Celebrating An Ancient Culinary Tradition

This article was published via THE HUFFINGTON POST – you can read it here (November 11, 2016).

I’ve never tasted anything quite like the dessert I was exposed to last Thursday at The Depanneur on College Street in Toronto. My day was pleasantly filled watching the Syrian ladies of The Newcomer Kitchen roll up their sleeves and create a three-course meal for their popup dinner that takes place every Thursday of the week.

Shortly after walking in the bustling kitchen, I discovered that the menu de jour consists of Fatayers, a savory, open-faced pastry filled with either meat (in this case beef) or a cheese and black sesame seed mixture, a bulgur dish with lentils that sounds incredibly healthy, a cucumber salad much like Tzatziki and something called Harissa for dessert.

The kitchen is sizzling. At one table about five women quickly chop onions and carrots for the main bulgur dish, some of them succumbing to watery eyes, while three others huddle around a large square bin discussing how to make the Fatayer dough. Speaking in Arabic in a serious, yet still warm tone, I have no idea what they are saying. All I know is that getting the dough to turn out right is one serious affair in this kitchen.

Soon enough two ladies are kneading a large white ball of dough. I notice that one woman is fluttering between the groups — I soon learn her name is Rahaf and that she develops the pop-up dinner menus each week. She explains she’s going to start to make Harissa, the dessert. A few of the women come closer to help her. One of them reads the ingredients in Arabic from her smartphone, the others help her measure the flour, the semolina, tahini, water, and more.

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Instead of using milk, the ladies measure out skim milk powder. I ask Rahaf why, and if that’s the way it’s done in Syria. She tells me the “new generation” prefers using milk powder for this recipe because it’s easier. But there’s also another reason: “Even the taste, the flavour, it’s better,” she adds. Rahaf tells me she did a lot of baking at home, learning many things from her mother.

The woman beside her nods and says she would bake often alongside both her mother and her mother-in-law. She tells her mother liked to make Harissa in winter, which would be about as cold as it gets in fall in Toronto. After most of the batter preparation is done, one of the women reaches for two glass bottles. I realize from the packaging that one contains rosewater, the other orange blossom syrup. “We have many versions of this recipe,” says Rahaf as she measures out the rosewater and orange blossom syrup using a teaspoon.

I learn the Harissa dough needs to sit before it’s baked. Rahaf tells me the cake is usually eaten alongside a tea-like beverage back in Syria, the name of which I’ve never heard before. My curiosity for this exotic dessert grows and, even though I know it will be a while before it’s done, I can’t wait until it’s finished baking.

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I eventually sit down and talk with Len Senater, the owner of The Depanneur and the key person behind the Newcomer Kitchen, which has been running since March of this year. The history of the initiative unfolds before me, and I learn how Len was inspired to reach out to the Syrian community after hearing grim stories of them being stuck in hotels on the fringe of Toronto earlier this year. Len right away wondered what living in a hotel for weeks and weeks without kitchens would mean when it came to eating and cooking. “I was like what the hell are they eating? Are they going down to the Esso and just grabbing themselves some Doritos? It just sounded terrible,” he remembers.

Len quickly put together an ad-hoc group of volunteers and got to work. He envisioned opening up the Depanneur’s fully stocked kitchen, which has been open for five years now, to the newcomers so they could cook for themselves. The volunteers tried to reach out to the Syrian newcomers, first trying the settlement agencies, before one of them met Rahaf and her husband at an event.

Rahaf, who speaks English very well, was able to explain the idea to other women—and it wasn’t long before a group of Syrian women and children were headed to The Depanneur. For some it was the first time they’d ever left the hotels, came downtown or used public transit. Almost instantly the women took over the kitchen and spectacular food started flying out of it. They then sat down for a meal, and Len witnessed a transformation in their faces from when they first came in. “All the sudden they came to life,” he recalls, “it was amazing.”

The women came back the following week, and within a few months The Newcomer Kitchen and the concept of popup Syrian dinners was born. Each Thursday of the week, a three-course menu is offered with pickup (or food delivery courtesy of Foodora) between 6 – 7 pm (tickets for the dinners are available on The Depanneur’s website). As Len tells more about the project, which he views as eminently scalable, I can tell it’s enveloped his heart and soul. Since the project he’s certainly added more Syrian dishes to his recipe repertoire.

“This [Syrian cooking] tradition isn’t owned by restaurants and fancy restaurants and cookbooks, celebrity chefs and T.V. shows,” he says. “It’s owned by the mothers and the grandmothers who’ve been making these dishes for generation after generation.”

Before I leave the Harissa is done baking. Rahaf smiles and hands me a plate holding a square piece with a blanched almond right in the centre pointing up. I take a bite—it’s gooey and divine and was surely worth the wait.

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