“Every tribe has an ancestral food that its exiles yearn for,
and that its children can’t live without.”
Judith Thurman, New Yorker
Am Shalom’s Syrian families brought tastes for the foods of their homeland—like Syrian Shawarma and Chicken Mashawi—ways of spicing, a sense of what a meal is, and the importance of certain foods, recipes, and techniques that are Syrian but also distinctly Kurdish, from their village of Efrin, near Aleppo.
I do not know what secret pains the two families carry, nor what they’ve been living with, but I do know that food can cure whatever ails you. Cook the foods from your home, with trickles and pinches of the seasonings you love, and it just makes you feel good.
Before they arrived last year at O’Hare, a wealth of Middle Eastern dishes had grown popular here. Like falafel, the deep-fried mixture of herbs and spices blended with onions, flour, olive oil, and chickpeas soaked overnight with a bit of baking soda for lift. Today, falafel has more than entered the American mainstream.
But from each Middle Eastern country, Syria included, there are flavors that can have the power to startle those unfamiliar with them. When Rokhash’s falafel was flavored with—among other things—dried parsley and dried cilantro, there was a distinct flavor profile with less of the falafel look and taste that Americans had become accustomed to.
So I decided we would visit the commercial kitchen of a professional Israeli chef who demo’d how he cooks falafel. Rokan and Rokash hovered over the chef’s cooktop; they were all eyes, studying every single move. He had some small tips that got different results: use handfuls of fresh cilantro and parsley, not dried; and pull them out of the hot, bubbling canola oil—not corn oil—when they’re almost cooked. Why? Because later, when they are transported to a dinner, warming them in an oven will complete the cooking.
When we got back in my car, they invited me to lunch two days later to cook falafel, a dish that seems to have a lot of leeway for a cook’s imagination. Add cardamom? A squeeze of lemon or zest? There are probably as many manifestations of falafel as there are immigrants. What I loved about the ones I tried that day was their impossibly soft, almost springy texture in the middle, not dry or hard, with the vibrant green colored centers from the fresh cut herbs, and a crunchy brown crust. Wrapped in a pita, or tumbled onto a simply dressed salad, their tops drizzled with homemade tahini sauce, they hit the spot. It promises to be a best-selling dish.