow me to help her in the kitchen. Eventually, I took matters into my own hands and began baking cakes and cookies without her permission,” said Cholagh.
Cholagh hosts Samira’s Kitchen on MEA TV, which airs daily at 7 p.m. All episodes are uploaded onto her YouTube channel of the same name. She has also authored three cookbooks. The first, written entirely in Arabic, is titled Mukhtarat Min Finon El Tabekh, which translates to “Selections from the Art of Cooking.” Her second, Treasured Middle Eastern Cookbook, features some of her favorite Chaldean foods. Her third cookbook, which Cholagh jokes should have been her first, since she loves desserts so much, is titled A Baking Journey.
Her journey of writing three cookbooks has taught her a thing or two about dishing up healthier versions of Chaldean staples. “The best way to make a dish healthier is by baking the food instead of frying it,” said Cholagh. “The challenge that comes with this is maintaining the originality of the dish without losing the texture and flavor. For example, when I make Tepsi El Bathinjan (Eggplant Casserole) or Mussakaa, I bake the eggplant and other vegetables. The recipe for this can be found in Treasured Middle Eastern Cookbook and on my YouTube channel, Samira’s Kitchen, episode #172. There are also simple ways to substitute ingredients in an effort to make a healthier dish. Some examples include replacing regular flour with whole wheat flour, replacing sugar with honey, and using olive oil instead of butter.”
Both Konja and Cholagh acknowledge that their families inspire their healthy Chaldean cooking. “I really appreciated watching my kids grow up eating and enjoying homemade meals. Food brings the family together. Healthy eating should matter to everyone, because your health depends on what you put in your body,” said Cholagh.
“I’m happy to say that more than 80 percent of the meals that I prepare for my family are traditional Chaldean recipes,” said Konja. “It makes me feel good that my American-born children ask for traditional home-cooked meals. I’m hoping to pass the tradition on for generations to come, just as my mother did. I am Chaldean and proud!”