A Homeland Built Around a Plate of Molokhia
by Dellair Youssef
I used to live in a small apartment with two tiny rooms and a low ceiling near Wittenberg Square and Kurfürstendamm in the centre of West Berlin. The house was built during the reconstruction phase of Berlin after the Second World War (like other buildings on this street that were probably built in the fifties and sixties). I lived there alone for six months, and for a year and a half, I shared the house with a Syrian friend.
I took my first steps in Berlin living in that house. Sometimes, I walked barefoot in the streets and said to those around me: This is how I create a permanent connection with the city. I returned to that house every time I got lost in the streets, roads, bars, and nightclubs of Berlin. I used to meet there with my friends; with the old ones, the new ones, the Syrians, the Germans, and with others of different nationalities.
I used to and still do love inviting people to my place. Perhaps it is related to my upbringing in a house full of guests and tables. By chance, my roommate liked to invite people as well and loved to make food as much as I do. We often fought over our shared desire to cook for our guests, me wanting to prepare one dish and he another. We were competing over the quality and taste of our food.
How do we prepare Musabbaha in cold countries?
We started making Musabbaha or hummus, as the non-Damascenes inhabitants of the world call it, at home because it is one of the basics of our cuisine. I don’t remember it being made in my family’s house or any other house I know in Syria. In every corner of the country, there were fawwal or hummsani, people who cook and sell hummus and foul, a cooked bean dish, for a living. They were selling us, feeding us, and providing us with what we needed.
Here in Germany, in this cold country, we have acquired new skills in cooking. Now, we prepare the Musabbaha at home, using two methods; one is complicated, and the other is easy to follow for most people.
The complex recipe consists of buying dried chickpeas and soaking them in water for a day or more, then boiling and grinding them before adding the rest of the ingredients. The second one is based on cans of ready-made ground chickpeas. It is easy to find as Arab and Turkish shops are spread throughout Europe, selling what we need when we are away from our homeland and its food.
We open the can, put the ground chickpeas in a bowl, and then add tahini, cumin, lemon, olive oil, sumac, and sometimes some garlic. This is my friend Waseem’s recipe, but I also add some yoghurt. This is my special touch, rejected by everyone who knows it, while others, who are unaware of it, say that this is the best Musabbaha in the world. The yoghurt changes the texture and adds a unique flavour to it.
In Berlin, there are restaurants from all over the world, from all the countries of our small planet, from Brazil and Chile to China and Japan. Someone like me, who loves the experience of food, visits many restaurants to try out tastes. That is how I became aware that the kind of fascism of saying that the food of my country is better than the others’, as many say, does not work.
Despite Damascus’s pride in its fattah, a dish of flatbread with other ingredients, the best fattah with hummus is made by a small Lebanese restaurant on Sonnenallee or the Arab Street in Berlin. It is a small shop with a few tables that has barely changed since the restaurant opened.
As for the best pastries, they can be found in another restaurant located a hundred meters from the fattah place, while the shawarma and fried chicken of a Damascene restaurant on Karl Marx Strasse may be better than the food in Damascus itself. There is a large number of shops in Berlin selling sweets from Damascus or Homs, but it is hard to find good kibbeh, a dish of minced meat and bulgur and its derivatives originating from Aleppo in the city.
In the Kreuzberg district, there are some famous restaurants specializing in Turkish grilled chicken, and Berlin is full of Lebanese restaurants serving salads and mezze. I know an Iraqi Kurdish restaurant in Kreuzberg that serves the most delicious Kurdish and Iranian dishes of mixed rice and meat like biryani, quzi, and lamb.
Of course, in Berlin there are also many Italian restaurants offering pasta and pizza and Pakistani places serving chicken cooked with curry, like the one next door… and so on to infinity.
There is no place for fascism in food. Every food is delicious if you know how to make it, and God knows best!
The Molokhia of integration
Food was our way of making our own cosy little homeland in the cold exile. We used to invite friends almost every day and cook Syrian (or shall I say Middle Eastern?) food for them and chatted around the table full of different dishes. We drank, smoked, ate, talked about our memories, our childhood, and home countries, and shared similar experiences of constant exile.
We used to cook Molokhia or jute leaf stew and Shakria, a lamb and yoghurt stew, wrapped vine leaves, stuffed zucchini and eggplant with rice and meat, appetizers of Musabbaha, Mutabbal and different salads, and grill chicken with potato slices, onions, and peppers. We did not know how to make many of them when we lived with our parents but living far away from home is an educator.
Around this table, our relations became closer, and we became more than a family. We became close, and this table became the nucleus of our supposed homeland, which we built together, meal by meal and cup by cup. This group of seven recurring and a few variable members became the circle of safety that we needed in the first years of our exile. It became a pillar to lean on when we were tired of the harsh life in Germany. We became each other’s shelter before we scattered. However, most of us still remember these relationships, and some still view this circle as their safety net.
It was also here where we gathered with our new friends of different nationalities, many of them German. Around our table, we talked to them about the Molokhia, told them the difference between the Damascene and the Beiruti fattah and discussed the fighting in Homs and Hama over a plate of Halawet El-Jibn.
This is how food paved our way to integration into German society. Our German friends knew us through our food, or better to say, they heard stories about us, our countries and our families through our food, and we learned more about Germany and German habits through the conversations with German friends eating Shakria and rice.
This is how we built a small homeland around a plate of Molokhia. A small homeland that can accommodate us, neither more nor less.