Bridging cultures with food and friendship

Through friends of friends and the power of Facebook, a Syrian refugee woman demonstrated Syrian cooking to American women in the Stuttgart area, with delicious results.

Soft-spoken, with a kind face and serious eyes, she’s a thirty-something mother of four who fled Syria for the sake of her children. She prefers to use an alias in print, fearing reprisals against her extended family remaining in Syria. She has been called Rima in another blog posting, so she will be Rima here as well.

Rima arranged the groceries and on a kitchen table so everyone could see what she would use to prepare her Syrian dishes: garlic, olive oil, tahini, lemons, lettuce, homemade pickled vegetables, tomatoes, green onions, cucumber, mint, pita, and more. She invited everyone to smell the fragrant marinade the chicken meat had been absorbing overnight. She would turn it into shawarma for lunch. The menu would also include Syrian-style hummus and fattoush.

While traditional shawarma meat is cooked on a spit, Rima’s shawarma was more about the flavors in the marinade than the cooking method. She scooped the chicken into a large pot and cooked it gently, over medium-low heat on the stove. She then started on the base for a mayonnaise-like spread for the shawarma while quietly and calmly directing volunteers in the preparation of hummus, fattoush, and sweetened hot tea for the women gathered to watch.

The mayonnaise-like spread would take on two flavorings: lemon and red pepper. Rima said she only knew it as mayonnaise, even in Arabic and though it wasn’t prepared like traditional mayonnaise. “It is how my mother made it,” she explained. She started by measuring about four tablespoons of cornstarch into a pan, and then adding a cup of water. She stirred it to break up the lumps and fully incorporate the cornstarch into the water, and then she brought it to a low boil over medium heat and stirred until it was a thick paste. “It looks like Vaseline,” she said smiling, confident that it would become more appetizing looking as well as delicious. She took it outside and sunk the pot into a fresh snow bank to cool.

The hostess of the event, Ginah Vrooman, placed ingredients for the hummus in a blender according to Rima’s instructions. Rima had brought cans of a prepared hummus to doctor into her own hummus, rather than skinning canned or dried-prepared chickpeas herself. Rima said using skinned chickpeas ensures a silky smooth texture in the hummus and it is not a something she would forgo. Luckily, dried peeled chickpeas are available by mail order from Greek & International Food Market. With approximately two cups of canned hummus with tahini, she called for three cloves of garlic, the juice of one lemon, about a cup of thick Turkish yogurt (similar to Greek yogurt), a generous teaspoon of cumin, and about a half cup of pure tahini. She spread the thoroughly blended mixture on plates and topped them with drizzles of olive oil and pomegranate molasses, a sprinkle of paprika, and a sprig of fresh mint. Everyone eagerly dipped broken bits of pita that had been crisped in the oven for fattoush into the hummus. As predicted, it was smooth and creamy, but also surprisingly light, probably due to the use of yogurt instead of oil in the blender. The flavor matched that of the best hummus anyone in the room had ever tasted, but the texture surpassed all others.

Rima’s recipes conform to Syrian tastes and her mother’s high standards, who Rima says is an excellent cook. Her mother and father have remained in Damascus and Rima worries for their safety. “They have been without water in the city for 20 days,” Rima says. “They have electricity for only one or two hours a day.” Rima calls her parents on the phone as often as she can, but she hasn’t seen them in four years. Rima came to Stuttgart late in 2014, after eleven months in Egypt, a harrowing boat trip across the Mediterranean, and about a year in Greece. She joined her husband, who had been granted asylum in Germany in 2014, along with fewer than half of Germany’s other 202,645 asylum applicants that year. In 2015, the number of refugees who applied for asylum in Germany rose to 476,510.

Lisa Radinovsky, an American blogger living in Greece had become friends with Rima during her stay in Greece. Lisa documented her experiences with refugees on her blog Mom in Greece Today, and she wrote about Rima in the following post: When Rima first arrived in Germany, struggling to find her bearings in a very different culture, Lisa contacted Sonya Lindsey, an American friend who lives in Stuttgart, for help. Since then, Sonya has been helping Rima’s family and other refugee families in a variety of ways, including collecting donations and devising fundraisers such as the cooking demonstration, to help them survive and hopefully thrive while they are in Germany. Sonya helped organize the cooking demonstration using Stuttgart area Facebook groups to which she belongs as well as the personal connections she’s made through the groups. The American women who attended the cooking demonstration all learned about it through their Facebook groups and paid 25€ (about $26) apiece to attend, which covered the cost of the food and Rima’s time.

Regional variations on all the dishes Rima prepared can be found throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean, but Rima said Syria is known for having the best food. Her love for her country was evident on her face and her longing for home colored her words at several points as she was cooking. Although she is homesick, and despite an often difficult transition to life in Germany, she’s grateful her family is safely together and her children are in school. They had not been in school consistently for three years, both during their flight to safety and throughout many periods in Damascus when Rima kept them home for their safety. In addition to unpredictable bombings, there were times when Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s soldiers stood on rooftops and shot children leaving their schools. Her home in Damascus was bombed and then looted after her family fled the city, so she and her family will have to start over with nothing if they return. Still, she said she would like to return to Syria once the war has ended.

Rima brought the chilled cornstarch mixture in from the cold. “Now it looks like plastic,” she said. She scooped it into the blender and pureed it to a smooth, uniform texture. She added a little olive oil and the juice of one lemon and pureed it until it was opaque white. She removed half of it to a plate. She scraped about 1/3 of a cup of red pepper paste into the blender, pureed it again, and then removed the resulting bright orange red pepper spread to a plate.

She took the pot of cooked chicken for the shawarma off the stove. It was tender and juicy, and smelled deliciously of cardamom, red chile powder, garlic, and cumin. She smeared some of each of the white and red pepper mayonnaise spreads on a pita, topped it with chicken and homemade pickles, rolled it up and brushed the top of the pita with some of the oil from the shawarma pot. Then she placed it on a cookie sheet to warm in the oven.

Rima’s fattoush consisted of Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, green onions, garlic, dried mint, fresh mint, the juice of one lemon, olive oil, coarse salt, and oven-crisped pita wraps, and it made a fresh and refreshing side to the shawarma. Again, she mostly estimated the quantities of each ingredient as she assembled the salad, but it was roughly one large head of Romaine lettuce torn into bite-sized pieces, four quartered tomatoes, one sliced cucumber, four sliced green onions, two minced garlic cloves, about a tablespoon of dried mint, the leaves from four sprigs of fresh mint, the juice of one lemon, about a tablespoon of olive oil, coarse salt to taste, and four 12-inch pita wraps crisped in the oven at a low temperature and broken into one-inch pieces. Toss it all together in a large bowl and serve.

Rima prepared more delicious food than the group could finish. More than simply filling bellies though, her openness about her life and her experiences, her homesickness, and her determination to endure hardships to ensure a future for her children and make a life in a foreign land, Rima filled hearts. Frederick Buechner described the feeling perfectly in Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary: “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.”

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