East By North East: Syrian-Newfoundland Food Fusion Is Revitalizing Traditions

A jar of partridgeberry jam may be an unusual icebreaker, but it was a no-brainer for the volunteer team assigned to help Syrian refugee Abir Zain’s family adjust to their new life on the windswept shores of St. John’s, Newfoundland. The tart bite of scarlet jam, which sweetens thick slabs of homemade toast or tea buns, says “Welcome to Newfoundland” like nothing else, and echoes the nature of “the rock, ” as locals refer to the island. Stunning coastlines and berry-clad barrens clad meet the abundant sweetness of the Newfoundland experience, with its close-knit communities and food-centric culture.

Zain’s family settled in, but finding work was a challenge. Despite her strong English skills, she was limited by the need to care for her five young children. Her husband busily studied the language and upgraded his certifications. Food became an easy solution. Zain started catering from her home, then moved on to pop-up events and eventually, her first workshop. Through the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, she began to teach others how to make Syrian desserts. The Foundation offered a contrasting Newfoundland tea bun workshop to match Zain’s baklava tutorial, and an open-minded sharing of culture began through food.

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 Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador;

In the two years that have passed since The Zains arrival, the shared values of community and food bridged the seemingly different cultures of Syrians and Newfoundlanders–especially the food. Home pickling, cheese making, and myriad baking endeavors–skills reminiscent of Newfoundland’s more self-sufficient past–matched with a devotion to fresh produce made for a match of culinary styles.

Access to fresh produce in Newfoundland has previously been limited by poor soil and harsh winters. The majority of the food was barged to the remote island, but lately, the reliance on canned and fast foods has driven a push towards innovative local production. The growing food security movement in Newfoundland has meant more farms and farmers markets supply the fresh produce Syrian cuisine demands. Exciting small producers  Dancing Roots Farm specialize in greenhouse tomatoes—essential when a short, cool summer season is often made cooler by passing icebergs. Using natural pest control and soil built with compost, Dancing Roots inspires hope for increased agricultural production in Newfoundland. But healthy alternatives to staples like fish and chips or the boiled root vegetable, cabbage, and salt meat meal called Jiggs Dinner are now on residents’ radars in the expanding food scene. That bodes well for Syrian meals and for public health in a province with poorer health statistics than much of Canada.

Next Zain discovered Cod Sounds, an organization that translates a passion for culturally important Newfoundland food into unique learning opportunities. Together, they set out to develop a new pastry workshop with fusion flair. Cod Sounds offers foraging, bushcraft, and traditional food skill workshops, placing a high value on local and wild foods and the intimate bond between people and the land that sustains them. Homesteaders Lisa and Steve McBride, teachers with Cod Sounds, provide the honey and maple syrup and forage the rose petals for the rosewater Zain uses in her workshop.

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 Felicity Roberts

Shatha Alward, another forger of food and culture, overcame language barriers through the universal tongue of deliciousness. Helping St. John’s chefs incorporate Syrian influences into their menus, she has deepened the demand for Syrian food in the region with the goal of securing employment for other refugees in the food industry. Mark McCrowe of Sundance has fallen in love with her laham bajine, a small meat pizza ideal for the pubs and eateries of George Street. The fusion food approach, like the warm cod tongue salad McCrowe spices with sumac, makes “exotic” restaurant fare personal and accessible. Darryl Hammond of Rocket Bakery and Fresh Foods has also made good use of Alward’s knowledge, expanding the salad selection at the popular downtown hangout famous for its fishcakes. Category defining restaurants Raymonds and Mallard Cottage focus on high-end regional cuisine, and along with educators like Cod Sounds, have created demand for wild food. Forager Shawn Dawson uses herbs that grow wild in both Syria and Newfoundland in his artisanal condiments available at local markets, a celebration of commonality through botany.

Terrence and Courtney Howell, a couple whose love story is born of fusion food: he from Newfoundland and she from Louisiana, together they have crafted a true foodie gem in a remote, rugged and magical landscape. Grates Cove Studios is a rural guesthouse and restaurant on the historic Bay de Verde peninsula, where deep local soul food celebrates land and sea, blending Cajun and Newfoundland traditions. Bringing even more to their restaurant’s tables is the Syrian family the Howell’s are currently sponsoring, Mohamed and Fedaa Al Taani and their four children, who are helping to revitalize the area and its food. As previously rural Syrians, their plant knowledge is impressive. By adding za’atar, a thyme-based seasoning, to bread dressed with foraged herbs, combining cabbage rolls with stuffed grape leaves, and barbecuing fresh lamb skewers, they are bringing a fusion of foods to receptive hosts and customers.

Felicity Roberts

Cheering on the movement is Ali Al Haijaa. Originally a Palestinian refugee, he’s been serving food is St. John’s for 11 years, and is known as the city’s Godfather of Middle Eastern snacks. Starting with late-night falafel, he’s opened two successful eateries under the name Mohamed Ali’s and deserves much credit for the local appetite for Middle Eastern fare. No stranger to fusion, one special he offers is shawarma poutine. Even among those who keep it traditional, like Sumac Middle Eastern Eatery, there are these types of crossover hits. The kibbeh is to die for, delicate spiced beef and onions nestled in a golden cracked wheat shell, deep-fried to crisp perfection. Like falafel, it pairs well with the beloved and sometimes hoarded nan-approved condiment, the holy mustard pickle.

With all this receptive sharing (to delicious ends), it’s little wonder St. John’s is reported to be the best city for new Canadians.

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