Aleppo Cuisine: The Journey to Healing and Hope

A number of aproned women are clustered around the sizeable marble island that
swallows up half of the white tiled kitchen. With a driven look on their faces and sturdy
hands, they lay bite-sized mini balls of minced beef on wafer thin strips of dough.
They exquisitely shape what looks like tiny, multiple canoes encasing ground meat.
These little gems are placed on oversized baking sheets that are destined to bake in a
preheated oven and come out tanned in approximately twenty minutes, wafting in an
irresistible aroma of spices.  This is Manti – the signature dish of Aleppo Cuisine.

Located in the heart of the Armenian capital, Yerevan, Aleppo Cuisine is a social enterprise established in 2018 by the Aleppo NGO.  The promising enterprise aims to empower Syrian refugee women and help them secure a steady income after they lost everything in the bloody, open-ended war in Syria. Its menu features a lengthy, scrumptious list of Aleppian delicacies.

Exactly two years ago as the initiator of a volunteer program to assist these refugees, I
met all the women currently working at Aleppo Cuisine. When I visited them this week to
write this article, I had a hard time recognizing their faces: They have radically
changed.  They are energized, empowered, and teeming with life.  Tirelessly rolling,
pinching, and stuffing non-stop, these cooks are, assiduously as well as affably,
working together in a scene that appears to be a number of sisters preparing for a
dinner feast.

Back to my meeting with them two years ago: They were, regrettably, on the verge of a
breakdown. They, bitterly mourning the immeasurable loss of loved ones and deeply
grieving their shattered families, had newly arrived as refugees in Armenia, suffering the
added material loss of their valuables under the rubble in Aleppo. They were adrift,
homesick, and terribly overwhelmed by the socio-economic challenges in their new
destination, Yerevan, Armenia.

“We were fairly established as middle class in Syria.  Even though my husband was the
only breadwinner, we still had a decent life.  Conversely, the actual brutal reality is that
everyone in the family has to earn money to make the family’s ends meet,” I recall one
woman telling me.  “My chances of securing employment are non-existent.
I have no capital to start a business and have never worked before. I didn’t go to
college, and I am no longer young to learn something from scratch.   I am certainly
doomed and incapable of helping my family,” she added in a tear-suffused voice.

Lamentably, similar heart-wrenching complaints dented my recollection of that moving
meeting.  Hundreds of women were facing the same destiny.  Inevitably, an out of-the-
box solution was the only salvation from their plight.

The leadership of Aleppo NGO, Mrs. Ani Balkhian (who received the UN award of
Woman of Courage;) came up with a dream project of a social enterprise that employs
primarily female Syrian refugees. The painstaking path to funding the project, finding the location, and finalizing the legal aspects was far from being paved with roses.  There
were two laborious years of incessant fundraising, advocating, and piecing the project
together,” Mrs. Balkhian explains.  The efforts came to fruition through a collaborative
funding by foreign donors who were compelled by the long lasting promise of the
project.  Now the Aleppo Cuisine is finally in full swing.

Faithful to a deeply-rooted Middle Eastern tradition of indulging a visitor, the Aleppo
Cuisine cooks affectionately regaled me with a mouth-watering tasting menu. They first
served a hot and cold, eye-popping assortment of mezze (appetizers), stunningly
garnished with springy, verdant fresh herbs and edible cutouts of fresh veggies.

Initially unwilling to spoil this beautiful visual feast, I was propelled to indulge by the
irresistible aromas.  Admittedly, the slender yallangy fingers (vegan stuffed wine leaves)
were superior.  They were feather-light with a pleasant, clean aftertaste.  The glistening
bite size Kibbeh – with its two versions, vegan and regular – were so inviting.  They both
had a miraculously thin crust encasing a spicy filling of caramelized plush onions mixed
with meat, in contrast to the vegetables in the vegan one.

As a cheese lover myself, I could not possibly ignore what seemed to me to be a close
kin to Greek cheese, philo triangles. The Aleppo Cuisine one is filled with two types of
cheese that combine the briny flavor of feta cheese and the stretch of mozzarella

To catch my breath, I paused and helped myself to a few sips of a refreshing orange
blossom scented water.  I asked the cooks if they could name any issues they face at
work.  One mentioned that following a recipe is defiantly hard.  She added that they
used to cook for their families from memory and used common sense rather than
measuring cups and spoons.  She indicated that they understand that the customers
expect identical flavors and textures every time they purchase the same dish.  Yet, she
came back and said “It is a matter of time to get used to technical cooking.”  Another cook volunteered to talk about another level of hardship, which is marketing. “We are
not social media savvy. Thus, we need help to increase the visibility of our Aleppo
Cuisine, expand our clientele and eventually increase the sales. That coming phase is
crucial to retaining our jobs, and creating more positions for other Syrian women to join
our team”.

Before I comment on the last pronounced statement, another attentive and smiley cook
served a tray of traditionally strong and dark Armenian coffee accompanied by a
dazzling array of  wonderfully fragrant and artfully shaped baked sweets.  Each is
named after the Syrian women who contributed the recipe to the Cuisine.  Thereby,
the storytelling of each delicacy distinctly complements the pungent spices and playful
textures.  The novelty was Natef, a made-from-scratch liquid marshmallow-like sauce to
drizzle on Karabeej (semolina crumbly cookies stuffed with toasted walnuts).

“Natef” a Made-From-Scratch Marshmallow-like sauce

The food experience at Aleppo cuisine goes beyond the pleasure of good eating.  It is a
remarkable story of perseverance and a defiant pursuit of life against all odds.

Right before leaving, I complemented the manager on the cleanliness of the kitchen in
spite of the simultaneous cooking tasks.  She grinned and said, “This is our
second home, it is our impetus and our journey to healing and hope.”

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I am a citizen of the world and a staunch believer in food diplomacy. For more, click here: https://cheznermine.com/about/

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