Cooking with Bushra

In my current line of work, I encounter a number of newly-arrived residents of Canada, including many Syrian refugees. Recently, a co-worker of mine assisted a Syrian lady, Bushra, who she brought in an array of snacks as thanks for the help. Her Syrian generosity meant that there were a lot of snacks to share. I tried several delicious foods, including little pizza flatbreads, a sweet semolina cake, and kibbeh. The kibbeh were amazing—little balls of bulgur wheat stuffed with slightly spiced meat. They were so tasty, in fact, that I wanted to find out the recipe.

With the help of a woman who works for a local immigration agency, we set up a cooking demo at Bushra’s home. “Cooking demo” for Syrians apparently means “large feast with friends” because, when my co-worker and I arrived at Bushra’s place, there was a veritable banquet of dishes awaiting us. Bushra and her husband, Abdulwahab, are from Aleppo in Syria, which is a city known for its food culture. Aleppo was a major stop along the Silk Road, so the cuisine there was a sort of melting pot of influences and the diverse communities—Arabs, Armenians, Kurds and also Christians—who lived there. Abdulwahab ran a restaurant in Kuwait for many years, thus both husband and wife are accomplished cooks and prepared different aspects of the meal for us.

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The spread included some familiar foods and some new dishes. There was hummus (almost Israeli-style, with lots of tahini) and a lusciously smooth baba ganoush, decorated with shreds of carrot, olives, and pomegranate seeds. The tabbouleh (pictured above) was dressed simply, with just lemon juice, olive oil, and salt, and finely-diced tomatoes and onions made it one of the nicest tabboulehs I’ve yet had. Abdulwahab told us that the proper way to eat tabbouleh was with lettuce, which actually made it very easy to eat!

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(Clockwise from left: Green beans, hummus, Abdulwahab’s Famous Salad, chicken curry, rice)

Vegetables played a major role in the meal. Abdulwahab made his “famous salad,” that he used to serve in his restaurant days—it was mainly cucumber, lettuce, tomato, and onion dressed in lemon juice, olive oil, and mint. Another dish consisted of tomatoes, red peppers, eggplants, and onions simmered in olive oil (Bushra noted that you have to make sure to salt the eggplant before cooking so it absorbs less oil). My favourite vegetable dish was probably the simplest: onions simmered in about a half cup of oil on low (so they don’t brown). Add to that green beans, put on the lid, and let cook gently for an hour. Bushra served the beans cold. They were unexpectedly simple yet very tasty.

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(Clockwise from left: hummus, salad, curry, simmered vegetables, baba ganoush, kibbeh, rice)

There was also a big platter of yellow rice, served with a turmeric-heavy chicken curry. Spinach and onion handpies and the ubiquitous kibbeh finished off the meal. Bushra and Abdulwahab told us that they have a saying in Aleppo that “you eat as much as you love them.” The host wants to be generous with their guests, and Bushra and Abdulwahab were immensely warm and inviting. My co-worker and I tried our best to finish everything, but we failed in that challenge!

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Bushra gave a brief demonstration to me of how to make kibbeh. Years of practice have made her adept at forming the egg-shaped balls of kibbeh deliciousness. She uses an electric meat grinder to combine the bulgur wheat and meat, forms them into elongated little cups, stuffs in the spiced ground meat and onion mixture, then she moulds it into a tapered egg to be fried in a fairly shallow pan of oil (about ½ an inch deep). Bushra said that the thinner the kibbeh are, the better.

The meal ended with a round of tea and a platter of baklava and Syrian desserts. The whole evening was lovely—not only was there delicious food, but we learned a lot about Syrian culture. There was no political agenda, just a gathering of people with an appreciation of good food. We were there to share and learn, just one-on-one, as people. Bushra and Abdulwahab seemed surprised at how much I knew about architecture in Syria, and I was surprised at how they could be so generous in light of everything that they lost back home. I hope that there is a future for Syria that isn’t just warfare and destruction, because they have such a rich history, fascinating food culture, and such warm, welcoming people.

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