Taste of Damascus: Syrian Cooking Class presented by the Contemporary Art Gallery

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Pomegranate seeds on the Mutabal – finessing!

I’m going to start this by saying that my love of food stems from learning new things. I love learning new recipes, trying new cuisines and being exposed to a culture that is different from mine. For months, I’ve been trying to get tickets to Tayybeh – a Syrian pop-up feast hosted by women refugees – but they always sell out within minutes (and good for them)! So, when I noticed on Tayybeh’s Facebook page, an event for a Syrian cooking class – specifically teaching the participants how to cook Kibbeh – I signed my Mom and I up as fast as my little fingers could type. I’ve been wanting to try a local restaurant that served Kibbeh for some time but I couldn’t figure out a good place to go and I certainly had no idea how to even begin making it at home. I was excited, to say the least.

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Now, what I’m about to say is not meant to detract from the lovely event that was put on by the incredible people associated with Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery and the amazing women involved with Tayybeh. The event was lovely. The hosts were gracious and patient and kind. The food was incredible and I’m still in disbelief that the tickets were FREE OF CHARGE! I would have happily paid, at least, $20 for the experience I had this past Saturday. There was homemade Hummus and Mutabal, fresh baked Sourdough by one of the Turkish artists involved in the event. There was also a mountain of Tabbouleh and two different kinds of Kibbeh! We were all well fed that day.

But unfortunately, the kindness and generosity that was shown by our hosts (Carmen and her lovely Mother – whose name is eluding me), was not reciprocated by the guests. I should know by now that a lot of people in Vancouver are kind of odd. I’ve lived here for the majority of my life and I’ve never really felt “at home” around these people. I just don’t get them – we simply do not connect. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me when there were only 5 people (out of the 20 that rsvp’d) at the event at 12pm – when it started. I thought to myself, they must be lost! The space was kind of hard to find but my Mother and I, and the other 3 people at our table, seemed to have no problem finding it. We also included enough of a buffer in our travel time to be able to spend some time looking for the event, should we get lost. I do realize not everyone is like that and there is a grace period for people pouring in late but when the majority of the people strolled in over AN HOUR late (and some people still arrived closer to 1:30 pm – the event ended at 3pm btw) I was personally offended.

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The mostly empty room – well past the start time, at this point.

The women involved in the actual preparation and presentation of the food are Syrian refugees. Let me repeat that one more time, these women are refugees from a war torn country (and I won’t even get started on my political viewpoints in relation to this topic but I digress). These women have had to leave their home and their lives – Carmen’s mother used to be a top chef at one of Damascus’ oldest hotels – to find refuge in Vancouver. A city that is far from friendly and unbearably dreary ten months of the year. The inner strength necessary to immigrate to a new land and start a whole new life is something I’m in awe of. Not only have they started new lives here but they are engaging with the local community and making us all the better for it. Taking the time out of their busy day (and lives!) is something that should be respected, not treated like an afterthought.

I’m going to come out and say it – the majority of those people in attendance, came for the free food. They didn’t give a flying fuck about learning how to cook kibbeh or anything else, for that matter. Only I and one other woman even had a notebook and pen to write down any recipes that were kindly shared. But, I digress. To be fair, I left the event only knowing about 25% more about making Kibbeh than I did before I went but I don’t blame the hosts. The full recipe was never shared and I don’t believe the time allotted for the event and the complicated nature of some of the dishes would have allowed for a start to finish cooking demonstration. The majority of the food was pre-made (it was all completely delicious – that wasn’t the issue) and served family-style, at the end of the event.

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An absolutely beautiful and generous spread presented by the hosts.

It wasn’t only the late entrances that bothered me. It was the rude behaviour of so many of the attendants. I literally watched one young woman take off her shoes and put her feet up on a couch that was tucked away at the back of the room … during a cooking demo, no less. I also witnessed someone stand on one of the chairs (that people were then going to be sitting on to eat) with her dirty shoes so she could get a better angle for a photo. There were many times during the three hour event that the hosts couldn’t even get the attention of the guests because people weren’t even paying any attention – too busy having their own private (and very loud) conversations, scattered around the room. At times, I felt like I was in a room full of misbehaved elementary school kids.

Vancouver, you are embarrassing.

With all that being said. The food was perfect. It was delicious and hearty. I was introduced to Mutabal, two types of Kibbeh and a few interesting ways to incorporate Pomegranate into your food. I would happily go to one of the Tayybeh events, if I can ever get a ticket. I wish the women involved with these kind of events nothing but the best luck in the future. I hope they weren’t as offended as I was at the poor behaviour of the participants. I truly hope they felt honoured and appreciated because they should. Enough ranting for now, I’m going to go teach myself how to cook my latest obsession, Damascus style Kibbeh. Please let me know if you have any good Kibbeh recipes or Syrian/Iraqi/Lebanese etc. restaurant recommendations to share! If you’ve made it this far, thank you, and please see below for pictures of the delicious spread.

THE FOOD:

Hummus & Mutabal

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Our lovely hosts brought homemade Hummus and Mutabal (a Syrian eggplant dish similar to Baba Ganouj but superior in taste, in my opinion). These two dishes were pre-made and then styled in front of us. The Hummus was topped with a generous drizzle of olive oil (which formed beautiful pools in the indentations created by the back of a spoon), whole chickpeas, sumac and chili powder, as well as some of the minced lamb and onion kibbeh stuffing mixture. I love Hummus but this presentation and addition of the various toppings took the flavour to another level!

The Mutabal, an eggplant dish mixed with yogurt, tahini, garlic and olive oil, was topped with fresh parsley, sumac and pomegranate seeds. The sweet pop of flavour from the pomegranate seeds perfectly complimented the rich and creamy eggplant mixture. Incredible! Will definitely be using more pomegranate seeds for garnish/flavour in the near future.

There was home made Sourdough, baked by the lovely Turkish artist in residence with the Contemporary Art Gallery. The man is clearly an artist of many mediums (including the edible ones)! The bread was flavourful, soft and had the perfect amount of chewiness to it. It complimented the spreads, perfectly. I would have been happy with just this but alas, there was more!

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Carmen’s mother showed us how to put together fresh Tabbouleh and even taught us the secret to a great dish – do not cook the fine bulgur before you make the Tabbouleh. Simply layer the bottom of the mixing dish with raw (fine) bulgur and place the chopped tomatoes directly overtop of the bulgur, allowing the juices to become absorbed by it. She also shared another secret, run your knife over the parsley, only once – do not go back and forth over the parsley, chopping it until it’s defeated. All you need to do is roll up the fresh – flat leaf, always – parsley, and run your blade through the pile as if you were doing a basil chiffonade.

Kibbeh – 2 ways

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As our hosts explained, Kibbeh is a dish that is popular all over the Middle East. Every country has its own version of Kibbeh and many regions within each country have their special way of making it, as well. There are endless variations of this dish and apparently, there are 15 variations of Kibbeh in Damascus, alone. The two types that were taught to us, this day, were Damascus-style.

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One was a traditional shaped Kibbeh, stuffed with lamb mince, onion and spices and then deep fried. The other, was grilled and then doused in Ghee – drooling just thinking of it.

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Both were exceptional and I’d love to recreate these at home. The ladies brought the “dough” part of the (for lack of a better word) dumpling, pre-made from their house but we were able to watch Carmen and her mother form the actual Kibbeh, which seemed to be a huge feat in and of itself. I liked both the fried and grilled Kibbeh and couldn’t pick a favourite, if I tried!

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Incredible.

This meal was SO GOOD. I still can’t believe it was free. I feel so honoured to have been in the presence of Carmen and her mother and I am very grateful for all that they shared this day. I’m very thankful for the kind and thoughtful members of Tayybeh and the Contemporary Art Gallery of Vancouver for putting on such an interesting event. Next time you pass by a Syrian restaurant or you’re thinking of something new and exciting to serve at a dinner party – may I suggest Kibbeh? You won’t regret it.

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