Immigrants fleeing Syrian civil war bring culinary hospitality

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An assortment of traditionally prepared Syrian foods made with recipes brought from home. (photo by Lauren Barber)

Over the last several years, the Piedmont Triad welcomed a significant number of refugees, particularly from Syria, some of whom are finding that preparing foods from their homeland for Americans is a way to stay close to their roots while forming stronger bonds with their new communities.

In 2012 Aisha Al Masri, her husband Muhammad Jabor and their five children fled Daraq, Syria after the outbreak of the civil war. But Ghada Alahmad’s family came first to Winston-Salem, traveling from Idlib, Syria to Lebanon where they remained for two and a half years before finding refuge in the Triad. Together they own an informal catering concern out of their kitchens.

Aisha’s daughters, 16-year-old Raghad and and 20-year-old Lma help when they can, and given how labor-intensive the food preparation can be, the help is appreciated. Kubbeh, for instance, is finely minced, spiced beef or lamb with an outer layer of bulgur. Aisha and Ghada use a special grinder to prepare the meat and form the football-shape by hand before cooking.

Locals who want to become involved with providing aid to refugee families usuallygo through World Relief chapters which form “good neighbor” teams, often through churches.

“We had all committed ourselves to six months of whatever support we could offer but we had no idea it would become friendship,” Diane Lipsett of Winston-Salem said. “They were so hospitable, and we realized we knew a lot of people who would love this food. Getting started in a new country is really, really hard and to supplement income with something they love and is part of their identity is kind of an extension of this wonderful hospitality that they already show.”

Lipsett is chair of the department of religion and philosophy at Salem College and a part-time minister at Knollwood Baptist Church in Winston-Salem. The church helped settle four Muslim refuge families in the last two years, three of them in tandem with Temple Emanuel, a Jewish house of worship in the city.

The venture began after the women catered a lunch for Sunday school teachers. Interest piqued, they were asked to cater larger church functions until other churches started calling, eventually branching out to a gig at the Winston-Salem Foundation. Lipsett and her friend Sara Pennell facilitate cooking and catering opportunities in the community.

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Muhammad (left), Diane, Ghana, Aisha, Raghad and Lma (below).

Raw carrot, tomato, cucumber, pickled radish and fresh mint or parsley leaves are common adornments, as are beautifully cut lemon wedges.

Syrian and other Levant cuisines are known for low-sodium dishes with savory spices and fresh herbs, exemplified best in salad dishes like tabbouleh or fattoush, an herb salad dressed with lemon and sprinkled with special croutons.

There is no shortage of meat in the diet, though. Grape leaves stuffed with rice and minced meat cooked and typically served hot make for an interesting meat option, best washed down with sweet pureed mango, watermelon and tamarind juices. The tamarind fruit grows on trees indigenous to tropical Africa that spread across Eurasia along the spice route as far as Thailand.

For a brief time, Muhammad worked at Salem Baking making Moravian cookies, and loves to bake. His family’s small ma’moul pastries with shredded orange peel stuffed with pitted dates are excellent for those who enjoy natural sweetness, and they pair well with coffee. Suwar as-sitt, a disk-shaped pastry steeped in a honey syrup called atr, has a center of crushed pistachios. It’s as sweet as but drier than most baklava recipes, and made with similar ingredients. If you want to experiment more, try the kanafeh; it’s a cheese pastry with a shredded-wheat surface soaked in a sweet syrup and sprinkled with wire-shaped kadaif. It’s not for everyone but is undeniably unique.

Email [email protected] or call Diane Lipsett (English) at 336.414.2865 or Mohammad Jabor (Arabic) at 336.247.4507 to learn more.

Plenty of familiar options found in Mediterranean restaurants are available, too, like falafel, kebabs and shawarma, sliced and marinated meat (they tend to use halal chicken) shaved off a roasting skewer and stuffed into Arabic bread with hummus, potato, red pepper and parsley.

Prices vary depending on whether the request is a several-course meal or an affordable boxed lunch. They dream of a brick-and-mortar restaurant but work in their own homes or private kitchens until a commercial option is in range.

“We like your culture and want to meet more nice Americans,” Alahmad said. “We want [to] cook for you and be friends.”

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