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Wafdiya shows Isabel how to sort herbs for fattoush.EXPAND
Wafdiya shows Isabel how to sort herbs for fattoush.
Photo by Erika Kwee

Learning to Cook An Incredible Meal From a Former Syrian Refugee in Houston

When I arrive at my friend Judy's house—the site of our Syrian cooking class for the night—Wafdiya has already assigned my friend Isabel to sorting through a large pile of parsley, bunching the stems into a neat bouquet. Bags of rice, cartons of dairy, packets of spices, seeds and nuts, and piles of tomatoes and eggplant and cucumber line the counter, what seems like far more than we would need for a cooking class for four.

Wafdiya Ibrahim is a former refugee from Syria, a woman who was uprooted from her home in Homs and fled with her family to an interim camp in Jordan before finally landing in Houston.

Some of the ingredients used during the cooking class include "puck cream" and orange blossom water that was sprinkled over liali lbnan, a semolina pudding.EXPAND
Some of the ingredients used during the cooking class include "puck cream" and orange blossom water that was sprinkled over liali lbnan, a semolina pudding.
Photo by Erika Kwee

After arriving in Houston in 2015, Wafdiya and her family were paired with Chloe Krane, a mentor matched via Interfaith Ministries. She and her family arrived at a point just before refugee numbers began to fall nationwide. According to Houston Public Media, in Texas alone, the resettlement of refugees fell 79 percent from the same period in 2016-2017 to 2017-2018—down to just 738 people resettled in Texas. During her family's period of resettlement, Wafdiya met with Chloe often, and the two became friends—friends who often ate together as Wafdiya would invite Chloe to her house, where she would prepare meals. Her food, so full of flavor and vibrance, prompted Chloe to encourage Wafdiya to share her recipes with others. Chloe now helps Wafdiya facilitate cooking classes with the community that have evolved into interactive evenings of learning about new people, culture, and, of course, food.

Wafdiya (center) and her daughter Zainab (right) taught my friends and me how to cook food from their homeland.EXPAND
Wafdiya (center) and her daughter Zainab (right) taught my friends and me how to cook food from their homeland.
Photo by Erika Kwee

When Wafdiya left Syria, a book full of her family's recipes was one of the only items she brought with her. During the planning process that led up to the class, my friends and I realized we only had one request in regards to the menu: to cook something that was truly something Wafdiya would cook at home—comfort food that wasn't Americanized for our palettes. We settled on a few suggestions posed by Wafdiya and Chloe: a chicken and yogurt dish, fattoush salad, and a semolina pudding called liali lbnan. It sounded simple enough until we were in the thick of cooking, Wafdiya directing us like a skilled conductor of a poorly oiled machine, her daughter Zainab assisting with much of the cooking and the occasional translation.

Once we moved on from sorting and stemming the herbs, Wafdiya showed Isabel how to peel the tomatoes for fattoush, her hands so automatically skillful that she skinned about four tomatoes to every one of Isabel's. Zainab told us about her job working at Halal Guys as she whizzed together nearly a gallon of thin, salty yogurt with eggs and spices before pouring the mixture into a pot with chicken to braise.

Upon confirming that I didn't eat meat, Wafdiya made up a vegetarian dish for me on the spot, tossing chopped eggplant, tomato and onion into a pot full of hot oil and a generous amount of salt until it melted into a chunky, savory sauce.

Zainab finishes the chicken, rice and yogurt dish with a handful of fried slivered almonds.EXPAND
Zainab finishes the chicken, rice and yogurt dish with a handful of fried slivered almonds.
Photo by Erika Kwee

Although English occasionally posed a slight communication barrier, Wafdiya's knowledge and warmth easily shone through. At one point, when Isabel's hair fell into her face, Wafdiya took Isabel's scarf and warmly wrapped it around her head in a turban—a style she indicated that she wears when she's cooking to keep her hair out of the way. When I tried to subtly get an overhead shot of the stove when Wafdiya began frying the mountain of sliced pita into thin, golden crisps for the salad, she moved out of the way and planted me squarely in front of the stove so I could get the best angle.

"You, come," she would say to us, pointing to the stove where Zainab would tip in a plate of spices—a spoon of turmeric, half a spoon of curry powder, half a spoon of salt and a pinch of pepper into a pot of uncooked rice.

On the stove: chicken braises in yogurt sauce, turmeric rice begins with a base of bouillon and spices, and fresh pita strips are transformed into crispy chips.EXPAND
On the stove: chicken braises in yogurt sauce, turmeric rice begins with a base of bouillon and spices, and fresh pita strips are transformed into crispy chips.
Photo by Erika Kwee
Zainab stirs a pot of rice while Wafdiya fries fresh pita for the fattoush salad.EXPAND
Zainab stirs a pot of rice while Wafdiya fries fresh pita for the fattoush salad.
Photo by Erika Kwee

"Now, you stir until the spoon stands up in the rice," instructed Zainab. Through our flurry of questions and her easy management of several dishes at once, her skill and intuition in the kitchen was easily apparent. When we asked if she would ever start a restaurant, her eyes lit up. "Maybe someday," she said. We discussed the merits and disadvantages of food trucks and talked about other food that they've taught in past cooking classes. Later at home, I ran a search for Syrian restaurants in Houston—spoiler alert: there aren't many dedicated Syrian restaurants, but you can find spots with similar Mediterranean cuisine like Island Grill, Aladdin Mediterranean, Al Aseel Grill & Cafe, among others.

Learning to Cook An Incredible Meal From a Former Syrian Refugee in HoustonEXPAND
Photo by Erika Kwee

When the food was finished, we laid it out on plates: twin plates of the meltingly rich eggplant sauce, platters of yellow turmeric-spiced rice topped with chicken with bowls of the accompanying yogurt sauce, and a gargatuan bowl of irresistibly fresh fattoush—cabbage, tomato, and cucumber tossed with the juice of six lemons, tons of olive oil and salt, paired with a pile of freshly fried, glistening pita strips.

We took about 20 minutes to photograph it all from every angle before we discovered this photogenic feast in our eyes is fairly standard in Wafdiya's household. "You cook like this every night?" we asked in disbelief. Yes, several dishes every night for her household of 6-8 people. Before we began eating, we had to call Zainab—who was still in the kitchen carving out beautiful geometric shapes out of cucumbers to adorn the table—to come join us. We were so full by the end that we nearly forgot about the pan of pistachio-topped semolina pudding, but we found room for small squares drizzled with an orange blossom water.

A large pan of liali lbnan (semolina pudding) topped with cream and chopped pistachios.EXPAND
A large pan of liali lbnan (semolina pudding) topped with cream and chopped pistachios.
Photo by Erika Kwee
The pudding is served with a drizzle of orange blossom water.EXPAND
The pudding is served with a drizzle of orange blossom water.
Photo by Erika Kwee

As the meal wrapped up, there was still an abundance of food left on the plates, and we packed up containers of leftovers for the rest of the week. Is it cheesy to say we left with full Tupperware and hearts? Because we totally did.

In my small bubble of everyday life in Houston, I often feel detached from the people and stories depicted in the news. Getting to know Wafdiya, Zainab and Chloe was not only a warm, intimate experience that helped grow my friends' and my cooking skills, but also our engagement and knowledge about the larger Houston community. The class is an experience I can't recommend enough.

If you'd like to book a cooking class of your own with Wafdiya (recommended size around 4-5 people), email Chloe at ckrane@imgh.org.

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