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Vancouver’s Syrian refugees finding comfort in food from their homeland

The Dish

Finding refuge in Syrian flavours

A monthly pop-up is offering Canadians a rare opportunity to savour the authentic tastes of the Middle Eastern country

Rawaa Mahouk serves a tray of ‘lady’s bracelet’ desserts at during Tayybeh’s Shades of Green Festival in vancouver on May 26.

On the eve of Ramadan, when most devout Muslims in Vancouver were at home preparing for the holy month of fasting, seven enterprising Syrian refugees were ladling out a massive feast for a party of 150. It was the latest edition of Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine, a monthly pop-up dinner that has become a local sensation with tickets selling out faster than the average rock concert – some in mere minutes.

The cafeteria in Norma Rose Point elementary school at the University of British Columbia was crammed with tables draped in plastic tablecloths. Tea-light candles shimmered in mason jars filled with water, fir boughs and lemon slices. Musicians strummed traditional songs on short-neck, lute-like ouds. Children streamed in from the outdoor playground, tugging at their parents' arms, anxiously waiting their turn to line up for the buffet.

The huge spread was heaped high with exotic dishes. There was mutabbal koussa, a thick and velvety grilled-zucchini dip strewn with red pomegranate seeds, and makloubet bazalia, dusty-floral scented saffron rice topped with slow-stewed beef and toasted almonds. Yalanji, exceptionally tender vine leaves rolled like little cigars, collapsed into a creamy rice centre under a slight tug of the teeth while simultaneously bursting with unexpected tartness. There was also lentil pilaf sweetened with caramelized onions, crispy green beans swimming in superbly mellowed tomato sauce, cabbage salad massaged into slippery softness with brightly acidic lemon juice and freshly baked saaj bread.

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Tabbouleh salad, cabbage salad, baba ghanouj and mutabal kusa were among Tayybeh’s offerings on May 26.

"Ramadan is a time of expressing gratitude," announced Nihal Elwan, the Cairo-born international-development consultant who spearheaded the dinners and was recently nominated for Western Living magazine's Foodies of the Year award.

"These women [the cooks] would like to give thanks to the beautiful people of this fair city for their endless generosity, their abundant kindness and their unflinching support in helping them make a home here in Canada."

Early last year, when Syrian refugees began arriving in Vancouver, Ms. Elwan contacted the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. to find women who might be interested in earning a little income through a one-time food venture, which has since grown into a monthly event and fledgling catering company. With $500 in startup funding from the Vancouver Foundation's Neighbourhood Small Grants program and a lot of volunteer hours on Ms. Elwan's part, the first dinner was held in October at Tamam, a Palestinian restaurant (the venue changes each month). Advertised only through Facebook, all 50 tickets sold out in 12 hours.

Individual ticket prices have since gone up to $60 (from $25). And the size of the event has grown so much that this latest rendition – like many family-style dinners – was slightly overcrowded and chaotic. (Ms. Elwan is contemplating table-platter service for future events). But there certainly hasn't been any shortage of interest. And for most of the women in the catering company (there are now six women and one man), this is the first paying job they've ever had.

"Cook? Yes, I did a lot of cooking at home – for my family," Leena Bozan said with a laugh.

Behind the scenes, in the school's high-tech, Apple-TV-equipped food-studies kitchen, Ms. Bozan, her husband, Majed, and son, Abdul, were scooping, shaping and frying chickpea falafels with a small, brass, thumb-operated utensil that punctured the batter with a thin hole so the pucks cooked evenly throughout. They had brought the handy falafel press (which is difficult to find in Vancouver) from Lebanon, when they arrived in February, 2016.

"In the airport here, they gave us falafel," Mr. Boza explained, grimacing. "It was not … delicious. And the shawarma here, it's too fat. It tastes different."

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Ah, such is the power of food. While it has the potential to unite cultures across a single table and build relationships through the simple breaking of bread, it can just as easily stir up heated debate and painful pangs of homesickness.

"This is not how my mother made it," said Lev Richards, poking at a plate of fattet hummus, a creamy "bread pudding" (as described on the Tayybeh menu) layered with softened pita.

"The pita should be crispy," explained the newly arrived Syrian refugee, who was at the event with his partner, Rory, and their newborn twin daughters. (They met in Istanbul, while she was doing volunteer work with Syrian refugee widows and children.)

Across the table, other diners were marvelling over the curiously smoky flavour in a chicken dish (it was freekeh, a roasted durum wheat grain) and quibbling over the various spices in a rub.

"It's cumin."

"No, it can't be," Mr. Richards retorted. "There is no cumin in bharat," a Syrian spice mix. (Sometimes, apparently, there is.)

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But how could any of us non-Syrians possibly understand – or dispute – the intricacies of the Syrian kitchen? There aren't any exclusively Syrian restaurants in Vancouver. Until very recently, the cuisine has rarely been commercialized outside of Syria. For most Canadians, it is entirely new.

Leena Alahmad, right, prepares falafel pucks for the Shades of Green Festival dinner in Vancouver on May 26.

Coming from Egypt, I thought the food would be similar," Ms. Elwan said. "But Syrian flavours are extremely complex. And these women don't skimp on anything. They grind their own spices and make their own cheese and yogurt. As I've been watching them cook, I realize there are many nuances and regional differences. I'm learning so much."

Tayybeh follows in the pioneering footsteps of other small Syrian food ventures across the country – Suphieh's Taste of Syria kibbeh stall at Fredericton's Cultural Market, the new Syrian Cuisine Made with Love catering company in Calgary and the casual Reyan Syrian-style shawarma restaurant in Mississauga, among others.

Much like Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s or impoverished southern Italians who fled to Canada after the Second World War, these newly arrived Syrian cooks are adding fresh flavours to the Canadian menu and expanding our multicultural palate. And for that, we are the ones who should be grateful.

Tayybeh will be special guests at the opening gala of the Indian Summer Festival on July 6. For news of coming dinners, you can follow the catering company on Facebook: facebook.com/tayybeh

Special to The Globe and Mail

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