For Syrian Arabic speaker and Refugee Women of Bristol volunteer Susan, fresh and healthy food is always something to be enjoyed together.
Susan says, ““Food plays a really important role in the Middle East, first of all because of its religious meaning. It’s a way of being grateful to God, because food is a blessing. For that reason when we have food, we have to be around the table and we start in the name of God and after that we have to say thank you.”
On Friday we eat certain foods….it doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, posh, lower class or whatever, we all share the same food and we do it exactly the same. On Friday, people go to Mosque and when they get home the food is there, and wherever you go the food is the same. We have it with tomato and yoghurt and tahini and on the side.
For Susan, food is about sharing: “I live by myself so when I cook I share it with my neighbours. The first time I gave it to my neighbour he asked “are you going to charge me for this?! I was insulted! I explained to him that in my religion, food is a gift of God so you can’t ask for something in return. So now he is happy, he is very happy!”
University lecturer Susan, came to the UK from Syria in 2012 because of the war. As she remembers her days in Syria, she recalls her favourite dish Sheikh al-Mahshi – special courgettes stuffed with meat and nuts and cooked in yogurt. Stuffed vegetables are a feature of Arabic Cuisine – mahshi simply means “stuffed.”
Susan said “I haven’t eaten it since I’ve been in the UK, because we can’t get the small courgettes, but one day my daughter brought some down from a shop in London”.
Making her favourite dish evoked some special memories for Susan “I was crying when I made it. It’s my favourite, and I cried, because every time my auntie was cooking this, she used to call me and say ‘I’m cooking your favourite, come over today’ and I would go. I miss the human touch.”
“My food is purely healthy, because everything is fresh. It’s clean, fresh, delicious. It can be affordable, when you are talking about issues concerning your health. Better than taking any medicine, you can eat fresh food – this is my opinion.”
But Susan hasn’t always been passionate about food! “I didn’t like cooking. We were four girls at home, and my mum said, ‘we are going to have a rota, and everyone’s going to the kitchen’ and I was giving her a hard time, because I was all the time studying (I wanted to be a doctor). So I said to her, ‘I’m not going to cook, I’m not going to learn”. So when I got married, my husband (who was a very big foodie) used to bring me half of the market, put it in the kitchen and said ‘go ahead!’ So the minute I had children, I started to cook and I was a good cook, I was astonished, because I didn’t know!
But, the point is when my mum used to cook, I used to be around, I used to love to have an eye on her, to be a little bit curious. But I never cooked; I used to tell them, ‘I’m going to feed my husband hard boiled eggs!’ Thank God I’m now a very good cook!”
“In my country, when we eat oranges we only throw the pips, because even the skin we are making jam out of it or I’m freezing it and using it with some kind of meat. We are recycling everything in a manual way. We don’t throw away anything. We think about it, because – let me go back to the idea that food is associated with religion – in my religion because food is a blessing we can’t throw it in the bin and even if you are passing in the street and we find a dry loaf of bread, even if you are the prime minister you have to kneel down, put it on the side and kiss it because it is a blessing. My father was a doctor, so we came from a good family. And my mum used to tell me if you have bread and you don’t need it anymore, dry it and put it in a cloth and when you need it, sprinkle it with water and it’s going to be fresh again. And she said if you don’t keep this blessing, god is going to take it away from you. So we can’t throw anything. Even the leftovers we recycle it, and we make another thing out of it and it’s totally new the second time.”
Here is Susan’s recipe for Riz Bel Bazela (rice and peas)
1 cup Arborio risotto rice
3 carrots peeled and diced
1 big cup of peas
200g of mincemeat
A sprinkling of pine nuts and flaked almonds
Salt and pepper
- Soak a cup of rice in very hot water for an hour with half a tsp of salt.
- While the rice is soaking, fry the mincemeat in a little vegetable oil (with a little salt and pepper) until it is almost dry and put to one side.
- Drain the rice and rinse until the water runs clear.
- Peel and dice the carrots and cook until tender.
- Combine the carrots, peas and some pepper with the rice. Add a cup of hot water to the mixture and cook for 10 minutes on a medium heat. Add a couple of extra spoonfuls of water, turn the heat low and continue to simmer until the rice is cooked, and the water has evaporated.
- To serve as individual portions, take a small bowl and put a sprinkling of pine nuts and almonds in the bottom. Then add a layer of mincemeat, followed by a layer of the rice, carrot and pea mixture. Gently press down and cover with a plate. Hold the bowl and plate together and quickly turn upside down. Leave for one minute to settle and then remove bowl to reveal portion.
- Serve with salad and yoghurt with cucumber and mint