Last week, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting three new refugee cooks to add to our growing Chefugee roster. It is almost embarrassing to note how warmly and openly they welcomed me – a complete stranger before I had walked through their doors – as if we were the oldest friends. (And it is becoming increasingly uncomfortable to realize that the welcome they give far exceeds the welcome extended to them by a number of developed countries in the world).
An untold story of Aleppo
The first family I met was a sweet, young Syrian couple from Aleppo named Samira and Yassir, and their one year old son. Pointing to himself, Yassir told me in his broken English, “I am the guest,” to communicate to me that is was I who was at home.
They invited me and my Chefugee co-lead Eyad over for dinner so we could taste the typical cuisine from their city. Before this I had no idea that Aleppo is apparently renowned as a gourmet landmark that was once the culinary capital of the Middle East. (If only this side of Aleppo prevailed as its reputation today!) Seeing the spread they laid out for us that evening – a normal weeknight mind you – it wasn’t hard to believe that they were indeed citizens of a gastronomic mecca.
Kibbeh (stuffed croquettes), baba ganoush, yabrak (grape leaves stuffed with lamb), hummus, mulkhiya (cooked jute leaves that we learned how to make at our magic carpet dinner with the refugee family from Hama), chicken rice, fresh yoghurt to drink, and wonderfully spicy guindilla green peppers to add an exclamation point for the evening. I found out that Aleppo is also known for its spicy dishes – awesome! – and Yassir even commented that the guindilla was not spicy enough for him – now there’s a man after my own heart! Then our soft-spoken, 23-year old hostess Samira told me that Aleppo did not have just one typical kibbeh, but many kinds, naming a variety that I couldn’t keep track off – like quince kibbeh, cherry kibbeh, and sumac kibbeh.
Still feeling a little overwhelmed by the array of food before me, Yassir told me to not be shy and to just eat without shame – “We have a saying: eat how you love!” he said.
And so we feasted that night.
After that glorious dinner, we were also treated to something extraordinary that night – can anyone say hookah shisha partay!
Constructing shisha artfully with different kinds of fruits to flavour the smoke was Yassir’s personal hobby. He assembled tonight’s post-dinner cloudy concoction with a sliced orange wrapped in foil, placed directly under three charcoal cubes.
My intention to comport myself as cool as that hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland was immediately shattered by the fact that I was apparently passing the hose the wrong way, with the spout up, which is akin to giving someone the finger. The right way is the either loop it once or simply pass it to the next person with the hose facing downwards.
Yassir and Samira are actually hairdressers by profession but because they arrived in Madrid only a few months ago, they are unemployed and still slowly learning how to speak Spanish. They will be the next featured cooks at Chefugee Aleppo happening later this month. (Announcements soon on the Chefugee FB page!)
Sudanese mother, Egyptian comfort food
Last weekend, I also met another wonderful soul who will soon be sharing her food with us: Maha from Sudan. (Love that her name sounds like the Spanish “maja” – and she really was. Maha and her daughter welcomed me and my other Chefugee co-lead, Malak, to their home last Sunday.
Maha is a Sudanese political refugee with a PhD in gender studies. She was working in an NGO in Sudan before she and her pregnant daughter fled to escape the religious conflict between North and South Sudan. Before arriving in Spain, they spent ten months in Cairo, Egypt, which is why apart from Sudanese food, she can also cook Egyptian fare. That afternoon, she served us koushari, a typical Egyptian comfort food made with pasta noodles, crispy onions and chickpeas, served with a thick tomato sauce.
“I am a very generous person,” she said, “and my generosity is reflected when I have guests for whom I am cooking with love.”
Maha shared with us that she felt a little strange to suddenly be the one on the receiving end here in Madrid, when it was her taking the lead in a lot of humanitarian work back in Sudan. So not only will she be cooking at a future dinner for Project Chefugee, she will also be one of the volunteers helping us and the other refugee chefs at our future culinary lineup.
An open table.
Ending this with some reflection.
After this week, I asked myself seriously if I would have done the same – willingly open my home and my dinner table to a stranger with an entirely different culture, background and language. To be completely honest, I have yet to answer that.
But sitting down and breaking bread with these refugees this week once again affirms what I’ve observed time and time again – that those who have the least are often times the ones who give the most.