In Canada, we are blessed to be able to enjoy the tastes and flavours of the world. Sharing our food with each other can be a bridge between us; it can be enlightening and political. British acceptance of East Indian immigration, for instance, probably owes a debt to take-away curries, and in places like Toronto and New York City, global cuisines can be found within the same neighbourhood, enriching the lives of curious diners and forging bonds between neighbours.
Here in Peterborough, the culinary scene has transformed in the last two decades, from steak restaurants to a landscape dotted with kitchens from Europe, Mexico, Korea, China, Afghanistan, Thailand, India, and the Caribbean. Now we have the Alftih family and the Oasis Mediterranean Grill (OMG) to thank for bringing the taste of the Levant to us.
Mohammad Alftih and Randa Kharboutly came to Canada as refugees from Syria with their four children, escaping the insecurity and civil war which rages there to this day. “I am from Aleppo, the second biggest city in Syria. I was the owner of a factory for 15 years, making clothing for European countries,” explains Mohammad.
Aleppo is 30 times the size of Peterborough and, historically, is one of the oldest cities on Earth. Some scholars think that Aleppo, in the north of Syria close to the Turkish border, has been continuously inhabited since 6000 BCE. The Turkish influence is strong in Aleppo. “From our house to the Turkish border was 20 minutes,” says Randa.
“There were many restaurants and different kinds of food in Aleppo. But not like here, with Chinese, Korean, Thai, and Mexican restaurants. Mostly original Syrian restaurants with some branded restaurants,” notes Mohammad.
I ask him where the recipes for his dishes at OMG come from. “The recipes for our food come from Aleppo. All our dishes come from Syria. My wife, who has great skill, and my friends in Aleppo, all make the traditional food in Syria.”
Randa, who cooks for the family, is clearly the chef behind the dishes served at OMG.
I ask Mohammad what he likes to eat at home. “At home, we eat more items than we serve here at the restaurant. We cook and share many dishes; everyday we cook a different kind of dish. For example, mulukhiyah, with creamy chicken and rice. Cabbage rolls and okra.”
Mulukhiyah is made from the bitter leaves of the jute plant turned into a kind of soup or stew. Traditionally cooked with chicken or at least chicken stock for flavour and served with white rice, it is Mohammad’s favourite dish, along with shawarma. In Syria, the leaves are generally used whole, lending a different texture to the dish. “It’s like spinach,” adds Randa.
I ask why mulukhiyah isn’t on the menu. “We try to make and serve food acceptable to Canadians. Randa tried to cook many dishes here at first, but our customers didn’t know them and so they didn’t order them,” replies Mohammad.
Aleppo, as a key hub on the Silk Road, brought different spices together with its own fertile fruit and nut orchards. Syrian food can often be complicated and it takes time to prepare, a quality Canadians are seeking to restore in their busy lives.
I ask Mohammad what makes the Aleppo shawarma platter different from other shawarma platters. He responds, “This is how we serve it in Aleppo. The sandwich, it’s only meat with a little bit of pickle and garlic. The shawarma sandwich here, the customer orders it with many different vegetables and things. The Aleppo sandwich is 90% meat. Then we put it on the press and chop it and serve it with fries. This is how they like it in Aleppo.” Randa adds, “The Aleppo platter is how we eat it.”
Other restaurants in town that serve shawarma, like Ariyana, make a very different style. I liken it to the differences in borscht between different Eastern European countries, having the same base but radically distinct iterations.
Syria, and Aleppo in particular, is famous for its sweets and desserts. Currently, the only confection OMG serves is baklava, but there may be plans to expand this in the future. Mohammad proudly reveals that Randa “is professional in cake. But our restaurant is not for cake. Maybe later we’ll do special orders because she has excellent skill.”
As for unique Syrian drinks, “it’s step-by-step for Canadians,” says Mohammad. “Maybe I can serve ayran; it’s like yoghurt.” Ayran is not that dissimilar to the popular yogurt drink YOP, with the exception that its flavour is enhanced by adding a little salt. For many, ayran is a refreshing drink, but if you don’t already like plain yogurt, it can also be an acquired taste.
When the Alftih family decided to leave their home behind, they encountered different cuisines along the way. “When we left Aleppo, we went to Damascus then to Lebanon. I lived at my friend’s house,” explains Mohammad. “From city to city, there are different vegetables and different foods. Even in Syria, from city to city, the foods change.”
Now, they are faced with entirely new changes and challenges in their new home in Peterborough, not least the completely new palates of their Canadian customers. Yet, as Randa notes, “I’ve found that Canadians like to try new things.”
What Mohammad and Randa want most of all is “to satisfy people with our food and to see people happy in our restaurant. I always say, I like Canada, I like Canadians. You are lovely people and very kind. We can add 20 different traditional Aleppo dishes now but we need people to like it. So, it’s step-by-step. We try to dance slowly.”
Randa closes by saying, “This step we took in opening up OMG was because Canadians pushed us. When they tasted our food, they urged us to make something, to be successful. So, I feel that anytime somebody says we are successful, I say that’s because of Canadians. So, I want to say thank you.”
Mulukhiyih photo by Deed89, via Wikipedia. All other photos by Christopher Wilton.