Making Mahshi With Suaad

Suaad greets us with a smile that lights up her entire face as she ushers us into her home, bright and well-kept. It’s important to her that we feel welcome here. From the moment she wakes each morning, Suaad recreates life’s beautiful moments stolen by Syria’s civil war.

Suaad lost her home in Syria and now lives in a refugee camp in Iraq. She lost the presence of brothers and sisters still in Syria, and a little more than a year ago, she lost her husband. But she’s determined to not lose all of what matters, all that speaks to her heart. For Suaad, that means passing down family recipes and the familiar rhythm of creating traditional meals together.

On this hot summer day, Suaad sits down with two daughters, a daughter-in-law, and a few of her oldest grandchildren to make mahshi—a stuffed vegetable dish made with small zucchini and eggplant. And she invites us to join her.

The family kitchen is different than Suadd’s kitchen back in Syria, but she has made this space in a refugee camp in Iraq her own. Photo by Kara Haselton / Preemptive Love

Mahshi and Stuffed Grape Leaves

Serves 8-9 

Serve with flatbread, sliced cucumber, and pickled vegetables


2 pounds lamb shank/chops or chicken thighs

Several garlic cloves, peeled

2 pounds short grain rice

3 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp curry powder

2 bouillon cubes, crushed

3 tsp tomato paste

1 tsp chili paste

2 tsp dried mint

Half a bunch parsley, chopped

1 tsp citric acid (optional)

oil, as needed

1 jar grape leaves (unless you have access to young, fresh grape leaves)

6 medium potatoes

6 medium carrots

3 pounds zucchini

3 long green chili peppers

3 pounds eggplant

5 medium tomatoes


Lamb or chicken

1. Poach the meat, submerged in simmering water, for 30 minutes. When cooked, remove meat from the bones.

2. In a large pot with a tight-fitting lid, place the cooked meat in a layer at the bottom, along with the garlic cloves.


1. Rinse and drain the rice until the water runs clear. Place the washed rice in a large bowl.

2. Into the washed rice, mix the spices and herbs, salt and pepper, as well as the tomato and chili pastes. Pour in some oil until the rice is looking well coated and shiny. Give this whole mixture a good stir.

Stuffed grape leaves

1. Drain and rinse the grape leaves.

2. Taking one leaf at a time, lay out each leaf on a flat surface; place a heaping teaspoon of the rice mixture in a short line across the center of the leaf. Save the remaining rice to stuff the vegetables.

3. Tightly fold over both sides of the leaf. Then, starting at the bottom of the leaf, tightly roll the filling while tucking in any edges of the leaf until you have a neat roll.

4. Place stuffed grape leaves in the pot, in a layer over the meat and garlic.

Stuffed vegetables

1. Wash vegetables well. Peel the potatoes and carrots, roughly peel the zucchini, and slice the green chilis in half.

2. For the eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes, cut off the stem end but leave the bottom intact. Save each tomato’s “lid,” making sure any stem is removed. Core each vegetable, reserving the insides for another dish.

3. Stuff the prepared vegetables with the remaining rice mixture. Don’t over-fill, as the rice will expand as it cooks. Replace the tomato “lids” on each one, to stop the filling from falling out.

4. Add the stuffed vegetables to the pot in a layer, on top of the stuffed grape leaves. Make sure the layer is tightly packed, arranged to prevent the rice from spilling out.

5. Cover the contents of the pot with water, cover with lid, and simmer on medium heat for one hour.

6. Once the dish has cooked, allow it to rest a few minutes off the heat. To serve, remove the lid from the pot and replace with a platter larger than the pot. Holding the platter tightly to the pot, flip the pot upside down so the contents are now on the platter. You might need to give it a little shake, to make sure all the layers release from the pot.

7. Everyone at the table can eat from the platter. Serve with flatbread, dishes of sliced cucumber and pickled vegetables, salt, and lemon.

Ingredients are laid out, ready to cook. Photo by Kara Haselton / Preemptive Love

Suadd chops the parsley finely. Photo by Kara Haselton / Preemptive Love

Spooning tomato paste into the raw rice. Photo by Kara Haselton / Preemptive Love
Stirring tomato paste through the raw rice. Photo by Kara Haselton / Preemptive Love

One by one, cored vegetables are stuffed with the rice mixture. Photo by Kara Haselton / Preemptive Love

Authors: Erin Wilson, Kara Haselton, Lottie Hood, Diane McDougall