Ghada, Rania and Lema settle in around the kitchen island in Cathy Hanley’s waterfront home outside of Pictou to reveal the beauty that accompanies the legacy of Syrian cooking.
The sun is brilliant and it bathes the kitchen with a welcoming light. Lema is still cold and keeps her heavy fur trimmed jacket on as they busy themselves with little details before they present the food they have prepped for a sampling of Syrian cuisine.
Their hands work deftly around the plates of Kibbe, Tabbouleh, Shawarma and Syrian sweets as they garnish and arrange to their liking. There is no hesitation in what they are doing. Geography and war have not altered the way they do things. Their movements are no doubt the same as the women before them, who were taught by the women before them. There is a joy in their preparations that is as fragrant and colourful as the food they will share. It is a demonstration of generosity and thankfulness that is at the essence of much of their culture. It’s a teaching moment for all of us in the room that morning as we learn a little more about these new people in our community.
It is just over a year since three families displaced from their homes in Syria found their way to a new life in Pictou County. Rania Almethyb and Ghada Almetheb spell their last names a little differently but are related through marriage and lived in the Daraa province in Southwest Syria. Their families were sponsored by the Safe Harbour group and live in New Glasgow. Lema Casim and her family left their home in the Syrian capital of Damascus. The CAIRN group has nurtured their resettlement in the town of Pictou. It has been a year of gentle assimilation but with an expediency that accompanies an awareness of knowing that the sponsorship will not last forever.
The trio of women are hoping that their skills in the kitchen will create an opportunity for employment and a way to give back to the communities that have given so much to them. The feelings of loyalty to their sponsorship groups and their new neighbourhoods runs deep. A friendly competition exists between the women and they share a laugh and quick debate on who landed in the best town.
They know that other refugee families like the Hadhad’s in Antigonish have had a quick taste of success. Lema already has a small business and has completed her food safety handling course. She prepares her food at the Stone Soup Cafe and with the help of volunteer Giselle Mitchell, she brings her Syrian Delights to the New Glasgow Market. Ghada and Rania have aspirations that their small catering business will evolve into something bigger. They are also being certified in the standards of food handling and safety working on a business plan. With the help of the interpreter, Ilhem Dedkhani, who is on hand to help translate for the cooking demonstration, Rania tells us that her dream is to one day own a family business and be busy cooking ever day.
May your table always be plentiful – Sifrah Daimeh
The Syrian women cook with purpose. It is part of their daily life and they effuse domestic hospitality. Food is one of the most artful expressions of their culture and a symbol of gratitude for what they say God has given them. They never cook just to have enough, there is always more and they are always ready to welcome friends and family. Despite the abundance of food they are never wasteful.
“There is an Arabic saying that you should never waste water even if you are standing next to a running stream,” says Ilhem. The custom of sharing goes back to the earliest days of their culture, a story that is told in different ways but always with the same testament and is what has cultivated the warmth and love that is at the heart of their cooking.
Maintaining a deep understanding of their unique customs and beliefs is paramount for most Syrian families. Staying true to Muslim beliefs, the religion of Islam and the principals of Halal are not even questioned by anyone. When a Muslim serves you, you know that you are eating food that has been defined Halal or foods that are lawful or permitted under the Islamic teachings. Vegetarian and plant based foods are almost all considered Halal as are meats like lamb beef and chicken as long as they are slaughtered according to Islamic dietary laws.
Haram foods are foods that are not permitted and include but are not limited to pork,
Haram foods are foods that are not permitted and include but are not limited to pork, alcohol and vanilla. Increased awareness of the culturally accepted foods is making it easier for new immigrant families to not only feed their families but also extend in their business plans. As with any specialty food, procurement can be expensive. For some ingredients that Ghada, Rania and Lema need, as with other people practicing Islam in our rural communities, a trip to the city is often necessary to find what they need.
You eat with your eyes before your mouth
The plates of food are almost finished and ready to be photographed. The presentation of the food is as important as the food itself. Many foods are plated in a spiral pattern into the centre of the dish and the food is often higher at the outer edges. The time that goes in to the presentation is another nod towards hospitality.
“You eat with your eyes before your mouth,” adds Ilhmen, as the women start to slow after the flurry of prep work.
Ruby red seeds from a pomegranate add additional colour to the Tabbouleh made from parsley and bulgar, the egg shaped Kibbe warm with gold hues nest on a plate next to the Chicken Shawarma and Safia, a flatbread spread with a savoury paste of tomato and onion.
Another kaleidoscope of a salad with beet dyed turnips burst with colour and steam rises from the rice and almond dish that is one of Lema’s favourites to prepare.
Once the photos are taken the real fun begins. Cathy sets the table in her dining room. A few other women who accompanied the special guests for the day help bring the dishes from the kitchen and sit down with their new friends. Cathy Hanley couldn’t look any happier as she wraps her arms around Ghada, Rania and Lema. She has become close to the women helping them with English lessons since their arrival last winter.
“I have wanted to have these women to my house for a long time. I am so happy that it happened today, and look we have enough food to have a party. I think I should call some neighbours!”
Sweet and spicy aromas are released in the air already filled with the chatter of women.
Their words in English and Arabic mingle with each other. It’s a cooking demonstration that has turned into a celebration. Fadal’u! Welcome.