Today marks the sixth “anniversary” of the Syrian War – although I balk at using the word “anniversary” because that implies something that should be celebrated.
So I thought today would be the ideal day to write not about the war, but about some of the incredibly kind people who had to flee their homes and leave their families because of it.
Just last Sunday, I was extremely lucky to have been invited to dine together with a Syrian refugee family, along with a few friends, right in their home in Madrid.
Little background: I got to know this family because of our passion project Chefugee, and Wesal was the latest refugee cook who shared her culinary talents with us at the last dinner. Back in February, when I was at her house to help plan the event, I noticed a box filled with leaves:
At first, I thought they were tea leaves, but then she told me that they were Mlukhiya, or Nalta jute leaves, which are the leaves from the Mlukhiya tree that grow all over Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.
I asked Wesal how she cooked those leaves, but instead of writing down the recipe for me, she invited me and the Chefugee team to come over for dinner one night to eat with her family. Little did I know that it was to be a magic carpet ride to amazing flavours and one unforgettable night.
Babel fish and co.
That evening, I arrived along with my friends/Chefugee co-leaders Felicia, an American from Minnesota, Eyad, a Syrian Damascene, and Malak, a Lebanese from Beirut. Eyad and Malak were our appointed Babel fish for the night. Otherwise, Felicia and I would have just mutely but happily stuffed ourselves with all the food we could get our hands on.
As we arrived at their flat, we were welcomed by Wesal’s husband Ali and her three adorable children. Her youngest, a two month old baby boy, was peacefully dozing on a crib by the sofa.
What I did not expect was that we were to eat dinner in the traditional Syrian style – with a buffet-like spread on the floor, like a picnic over carpets. And oh what a fantastic spread it was:
Chicken flavoured with mid-east spices over rice (of which she said was a secret family recipe that she declined to share, understandably), muttabal, or eggplant dip, pita bread, mixed salad, a meat and tomato casserole, and of course, the Mlukhiya dish that was the raison d’etre for the evening.
Wesal, who learned how to cook as early as nine years old just by watching her mother and aunts cook, shared her fond memories of her mother laying out the mlukhiya leaves out on their porch to dry under the sun.
Apparently, this dish is the end result of quite a long and complicated process. After drying the leaves, they are collected and placed in big bags, which are hung high above their ceilings so no one can touch them.
When it’s time to cook, the best, undamaged leaves are selected, and then soaked in boiled water for two hours. The leaves are then squeezed several times until the water turns clear, and then cooked in a meat stock together with coriander, garlic, minced beef that had been cooked in ghee, or clarified butter. Wesal said that she constantly tastes the leaves to get the right flavour, otherwise it could be very bitter.
That night, the Mlukhiya was served to us with toppings of crushed dried coriander, garlic and almonds. It goes without saying that it was ab-so-lute-ly delicious. (I’d like to apologize for the blurry photo here, I think I was engulfed by gluttony to hold my mobile camera steady).
Ali then told us that this was a very healthy dish rich in iron, “to make you strong like Popeye!”
Bread is life
Can you believe that even after all this, Wesal STILL had two kinds of dessert for us? As she was busy preparing us plates of dessert, we had some down time playing with their children, whom we found out were a bit easier to communicate with since they spoke Spanish. Didn’t really matter though, because as soon as they got a hold of our mobile phones, they were lost in the digital embrace of Candy Crush.
As the night wound down, we helped clean the table by putting the scraps away. Felicia and I had casually placed small pieces of uneaten bread on the scrap pile, to which both Malak and Eyad freaked out a bit – “Nooo! We never throw bread away! Bread is sacred, bread is life,” Eyad shared.
OK, mental post it scribbled and added to my lifelong Cultural Sensitivity 101 training. Malak even shared that when she was a kid, whenever bread accidentally dropped on the floor, they had to kiss it before putting it back on the table.
With full stomachs and fat hearts, Wesal surprised us for one last time by, believe it or not, preparing tuppers (or in Spanish, “tah-pers”) for us. Wrapped personally for each one of us according to the dishes she observed we liked! And Ali even insisted on giving us each a banana. ¡Me flipa!
To be absolutely honest, I left with a strange feeling of both happiness and sadness. Happy of course that I got to eat like a sultaness, and eat cuisine that you won’t normally find in Madrid. But I felt pretty sad too.
Although we did not bring up the Syrian war once, nor the fact that they had to leave their home in Hama because their young son was becoming too frightened with the bombs exploding, the war was in my headspace all throughout the course of the dinner.
And yet this refugee family welcomed us – I’d say they overwelcomed us in their home, as if we were their lifelong friends.
It is indeed crazy how the ones who have the least are the ones who are most generous.
And it is absolutely batshit insane for countries to close their doors on refugees based on the lazy, ridiculous thinking that they are Trojan Horses for terrorists, when they are simply finding their own place again in the world, a place to call home.
For in the end, isn’t that what we all want – a place to come home to?