After reading about and eating Middle Eastern food, we thought it was time to do some cooking ourselves. So Logan, Meredith, and I decided our best chance to learn more about Middle Eastern cooking, while also getting to enjoy the product, was to have an expert show us. We visited a Syrian family who came to Canada almost two years ago, after living in Jordan as refugees for five years. We asked the family to show us how to cook a traditional Syrian food, something they had been making for generations – they chose kibbeh, a bulgar encrusted “meatball”. Back in Syria and Jordan, the father of the family, Monsur, owned a restaurant, and he and his wife Ghada would often wake up at 3am in order to make up to 1300 of these hand-shaped delicacies for a day at the restaurant.
Making the kibbeh involved almost everyone in the family. Ghada directed Monsur to chop onions, while the rest of us observed her adeptly spice the meat, no recipe in sight. We soon migrated from the kitchen into the living room, where the younger son – Mohammed – had laid out a thin rug in the middle of the room, to allow us to assemble the kibbeh without making a mess. The three of us, plus Monsur, Ghada, and their eldest daughter, Jana, formed an assembly line – although it quickly became obvious that the Syrians were much more skilled than us at shaping the perfectly symmetrical, tear-drop-shaped meatballs, so we were delegated with rolling the initial balls, that they then filled with meat and shaped. The kibbeh were then deep-fried in oil, and eaten alongside a simple salad.
Similar to our experience chatting with Sobhi at the Palestinian restaurant, Tamam, we found that food played a strong role in these newcomers’ identities. Just like Tamam, Ghada doesn’t need a recipe to make the food which has been a part of her family’s shared knowledge for generations. Maintaining a cultural identity through preparing and sharing food keeps us connected to our roots, regardless of the differences in time and space that accompanies immigration. Just as in 19th century North Africa, sharing food can be a means of bridging cultures – the European travellers we’ve discussed on this blog connected with their hosts through dining with them, and both Tamam and the Syrians were able to share a little bit of Palestine and Syria with us through cooking.
As we reflected on our experience, we thought about the communal aspect of cooking and eating that we observed both in our reading of historical texts, and by cooking with the Syrians. Ghada reminisced about how in Syria she would gather with women from the neighbourhood to drink coffee, and cook, or exchange foods. As we sat on their living room floor, assembling the kibbeh, the younger children in the family played, danced, and hollered around us.
Klunzinger and Lane-Poole, two 19th century male travellers, describe in detail their experiences eating communally around a table, in particular some of the expected etiquette. In 19th century North Africa, food was eaten with the right hand, a common norm in many places, based on the left hand’s use for hygiene-related purposes. We didn’t encounter this, but found that Monsur was very specific about how hands should be used to shape the kibbeh. Additionally, Klunzinger describes the challenge of conveying fullness to his hosts – they continued to feed him so long as his plate was emptied. We encountered a similar problem at the Syrians’, and all left feeling full enough to last the week.
After having left the Syrian family, the three of us thought about communal eating in our own lives. Although we’ve all had dinners with family and friends, none of us felt we had had the chance to share cooking in the same way as our Syrian friends. The importance of sharing food seems to have not only traveled through time, from the 19th century to modern day Syria, but has also migrated across the world with these new Canadians. Preparing and eating a meal has a way of connecting people — it gives us a platform to reminisce and tell stories, and also provides us with the opportunity to build shared memories.