“BEING HAPPY HELPS”: ON LEARNING HOW TO COOK SYRIAN FOOD IN GERMANY
The first thing you have to know about my 20 year old housemate Ahmed is that he’s an amazing cook. You don’t necessarily expect it, because at first he comes across as someone who would be totally disinterested in cooking: breakfast is coffee and a contemplative cigarette and I generally have to cajole him into going food shopping by bulk-buying stuff I love and I know he’s not so into (Vita Cola, avocados). He’s not like those TV chefs who bury their faces in fresh herbs in a market while making orgasm sounds, or something. He’s not pretentious about food, he’s just really damn good at it. Which kind of gives me a heavy inferiority complex, because aged 20, my speciality was lumpy Béchamel sauce.
I spoke to Ahmed and Obeida about the thing that most interested me about their mad cooking skillz: since neither of the pair learned how to cook until they got to Germany, this meant they’d learned to cook incredibly delicious, complicated Syrian food here. How?
When I first got to Germany, I was in a refugee camp in Straubing for the first two months. And the food there was, ehh, fine, yeah, occasionally…well, it wasn’t always edible. Like this one time we got served this main course and it was weirdly sweet, like there was a ton of sugar in it and I couldn’t eat it. So that’s what I think of when you ask me about German food.
German food outside of the camp? I don’t know…it’s nice, I guess. Like, it’s not terrible but I’m never going to freak out over how delicious it is.
At this point I do German cuisine a gross injustice and ask Ahmed to taste the food I’m really hooked on that I’m pretty much certain no German would ever eat ready-made: supermarket-bought potato salad. Ahmed is diplomacy personified, but his scream mask of a face gives him away.
Oh, that’s…nice! Funnily enough, potatoes are actually the thing I started with, when I learned to cook. Once I got out of the camp, I called my mum and I asked her to help me learn how to cook things. I started off really simple, with potatoes…but yeah, not cooked in a German style, in a Syrian way, with onions and herbs. And then I took it from there. I mostly learned to cook from my mother, who would give me directions over the phone, but I also learned via the Internet.
I like cooking Syrian food because I don’t cook for the sake of it, I cook out of homesickness. I cook because I miss the food back home sometimes and if I didn’t make it myself, it would be hard for me to find it. Even when something seems too hard, I usually give it a go. Maybe it’s not perfect the first time round, but after the second or third attempt I’ve usually mastered it.
The food I cook is particularly good when I’m happy. I have a hunch that when I’m happy, that’s when I make really good food and if I’m not in a good mood or I’m feeling down, when I try and cook it doesn’t usually come out right. I guess also sometimes when I’m sad I don’t really feel like cooking and I often just stop cooking. When I’m feeling low I’ll usually just eat bread and cheese or I’ll just stop eating completely, because I’ll have lost my appetite.
But yeah. Finding the ingredients for Syrian food isn’t really a problem in Germany — well, it just depends where you live, anyway. In the smaller German towns, there are less middle-eastern markets, maybe just one, and then ingredients are prohibitively expensive. But in big cities, like Leipzig, it’s no big deal, there’s lots of middle eastern shops. I guess the only thing is that the quality of the ingredients is totally different. Like for example, even just fresh parsley – it tastes so much better in Syria, I don’t know why.
If you’ve no clue about cooking and you want to try and make something typically Syrian, maybe it’s best you start with an easy dip. Just take date syrup and mix in some tahini. It’s perfect for dipping “Arabic” bread in.
Like Ahmed, I only learnt how to cook since I arrived in Germany, which was eight months ago, and like Ahmed, I only cook Syrian food. German food? When you’re like “German food” I don’t really know what you mean. The Germans I live with and know don’t tend to cook. But cooking’s important for me.
In Syria, people don’t tend to go to restaurants, they (tend to) eat at home. And there’s more adults who live with their parents. It’s pretty normal, if you’re unmarried, to still live with your family as an adult, and that’s what I did. This means that your mother cooks for you and every day you get home from work and have this amazing meal ready for you. And I guess that’s what I’m trying to recreate. I want to have as good a food life here as I had there, and that was my motivation to learn how to cook.
Another motivation was that cooking has been really good for meeting people. I have a lot of friendships that started from us cooking together.
And besides all that, I’m 31 years old and I need real adult food: meat, rice, vegetables. Remember that time you invited me over for dinner and all there was to eat was tortilla de patatas and salad? That was so sad. That was why we ended up cooking a second meal — we wanted to be diplomatic, but we didn’t want to be hungry.
But you should be aware that Syrian food takes a lot of time — it’s complicated and it can take two, three hours to prepare. You should also be aware that it can be expensive, because you’re using so many more ingredients than German food. Typical Syrian food that I love is molokhia and aubergines stuffed with rice and also stuffed vine leaves. I guess for beginners, the best thing to start off with is trying to make molokhia.
Note: the dish molokhia is a staple of Syrian (and Egyptian and Lebanese) cookery but you rarely find it in restaurants here — perhaps because it’s a little tricky to find its core ingredient, the vegetable molokhia fresh. But keep your eyes peeled: it’s known as mluchiya in German and sometimes is labelled as mallow/dried mallow in English. In Germany, you can usually buy it frozen or dried. Sadly, it’s one of those distinctive vegetables that means subbing spinach or kale won’t do on this occasion.
OBEIDA’S RECIPE FOR MOLOKHIA WITH CHICKEN
Ingredients (serves four)
500g fresh molokhia/600g frozen molokhia
2 large chicken breasts
500g white rice
2 cloves of garlic (whole)
5 cloves of garlic (sliced into extremely thin, oblong segments)
150 g dried mallow
1 red pepper, cubed
1 tbsp Harissa paste
1 tbsp Tomato paste
1 tbsp powdered coriander
Sprinkle of powdered cumin
- Wash the molokhia well by soaking it in water for half an hour then drain, squeeze the liquid from it and spread it out to dry on a kitchen towel.
- If your molokhia comes fresh, cut off the stems: you only need the leaves.
- Boil two large chicken breasts with a bay leaf, two cloves of garlic, an onion, spices of your choice and some lemon peel with twelve-thirteen cups of water over a medium heat until tender. Once you’ve removed the chicken from the pot, strain the water and save ten cups of the broth for later.
- Slice your garlic into thin, circular segments. Fill your pan with a generous amount of sunflower oil and wait until it’s hot before adding the garlic and the now dry molokhia at the same time. Cover with pan lid and continue heating.
- Hold the pan lid and the pan and shake it energetically in a circular motion every 20 seconds or so. Important: do not use a spoon to stir, the heat must be contained within the pan.
- After four minutes, add a drizzle of olive oil. Continue heating and every 20 seconds shaking as before.
- After ten more minutes, add red pepper.
- Add two cups of the water you cooked the chicken in and you can now heat gently without shaking. Season with salt.
- Take a second pan, place a generous stick of butter in it and let it melt over heat. Heat the vermicelli in the melted butter. Once the butter has completed melted away and the vermicelli is mostly cooked, add rice to the vermicelli and then add water and bring to the boil until the rice and vermicelli are fully cooked.
- Stir in the harissa paste and tomato paste into the mallow.
- Shred chicken into small pieces. Add lemon and chicken and garlic to molokhia when the rice is almost cooked.
- Add 1tbsp powdered coriander and a light sprinkling of cumin to the molokhia. Cook together for a few minutes and then once you’ve strained your rice-vermicelli mix, you’re ready to eat.
Traditionally, this meal is made in soup form — Obeida’s version is slightly (but only slightly!) drier, so less like a soup and more like a rich, moist main course.
بالهنا والشفا! (Bon appetit!)
Written by: Sophie