586 An unlikely friendship: A Jewish writer and the Chaldean Martha Stewart

y holidays, birthdays and family celebrations are more special when I can create the foods that everyone yearns to taste.”

    (Samira Yako Cholagh)

Samira is the creator of the yummy dessert recipes we published yesterday. She’s also half of an unlikely friendship that grew into a creative collaboration with writer Lynne Schreiber. At first glance, the two women have little in common: Chaldeans are Iraqi Catholics, most of whom have migrated out of Iraq over the years. Lynne is a journalist, author and business consultant, but her personal life is rooted in Judaism.
    The two women met over a table of food. And, if you carry away nothing else from today’s delightful story of friendship, remember this: Our worlds can change dramatically when we meet over a table of good food.
    HERE IS A LINK to Samira’s dessert recipes!


By Lynne Meredith Schreiber


The first time I met Samira Cholagh was at the opening of a new photo studio by my friend Ally Cohen. Samira had made all the food—steaming platters of saffron rice, chicken, vegetables sat on a table and on a settee to the side sat a beautiful woman with flowing dark hair and a round beaming face.
I’d heard so much about her from Ally, who had taken all the photographs for Samira’s forthcoming third book, “A Baking Journey: from Samira’s kitchen to yours.” On a table sat Samira’s second book, “Treasured Middle Eastern Cookbook.” We talked. And soon there was an invitation to her house, to sample her food, to discuss her creative path, to see where we might forge alliances.
I didn’t expect to find a friend for life, a surrogate big sister, a culinary goddess from another tradition so similar to mine. My children have met her. They’ve petted her dog. She sewed sequins onto sweat socks for my eldest son’s Michael Jackson costume this past Halloween. In short order, Samira has become an irreplaceable part of my life and my family.
    I have a bit of an idea as to why…

Our First Lunch
    The table was set when I arrived on that September Saturday. Two crisp white square plates, silverware on either side. A salad of mixed greens with deep purple beets warm from roasting, sliced thick, sat on one of several white platters spread around the hefty round table.
Another white plate held colorful divisions of vegetables: thick cucumber chunks, soft ripe tomato halves, slithery sweet roasted red peppers, tangy olives and neat white chunks of hearts of palm, drizzled with a balsamic homemade vinaigrette.
There were two other plates—one with four neat symmetrical curry-meat pies wrapped in homemade soft dough and another filled with round fried potato chop balls—exquisite mixtures of the best meat ground by hand and Idaho potatoes cooked soft with parsley, salt and pepper.
We sat. We talked. We ate.
    Our flavors combined and intertwined, our backgrounds similar but different. I told her of my three young children; she told me of her three grown children and one grandchild on the way. She told me of her childhood in Baghdad; I told her of my years observing the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle while I was married.
The “Chaldean Martha Stewart,” as she is known by friends and family, had concocted the most delectable and gorgeous lunch I’d had in a long time. And the conversation was true. I sat in Samira’s West Bloomfield, Michigan, home and everywhere I looked were signs of her caring and her creativity—long luscious drapes adorned the windows, a mural decorated the back of the wall facing the front door, tall windows brought in streams of sunlight.
All of these details in her home were elements of life that Samira created herself. She oversees every project, she makes most of what you see by hand. This is a woman who caters to her community in more ways than just culinary.

A Varied Path

Samira Yako Cholagh grew up in Iraq. As a little girl, when everyone in her family took their long afternoon nap, from 2-5 p.m. every day, Samira took to the kitchen. “When they awoke, they expected a cup of hot soothing tea and a sweet or a snack,” she says.
As young as 10 years old, Samira was the only awake person in the house during this time. And so she opened her mother’s pantry and pulled things out and tried combinations until she found pairings that worked. Most of the time, her creations were delicious—and her family would awaken to find a set table, napkins folded, dishes placed for all to enjoy, and they’d dig into the dishes she created and sigh in satisfaction.
Sometimes, the concoctions were mistakes. And at those moments, Samira says, she’d toss everything in the garbage. Ever since those early years, Samira has been creating recipes and making food for people to enjoy.
After earning a college degree in agricultural engineering at the University of Baghdad, Samira and her husband, Nabil, moved to America in 1980. Two weeks after arriving, she gave birth to her first son, Lars.
In the next 10 years, two more children came—Valerie and Vinny. Samira raised her children in a new culture while working in her chosen field, all set to a background of entertaining and active involvement in her vibrant community. The Chaldean population in metro Detroit numbers more than 110,000—Catholics who fled Iraq to avoid the persecution of their Muslim neighbors, they have built churches, community centers, business organizations and a thriving landscape in which to live.
There is good and there is bad in this. After a few years in America, Samira realized many of the Chaldean mothers she knew were struggling to prepare American fare that their children were requesting. So Samira created a cookbook, written in Arabic, of familiar American dishes—macaroni and cheese, lasagna, fried chicken and other recipes.
A generation later, she had a new problem to solve: these same children who were raised so authentically American were poised to get married—and they wanted to recreate the recipes of their culture. But they had no idea how.
So Samira created her second cookbook, this time in English and this time featuring favorite Middle Eastern recipes for these very American offspring to make in their home kitchens, so their own children would know their heritage.
With every dish, she bridges cultures and makes a name for herself in the world of food.
“My kitchen was a lab,” she says of the journey she has almost finished, creating her third cookbook. The photographs for this book were taken by Jewish photographer Ally Cohen, of Frameable Faces Photography.
    Many of the 550 recipes are Samira originals. “I used my math—I am an engineer after all,” she says.
The key to Samira’s food is its simplicity. “It’s always flavorful because we don’t play with it so much,” she says, pointing to recipes with a handful of ingredients—mostly vegetables and herbs. Everything is fresh, everything delicious.
Samira told me that when she starts to make certain recipes, her friends simply appear at her door. One night in particular, she sent her husband to the grocery for salmon to put on the grill to accommodate all of the guests that appeared out of nowhere. She is a leader in her community but a silent one—someone humble and modest, someone true and authentic who attracts others like honeybees to a hive. They not only want to ingest her exquisite food; they want to imbibe her spirit.


In October, I invited 10 women to my house on a Saturday night. Samira insisted on making some of the food—but when I opened the door, she was weighted down with bags full of salads, meat dishes, vegetable sides and desserts.
    The party was Samira.
My guests arrived near 7 and it was a veritable medley of ethnicities, religions, races and traditions. We sat around my dining room table until after 2 a.m., talking, making new connections, sitting with flavors, listening to voices.
We sipped wine. We told stories. We shared our own special ways of marking the moments of life. And before I knew it, a new day had fallen.
“Samira is the warmest and most generous person I have ever met,” says Ally Cohen, the photographer who shot all the images for Samira’s baking cookbook.
“A woman told me a story about how she was redecorating her daughter’s bedroom and Samira made everything to match the new colors—bedspread, drapes, sheets, everything,” she says. “That woman, who is also Chaldean, said, ‘Samira is like the Martha Stewart of the Chaldean community.’ She didn’t do that because it was her job or because she was related to the woman—she wasn’t! She did it because that’s the kind of person she is. Helping her with her cookbook is my own attempt to pay it forward.”
Another night, Samira invited me to her country club, a gorgeous community gathering place for the Chaldeans of Detroit. Before we reached our appointed white-clothed table, everyone in the dining room had waved to Samira or greeted her with a handshake or a kiss. One young mother inquired about cooking classes for children—another pastime of Samira’s, to invite children to her home kitchen and lead them through the joys of cooking. “Just let me know and my kids will be there,” the mother said.
That night, I went home with heavy bags full of the foods we had ordered. Ground meat kabobs, garlicky hummus, silky-smooth baba gannouj, grilled chicken and saffron rice so smooth it melted on the tongue. We finished our meal with glass mugs of tea and rice pudding.
Each time, I marveled at my new friendship. How had I become so lucky as to meet Samira? Back on that August Saturday in Ally’s studio, I had no idea I would find a friend for life, someone who could guide me in raising my three children, someone to whom I could turn for support and for love.
I remembered that first Saturday at her house—I had no idea what to expect nor why destiny had brought us together. Before I left, Samira placed a thick piece of buttery cake on a glass plate and poured me a hot cup of tea. I slipped the fork into the creamy cake and extracted bites of candied lemon peels (homemade, of course) and pistachio hunks.
We are a generation apart but we are living the same story.
    “The children will leave you,” she said. “They will go on to their own lives. To this day, I still worry for mine. And I am about to be a grandmother.”
I, too, love to entertain in my home. I, too, love the immediate gratification of making delicious foods from scratch and serving them to people I love. I, too, love to see the connections that are made over the family table and like Samira, I celebrate important times in life—whether it be holidays of religious significance or birthdays or simply moments of great connection—with homemade foods and big, authentic hugs.
In Samira, I found a soul mate.

Meaningful Meals

Christmas is one of the most special times of year for Samira.
    “Besides being the birth of Jesus, it is time for giving and forgiving,” she says. “During this time, nothing matters—no matter what happens, I will still be in the spirit. I love preparing for the season, praying, making peace with anyone that I might have any conflict with—even a minor one.”
Every year, Samira finds people to help. “I try to make the Christmas season as special as possible,” she says. “Christmas will not be the same if I don’t buy presents for needy people.”
It’s become a Cholagh family tradition, in fact. Her children do it more than she does, even, and the holiday season becomes ever more meaningful because of it.
Samira plays Christmas music and sets the oven to bake. Everywhere she goes, everyone she visits—whether they are dear, lifelong friends or complete strangers fallen on hard times—Samira takes a box of baked goods made in her home kitchen.
“I love Christmas because people are so happy and nice to each other,” she says. “It’s the time for pains to be healed, for people to reach out for each other in so many ways.”
Samira’s third book has yet to find a publisher—but it will. She says the first two cookbooks were necessity; this one is a luxury: “For me to compile, it was a labor of love, and for those who read it to renew their energy and passion for making things with their hands, feeding their families and enjoying their own hard work.”
It took 10 years for Samira to write her new cookbook, hours she found between her current work as a substitute teacher, her family obligations and her many volunteer efforts.
“I love the feel of dough,” says Samira. “To me, it’s therapy. My husband teases me when I am bored that I should go make some dough and my feelings of boredom will disappear in the kneading. My holidays, birthdays and family celebrations are more special when I can create the foods that everyone yearns to taste.”

AT LEFT is Lynne Meredith Schreiber, who has written five books and many magazine articles. She is the Chief Creative Officer of Your People LLC, a company that provides community-focused marketing and public relations.

AT RIGHT is Samira Cholagh, author of two published cookbooks and a third she is preparing for publication, including the recipes that appeared on Tuesday.


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