Libyan, Palestinian and Syrian Family Dinners in London

15 April, 2022

 

Tra­di­tion­al Syr­i­an dish­es (pho­to cour­tesy Mol­ly DeCoudreaux).

 

In this first per­son­al account of a nuclear Arab fam­i­ly liv­ing in the dias­po­ra, the writer recalls her night­ly fam­i­ly din­ners at a table laden with dish­es from across the Mid­dle East and reflects on what it taught her about her her­itage, and how food was also a way for her to feed oth­ers a dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive on a region plagued by neg­a­tive misconceptions.

 

Layla Maghribi

 

Our night­ly fam­i­ly din­ners were at a fixed time known to all. Such was their unfail­ing con­sis­ten­cy that on the odd occa­sion the house phone were to ring between six and sev­en in the evening, all five heads around the table would rise in uni­son, won­der­ing “who could that pos­si­bly be?!”

My two old­er sis­ters and I sat with our par­ents around our fam­i­ly din­ing table for food and sus­te­nance every night for most of our lives, well into adult­hood and jobs and mar­riages and chil­dren. That rec­tan­gu­lar table held our small nuclear fam­i­ly in the dias­po­ra togeth­er and is where I learned about what it meant to be an Arab.

The soft pow­er of food became the only accept­able show of force for peo­ple like us. Food was also a way for me to feed a dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive of the region plagued by the unfair rep­u­ta­tion that its only offer­ings are vio­lence and refugees.

My moth­er was born and raised in Dam­as­cus, the cap­i­tal of Syr­ia — itself the de fac­to cap­i­tal of Arab cui­sine. The breadth of Syria’s epi­cure­an tal­ents is well known and revered across the region. From the stuffed cour­gettes to the cher­ry kebab to the many vari­a­tions of kibbeh (with pump­kin, in yoghurt, fried, grilled, etc) Syr­ia has seen many a mouth sali­vate over its exot­ic range of delicacies.

My moth­er has flair and a mer­ry nature, traits she infused in her cook­ing. A woman with a quick and light touch in the kitchen who always aimed to impress, Mum liked to exper­i­ment, learn, adapt and share. In the same way my Libyan-Pales­tin­ian father had trav­elled through­out the Arab world dur­ing the sem­i­nal six­ties and sev­en­ties era of pan-Arab ide­ol­o­gy, dis­cussing and shar­ing ideas and thoughts with oth­ers from the Lev­ant and north Africa, so too did my moth­er on mat­ters relat­ed to soci­ety and cul­ture, par­tic­u­lar­ly food.

Pales­tin­ian maftool — cous­cous — with chicken.

In truth, Mum start­ed out as a ter­ri­ble cook when, a few months shy of 19, she mar­ried my father and moved to Lon­don where he was sta­tioned as the Libyan ambas­sador. Embassy life came with staff, mean­ing she didn’t have to cook for the first two years of their mar­riage. But when my father abrupt­ly resigned his post and became a polit­i­cal dis­si­dent, they for­went all the trap­pings to which they had been accus­tomed and my moth­er had to quick­ly learn how to become the mis­tress of the kitchen.

Night after night she would attempt to recre­ate the sump­tu­ous dish­es that her moth­er had assid­u­ous­ly con­coct­ed in the kitchen that flanked the court­yard Dam­a­scene house in which she grew up.

After too many of my mother’s culi­nary exper­i­ments left my father hun­gri­er than before they had sat down for din­ner, he sug­gest­ed that she make the one dish she had thus far made palat­able. Lahme bil sa7n, or kof­ta, called for a recipe that in its sim­plic­i­ty made for an easy suc­cess — after all, it is just sea­soned minced lamb rolled out in a pan and put in the oven. Nev­er one to shirk from a chal­lenge, my moth­er con­tin­ued haunt­ing the fam­i­ly kitchen, learn­ing and exper­i­ment­ing, until her food flourished.

Dri­ven by love, my moth­er made sure her expand­ing culi­nary reper­toire also includ­ed Libyan and Pales­tin­ian cuisine.

Cous­cous, a north African dish pop­u­lar­ized by Moroc­co but famil­iar to the Libyan kitchen, was a sta­ple at our table, par­tic­u­lar­ly when guests were present. A fix­ture in Pales­tin­ian cui­sine, cous­cous was referred to by my father, who was born and raised in Haifa, as maftool — tiny rounds of wheat fluffed and red­dened by toma­to sauce dressed in chunks of cooked car­rot, pota­to, zuc­chi­ni and soft­ly stewed lamb, all fur­ther gar­nished by chick­peas and sliced sweat­ed onions.

Many a par­ty was host­ed at our home with cous­cous at the cen­ter­piece. It pro­vid­ed an innocu­ous door­way to Libya at a time when the coun­try was infa­mous­ly out of bounds. Colonel Qaddafi and Back to the Future made Libyans out to be car­toon­ish­ly ter­ri­fy­ing, but those light lit­tle carbs of delight humbly human­ized a vil­i­fied people.

Since my father was a mem­ber of the Libyan oppo­si­tion cadre in exile in the UK, vis­it­ing the coun­try of my pater­nal her­itage was too dan­ger­ous to con­tem­plate and I only went to Libya for the first time in my life when I was at uni­ver­si­ty. There­fore, grow­ing up in Lon­don, my apo­lit­i­cal ties to Libya were pri­mar­i­ly nour­ished by its culi­nary offer­ings and my mother’s efforts to bring her children’s omi­nous and dis­tant father­land close to us over dinner.

Mubak­ba­ka, a food coma-induc­ing pas­ta dish whose name comes from the “bak bak” sound made by the bub­bling sauce while cooked, was anoth­er Libyan delight my moth­er art­ful­ly mas­tered. She was first intro­duced to it when one of my father’s nephews vis­it­ed them while they still lived at the embassy. One late evening, after the cook had retired for the day, their guest felt hun­gry and head­ed down to the kitchen to make some­thing for him­self. My moth­er fol­lowed, intrigued by what a Libyan man might rus­tle up. He fine­ly chopped some onions and gar­lic and fried them in oil before adding large chunks of lamb on the bone and sea­son­ing with cin­na­mon, turmer­ic, all spice, chili pep­per and salt. After sautéing, he added heaps of toma­to paste and water and let it come to the boil then sim­mer and stew. Once the lamb and sauce were cooked, he added the pas­ta to the pot to cook in their com­bined juices.

Libyan mubak­ba­ka — a pas­ta dish with lamb in toma­to sauce.

“See this sauce, Rehab? You mas­ter this, you mas­ter all the Libyan dish­es — it’s the basis of them all,” he told her. 

Mubak­aba­ka fea­tured more promi­nent­ly on our din­ner table dur­ing England’s cold win­ter months. The pip­ing hot mounds of penne soaked in a thick spicy sauce topped with melt­ed chunks of lamb were like an all-body hot water bot­tle and turned us all into fam­ished car­ni­vores. So loved by Libyans is the carb-heavy dish that it even found its way into my parent’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­i­ties in exile. Before I was born, the base­ment of our home was the de fac­to head­quar­ters of the Libyan Demo­c­ra­t­ic Assem­bly, the oppo­si­tion move­ment found­ed by my father. Dur­ing one of the many secret meet­ings held there, my moth­er was asked by a group of would-be Libyan rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies if she wouldn’t mind mak­ing them some mubak­aba­ka for lunch instead of the sand­wich­es she had been prepar­ing for them.

Anoth­er reg­u­lar win­ter warmer was muhamasa, a stew of round pas­ta balls in toma­to sauce (the very same) with a vari­ety of beans and puls­es. Served in a cav­ernous round bowl, it is an immense­ly hearty meal that invites the cold and hun­gry to tuck in. 

Our fam­i­ly din­ners weren’t all large vats of pas­ta, mind you. With an almost reli­gious-like con­sis­ten­cy, every meal­time spread includ­ed three main pil­lars: sal­ad, soup and a small plate of whole green chili pep­pers. The spicy night­shades were con­stant com­pan­ions of my father’s chomp­ing. In between morsels of okra stew — bamye — or green beans and lamb — loobia — he’d bite into one of his mouth-burn­ing green friends, before pro­ceed­ing to regale us with sto­ries of his child­hood in Pales­tine, ado­les­cence as a refugee in Syr­ia, teach­ing years in Qatar and monar­chy-top­pling rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­i­ties in Libya.

Sit­ting at the head of the table, his tales were the gar­nish to our night­ly fam­i­ly meals and no sto­ry, how­ev­er many times he repeat­ed it, ever lost its intrigue or moral phi­los­o­phy. Though my father’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­i­ties had qui­etened down by the time I was a young child, he nev­er ful­ly retired his polit­i­cal activism. Our din­ner table was there­fore also an edu­ca­tion in the socio-polit­i­cal sta­tus­es of the Mid­dle East in which we were all invit­ed to par­tic­i­pate, ana­lyze and argue over. Between the food and the con­ver­sa­tion, our din­ner table became a liv­ing shrine to a region we yearned for. 

My deep­est long­ing was for Syr­ia, the coun­try we vis­it­ed year­ly dur­ing the sum­mer months. Every trip was always inau­gu­rat­ed with a plate of koosa mahshy — cour­gettes stuffed with sea­soned rice and spiced lamb pieces. It didn’t mat­ter the time of the day we land­ed in Dam­as­cus, our family’s favorite Syr­i­an dish would be wait­ing for us like a hearty salam. Pre­pared by my excep­tion­al­ly tal­ent­ed aunt, this dish was the fir­ing gun for a sea­son spent feast­ing on Syr­i­an delights that includ­ed, warak enab, kibbeh bil laban and fasoolia.

Bamya — okra with tomatoes.

Dur­ing the cold, dark and often lone­ly school term days in Lon­don, my mem­o­ries of the sun­shine, rel­a­tives, music and mer­ri­ment of sum­mer were always bit­ter­sweet reminders of the painful dis­tance of dias­po­ra. Thank­ful­ly, Mum’s din­ners in the UK kept Syr­ia just close enough to us to endure its gap­ing absence. How­ev­er, for the longest time, I didn’t real­ize that her vari­a­tions on dish­es I ate and loved were a lov­ing homage to anoth­er part of our Arab her­itage that had an even more painful and endur­ing absence: Palestine.

For exam­ple, Mum would pre­pare lentil soup the Pales­tin­ian way, where the beans, rice and veg­eta­bles are cooked and whizzed into a smooth chow­der instead of Syr­i­an style, where the rice grains are kept whole and mince­meat and fine­ly chopped pars­ley are added.

My moth­er also made mlookh­eye, a cel­e­brat­ed dish claimed in mul­ti­ple coun­tries of the region, the Pales­tin­ian way, smooth and soupy, instead of keep­ing the Jew’s mal­low leaves whole and fry­ing them, the way the Syr­i­ans typ­i­cal­ly do it.

As for maqloobeh, my per­son­al absolute favorite Arab dish, my mother’s vari­a­tion on that was yet anoth­er tes­ta­ment of the lov­ing ado­ra­tion she had for my father. A rice and lamb plate typ­i­cal­ly made with fried aubergines, my father’s extreme dis­taste for the bul­bous, black-skinned veg­etable meant it was replaced with fried cau­li­flower instead, even though my moth­er had always been averse to cau­li­flower herself.

Chil­dren from immi­grant back­grounds can some­times feel self-con­scious about the “dif­fer­ent” food in their cui­sine to that of their native coun­try­men. Thanks to a pri­mar­i­ly inter­na­tion­al edu­ca­tion, dif­fer­ence wasn’t such a big prob­lem but being Arab was, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the post‑9/11 overnight cul­tur­al assas­si­na­tion that hap­pened to those of brown­er com­plex­ions with for­eign names. The soft pow­er of food became the only accept­able show of force for peo­ple like us. Food was also a way for me to feed a dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive of the region plagued by the unfair rep­u­ta­tion that its only offer­ings are vio­lence and refugees.

Invit­ing friends over for din­ner was a reg­u­lar and encour­aged prac­tice. Gas­tro­nom­i­cal gen­eros­i­ty is, after all, a renowned region­al trait and it’s also much eas­i­er to human­ize a region when you’ve hand­some­ly licked its del­i­cate tastes from your lips. My par­ents encour­aged us to invite guests home for din­ner, such that an extra seat was prac­ti­cal­ly always set at our table. It was an oppor­tu­ni­ty to “set the record straight” on what Arabs were real­ly like. While scoop­ing mounds of rice and beans and okra and lamb on our guests’ plates, we’d talk of the mag­nif­i­cent Roman ruins across the Lev­ant, or about the lib­er­al cul­ture of moun­tain-to-sea-in-a-day Lebanon or of the tol­er­ant soci­ety in Syr­ia. “And did you know that Arabs invent­ed alge­bra?” and our non-Arab guests would nod, chew, purr and even­tu­al­ly roll away, sati­at­ed and hap­py with a new con­cept of what it meant to be an Arab.

 

cuisineculinaryfamilyfoodgastronomyLibyaPalestineSyria

Layla Maghribi is a British Arab journalist, currently based in the UK after several years in the Middle East working for international media outlets, including Reuters and CNN International. Raised in England, Layla has lived in Italy, Syria, Lebanon and the UAE, and has a special interest in social issues affecting Arabic-speaking communities, particularly in relation to culture, immigration and mental health. She is a correspondent with The National News based in London. You can read more of her work here or on Twitter @layla_maghribi.