When Alaa Hariri, a young Syrian student living in Portugal studying for her master’s in architecture, was asked at a birthday party what she missed most about Syria, she answered, “My family.” And then, she tells me over tea in a café in Lisbon’s Príncipe Real Garden, she “unconsciously” added, “I really miss the bread.” From this simple statement, Mezze — a Middle Eastern restaurant in Lisbon that employs Syrian refugees — was born.
Much like the South Florida Syrian Supper Club or #CookForSyria, Mezze is helping bring Syrian cuisine to other places around the world while fostering the dignity that meaningful work provides refugee communities. When Francisca Henriques — a Portuguese journalist and niece of the woman hosting Hariri as part of the Global Platform for Syrian Students (founded by Portugal’s former president Jorge Sampaio, in 2013) — heard the bread comment, she put Hariri in touch with a friend who works with social entrepreneurship initiatives … and voilà, an idea for a bakery, which then morphed into a restaurant and catering service, came into being.
[Hariri’s] favorite Syrian dish, harak osbao (lentils, onions, pomegranate juice, pasta and more), isn’t on the menu yet, but she hopes it’ll eventually make it.
Mezze’s focus is on employing women (and some young men). Henriques hopes to eventually take the idea “to other cities in Portugal” as well. And the food? She says the bread is a big hit, of course, as are the hummus and baklava. Hariri sheepishly admits that unlike most Syrian women, she’s not much of a cook — her father was the one who loved cooking — but she’s definitely down with eating scrumptious food. Her favorite Syrian dish, harak osbao (lentils, onions, pomegranate juice, pasta and more), isn’t on the menu yet, but she hopes it’ll eventually make it. Kibbe (bulgur, meat and spices) and treats wrapped in grape leaves are also going over well, with a typical lunch coming in at around 15 euros ($17.50), a full dinner at 25 euros ($30).
Since most of the women taking part in the project “know how to cook with love, but not professionally,” as Hariri puts it, they’ve been training in professional cooking schools to nail down the commercial side of a restaurant kitchen, with the aim of bringing the “flavor of home” to Mezze. This provides dignity for everyone involved, plus training and work skills that can last a lifetime. What I found most impressive was the attention to detail — food, ambience, training — which provides a refined dining experience.
Another great example of locals and refugee populations coming together for tasty results is the South Florida Syrian Supper Club. When Kate Cruz first caught wind of the Muslim travel ban, she contacted a local mosque in Miami-Dade and the Muslim Women’s Organization and said, “I want to help.” The result from those initial contacts is the Supper Club, which is focused on providing work for “mothers of small children.” Events are held every few weeks in different locations. “We even had one in a law firm,” Cruz tells me.
Supper Club dinners employ two female Syrian chefs, who prepare crowd favorites like fried kibbe, baba ghanoush, lamb dishes and yaprak (grape leaves stuffed with meat), among others. It’s an ideal venue for sampling Syrian cuisine, lettings cooks and guests come together and share cultures.
If these culinary initiatives warm your heart and arouse your appetite, consider getting involved with a project like #CookForSyria and attending or hosting a supper club of your own. It’s a creative way to raise awareness about some of the hard issues surrounding the Levant while filling your belly at the same time.
Try This: More Global Syrian Cuisine
- Al-Aga in Madrid is a tiny eatery in the northern part of the city getting some favorable press for its chicken, kibbe and kebabs. The joint is owned and operated by a Syrian refugee.
- The Oasis Mediterranean Grill (OMG) in Peterborough, Ontario, is another option for some tantalizing Syrian eats. The restaurant is run by a Syrian family making a new start in Canada.
- Kaan Cafe, located in Houston, provides yet another option to revel in Syrian gastronomy. The café is operated by a Syrian refugee who used to work as a chef in Damascus, where he specialized in French cuisine. He has since shifted over to Syrian fare — and chances are the food is still pretty damn tasty.
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