This is a special post for a very special experience.
Let me get you up to speed. At school, I’m taking what’s turning out to be my favorite English class of all time: a Culinary Literature semester. In the class, we examine the intricacies of how food is used in writing to reflect human emotions and experiences.
Last week, our class was lucky enough to be visited by two women from Break Bread, Break Borders. Break Bread, Break Borders (or BBBB) is a social enterprise here in Texas that economically empowers refugee women from Bhutan, Iraq, Myanmar, and Syria by helping them cook for a living. In the 24-month program, the women are mentored by culinary professionals and cater events in Dallas and Plano with foods from their home countries. This allows the women to make money while developing the business, leadership, and financial skills they need to be successful.
The two women who visited our class last week were from Syria, and they brought with them not only incredible food but incredible stories. Asking them questions, my classmates and I got to learn about everything from their personal histories—one woman walked seven hours while nine months pregnant to take refuge in Jordan—to how they’ve adjusted to life in America (if anyone’s wondering how they stay in contact with friends and family back home, the answer is Facebook).
I won’t tell their stories for them, but trust me when I say those women are even more remarkable than their cooking skills—and that’s a high bar. I wish I could teleport you all back to that room to meet them for yourselves, but since I can’t, I’m going to do the next-best thing: use this post to pass along a bit of the amazing meal they made us.
Hummus with Pita and Raw Vegetables
Out of the entire spread the women laid out, this was the only food I was familiar with. Hummus is a creamy dip made from mashed chickpeas and tahini. It can be topped with anything from olive oil to herbs to peppers (or a combination), and it’s traditionally accompanied by fresh pita, a soft flatbread made from wheat flour. Some other common accompaniments are tomato, cucumber salad, and falafel, a deep-fried patty of chickpeas or fava beans. In addition to pita, BBBB offered us raw vegetables such as carrots, celery, and broccoli.
There are various ways to spell the name of this dish in English, but in Arabic it’s written حراق اصبعوا سهلة ولذيذة.بتجنن. Horaa osbao is a savory, slightly tangy meal made primarily of lentils and doughy noodles. The other components are simple—the list includes ingredients like garlic, pomegranate molasses, and lemon—but they somehow cook together into a rich gravy that made me instantly label the dish a comfort food (and my personal favorite of the day!). Interestingly, while the horaa osbao reminded me of a casserole or stew we might have for dinner here in the United States, it’s actually a much-beloved Syrian breakfast food.
The picture above shows plain horaa osbao, but the one my classmates and I tried was topped off with a layer of cilantro, fried onions, and crunchy pita that added amazing texture to the dish. This YouTube recipe creates a result that looks nearly identical to what we ate; use the following link to check it out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTS02EUkyjQ
These unassuming little meat pies were without a doubt the food that took me most by surprise. One one hand, sfeeha are just what they look like: circles of dough (the ones we had were puff pastry) covered with a thin layer of ground meat and spices. But when I took a bite, I was stunned; they didn’t taste anything like I anticipated!
Instead of being savory, the sfeeha packed a zesty punch of sweet and sour. The topping hardly tasted like meat at all to me— it was a flavor I’d never tasted before. Through my research, I’m now fairly certain that the women had flavored the meat with pomegranate molasses, much like the horaa osbao. I never would have thought to pair something so sweet and tart with meat, but it really works; once I got over my initial surprise, I found myself reaching for sfeeha after sfeeha!
Fried balls of dough-wrapped vegetables (not pictured!)
Okay, I have to come clean: I forgot the name of this dish, and no amount of Internet digging is revealing it to me. The image above is of kibbeh—a common Lebanese food made of bulgur, onions, ground beef or lamb, and spices—as it was the closest cousin I could find. What my classmates and I ate was slightly different: they were spherical balls of dough stuffed with mashed potatoes and vegetables. If anyone knows this food, please teach us about it in the comments!
Still, while I can’t give you the name or ingredients list for the dish we had, I can tell you it was delicious. The vegetables were soft and delicately spiced, and the outer layer of dough was crunchy on the outside and thick and oh-so-satisfyingly chewy on the inside. The closest comparison I can draw would be to a round potato samosa with a doughier wrapping and Syrian spices.
Anyone who knows me knows I love my desserts, and these rich little cookies are definitely no exception. Ma’amoul is an ancient Arab sweet in which a lump of filling (most commonly dates, pistachios, or a mixture) is wrapped in a pastry or cookie shell and baked. The ma’amoul I had was pure date wrapped in a crumbly, buttery shortbread, and trust me: they were addictive. Still, although the whole class loved them, few of us ate more than one or two. The ma’amoul were small—about the size of a ping-pong ball—but their thickness and density make them a surprisingly filling treat.
Now just imagine all of those dishes spread, steaming and fragrant, on one big table, and you’ll get a sense for what we were presented with in class. Sounds good, right? 😛
The next time you need catering in Dallas or Plano, I really encourage you to give Break Bread, Break Borders a go. Employing them is a chance to do more than simply feed the masses; it’s a chance to try a new cuisine, to provide an instant conversation starter, to support unbelievably courageous women, and to ask refugees questions you’d never otherwise get to ask. BBBB also customizes each menu to its respective party’s size and dietary restrictions, so making accommodations is a cinch. (BBBB has made four separate visits to my school, and according to my English teacher, not one dish has ever been repeated. Crazy!) You can find all the information you need on their website: https://www.breakbreadbreakborders.com
If anyone has any experiences with BBBB, Syrian food, or cooking as an immigrant, I’d love to learn all about it in the comments! Thanks for reading and happy snacking 🙂