The Hippo


May 30, 2020








 Mahrajan Middle Eastern Festival

When: Friday, Aug. 21, 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, Aug. 22, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, Aug. 23, noon to 5 p.m.
Where: Our Lady of the Cedars Church, 140 Mitchell St., Manchester
Cost: Admission free. Food priced per item.

Make way for Mahrajan
Enjoy a feast of cuisine and culture

By Allie Ginwala

 What started as a Sunday afternoon meal for the parishioners of Our Lady of the Cedars Church in Manchester has grown into a three-day festival, drawing thousands ready to enjoy lamb kabobs, stuffed grape leaves, tzatziki and hummus bi tahini.

“I think we started in probably the early ’70s,” Rev. Thomas Steinmetz said. 
Before it moved to its current, bigger location on Mitchell Street, the church never considered adding to the simple Sunday meal.
“We had people asking us, “Why do you only do this one day?” he said. “We saw the opportunity to expand and the community interest in expanding it.”
While the festival encompasses Middle Eastern culture as a whole, much of the food is of Lebanese origin, since the individuals who founded the church many years ago came from Lebanon.
“The Melkite Church itself is from throughout the area of the Middle East, although the people who founded this parish are from Lebanon so the food is oriented toward to what the people know how to make,” Steinmetz said. 
For the past eight years, Marylou Lazos has co-chaired the food preparation and organization, which begins many months before the festival.
“We prepare about 2,000 meals or so, so there’s a lot of prep work,” she said in a phone interview. 
The menu includes lamb, chicken and beef tip kabobs, lubyeh (green beans cooked in tomato sauce with onions and spices, served over rice), falafel, mujaddara (lentils with rice and caramelized onions), fatayar (bread dough pastry stuffed with onion, lemon and either spinach or ground beef) and the chicken or lamb shawarma, which Lazos said has been the most popular in recent years. 
“Whatever we can do in advance we do and then freeze, so now my job is making last-minute things because we only have so much freezer space,” she said. The spinach and meat fatayar are made just a couple of days before the festival. 
In the church kitchen (which, when they moved into the building 10 years ago, was the first thing to be redone), a group of about 20 parishioners started preparing the pastries in March and gathered once or twice a week in June to marinate and skewer the meats.
It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort, Lazos said, and those who volunteer their time to prep and cook know how important the festival is to the church. 
“If we didn’t have really the support of everybody in the parish we’d never be able to pull it off,” Steinmetz said.
Guests can expect to find plenty of Middle Eastern food favorites, along with some that may be less familiar to Americans, like koosa, a pastry with a custard baked between layers of phyllo dough. 
“It’s fairly labor intensive but really well worth the effort,” Lazos said. 
Koosa starts with a large zucchini or squash that’s peeled, cut and cooked, then mixed with cream of wheat. It sits for a day or so (or it can be put in the freezer) before eggs, milk and sugar are added and layered between the phyllo. 
“What comes out is a custard between crispy phyllo sheets,” Lazos said.
The main purpose of Mahrajan is as a fundraiser for the church, but Steinmetz said there’s more to the event than that.
“It also exposes the community to the food of the Middle East, to the culture of the Middle East and also to the reality that there are Christians in the Middle East,” he said. “It’s exposure for our church. … Whenever I mention the Melkite Catholic Church, it always requires an explanation.”
One way the church hopes to bring awareness this year is through a fundraising contest that benefits the Syrian refugees displaced by the conflict with the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
“There is a lot going on in the Middle East that is disheartening right now,” contest organizer Rich Ashooh said in a phone interview. “The church spends a lot of time trying to not only pray for positive outcomes but draw awareness to the problems there.”
This year’s Mahrajan will feature the kiss the camel challenge, bringing a twist to the popular ice bucket challenge.
“We’re trying to do something consistent with our cultural genre but will still have benefit on a very difficult situation,” Ashooh said. 
The way it works is someone who wants to nominate a friend or family member pays $20 to add that person’s name to the challenge. The challenged individual must then either kiss the camel — the much-loved Josh, who already gets plenty of hugs from festival-goers each year — or pay $20.
“All the proceeds go to benefit the fund that the Melkite diocese has set up to help the crisis,” Ashooh said. 
To up the ante, the kiss the camel challenge will have a celebrity component, which includes Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas.
“Our goal there is to set a price tag that’s higher than the $20. … We’re hoping people will donate to see Ted Gatsas kiss the camel,” he said. 
Other festival features include traditional Middle Eastern music from a live band Saturday evening and all day Sunday, a DJ on Friday and Saturday afternoon, booths with cultural and religious items, church tours and a small petting zoo.
“It’s really just a fun place to be,” Steinmetz said. 
As seen in the August 20th 2015 issue of the Hippo. 

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