Mawda Altayan’s comforting dish is an international feast with beef, carrots, peas, and warm spices.
Last year, my friend Barb and I joined about 10 home cooks for a class offered through Welcome Neighbor St. Louis. This agency’s mission is “to partner with refugee and immigrant families, connecting them with the people and opportunities that will empower them to build and live their best life in their new country.” Welcome Neighbor also does drive-through supper clubs and offers cooking classes featuring chefs and cooks from Africa, Syria, and Afghanistan. One of those professionals is Mawda Altayan.
I first tasted Mawda’s food in 2021 at a St. Louis Culinary Society (SLCS) event that she and husband, Mohi, catered. Each dish she prepared was new to me, yet there were elements of familiarity that made this new cuisine easy to embrace.
When I learned she was teaching a class for Welcome Neighbor, I had to participate. Ouzi Rice was one of the dishes I enjoyed at the SLCS event, and I wanted to know how she made it.
Mawda, who is originally from Damascus, Syria, but also lived in Egypt, said the dish is a staple in Syrian households. Throughout the Arab world, ouzi is often made with lamb, but I’ve seen recipes using chicken and ground beef, too. One constant, however, is the fluffy rice laced with complex spices, which really makes the dish sing. Mawda’s tzatziki was the perfect accompaniment.
And, in keeping with this month's budget-friendly theme, Ouzi Rice is economical and feeds at least eight people. I estimated this recipe to cost approximately $3.50 per serving (including dried mint, turmeric, hadash or 7-Spice, and ghee; if you don't buy 7 Spice and make your own from pantry items as described, it's a little less per serving).
To make Ouzi Rice, which yields eight servings, you’ll need these ingredients:
4 cups basmati rice, washed
½ large yellow onion, chopped
2 tablespoons corn or vegetable oil
1 pound ground beef
2½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 bag carrot chips (or 2 to 3 whole carrots peeled and chopped)
2 tablespoons ghee (jarred clarified butter)
½ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon habash
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon cardamon
8 ounces frozen peas
To make tzatziki, you’ll need these ingredients:
3 small (pickling size) cucumbers, diced
2 peeled garlic cloves
½ teaspoon salt
32 ounces whole milk yogurt, plain
1 tablespoon dried mint
¼ teaspoon salt
Check out the recipe card below for step-by-step instruction, but there are essentially two parts to this dish: preparing the beef and veg mixture and finishing the rice.
Mawda said it’s important to rinse all the starch off the basmati rice. She soaked and drained the rice three times over 30 minutes, but usually it’s fine to let running water pour over the grains in a fine colander until the liquid from the rice is clear. Don’t skip this step for fluffy rice.
She then cooked the onion in oil until it started to turn translucent before adding the beef and cooking that until brown. There’s a lot of flavors in this dish thanks to the spices, so make it easy on yourself and buy lean ground beef to avoid draining fat from your meat and onion. She added ½ teaspoon salt with pepper and the carrots and cooked this mixture about 15 minutes before adding the frozen peas.
In a separate pot, Mawda added the ghee and bloomed the turmeric, habash, and cardamon in the clarified butter before adding the rice to coat with this mixture. You can find ghee in many supermarkets, including Fresh Thyme. Habash is an Arabic mixture of seven spices. It’s available online or check out international markets in your area. You also can make a spice mixture, too, using pantry ingredients.
Hot water was added along with 2 teaspoons of salt. The rice cooked about 30 minutes for the liquid to be absorbed. The fragrance of the ghee and spices filled the kitchen.
Mawda finished the dish with roasted cashews and a dollop of her tzatziki. If you’re in a pinch for time, buy tzatziki, but her version really was easy to make. She turned the garlic into paste using the salt and a mortar and pestle. Then the paste, cucumbers, mint, and salt simply were stirred into the cool yogurt.
The class dug in, and everyone agreed it was a satisfying and tasty meal. She said leftovers keep well in the refrigerator for a few days; otherwise, freeze it. As I was enjoying my plate of delicious Ouzi Rice, it struck me how every culture has its version of comfort food, and it often involves rice. Food is a perfect gateway to different cultures, and when you sit down to a meal to sample new food with folks from various backgrounds, you realize we’re all more alike than different.
Mawda, a self-taught chef, said she learned to cook from the women in her family. It’s important to “put your love into cooking” and not stress about measurements or procedure.
She and Mohi have four young children, all under 12 years. Mawda said she came to the United States in 2016. Although her demos are not monthly, she said cooking classes are part of their catering business, Damascus Food. You’ll find Damascus Food on Facebook. Some of their most popular dishes include kibbeh, baklava, chicken shawarma sandwiches, baba ghanoush, hummus, and yalanji (stuffed) grape leaves.
Ouzi Rice isn’t replacing mac ‘n’ cheese in my kitchen but whenever I make it again, I’ll think about Mawda, the warm, hospitable, and kind woman who introduced me to the food of her original home. Give her recipe a try and let us know how it turned out for you!
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Three Women in the Kitchen is an award-winning food blog offering today’s home cooks comforting, hearty recipes with a personal touch. The website also pays tribute to Deborah’s mother, Katie Reinhardt, and paternal grandmother, Dorothy Reinhardt (the “three women” in the kitchen). Whether you’re an experienced or a novice cook, you’ll find inspiration here to feed your families and warm your heart. Subscribe today so you won’t miss a single delicious detail.