Over the past few years, Ireland has been welcoming Syrian refugees to its towns and villages. As a result, there is a good-sized Syrian community now living in Thurles, the nearest town to our farm.
I’m part of a group of Irish Food Bloggers that are posting Syrian recipes today in an effort to introduce you to typical (read: addictively delicious) Syrian cuisine and start a conversation about how we can help welcome refugees into our communities. It doesn’t have to be about fundraising or even necessarily being politically active (though both of those things are great). In my case, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know some Syrian women in Thurles on a more informal level.
Although I was relatively ignorant about Syrian food and culture before writing this post, I did know that most Syrians are practising Sunni Muslims. This means the women wear Hajib when they’re out in public, socialization is largely segregated by sex, and alcohol/pork/non-Halal foods are not consumed – ever. In a small town like Thurles, that can lead to problems when it comes to the weekly shop.
As a result, most Thurles-based Syrian food shopping is done at the Halal shop in Port Laoise or the shops in Tallaght (Dublin) with the last few bits being done in Thurles itself. I was so impressed, when my friend Reham recently had me over to her house, with the size of her refrigerator – it’s a huge, North American-style, stainless steel beauty. I was green with envy.
“We need lots of room because we don’t get to Dublin very often,” she explained. “When we do go, we buy a lot of Halal ingredients and use the fridge/freezer for storage.”
Reham came to Thurles with her husband, son and daughter about two years ago (and she has since welcomed an adorable baby girl!). Her sister came as well, with her own family, but as many Syrian families are quite large the sisters still have siblings, in-laws and parents living in other parts of the world.
Reham and I originally met at a Thurles Women’s Group gathering. I was invited to attend by the local coordinator and didn’t really know what to expect. I ended up staying for hours, having great chats with nearly every woman – Syrian and Irish alike – in the room.
Kids, husbands, the little quirks that come along with moving to Ireland – by the end of the night the ladies and I were laughing like old friends, and Reham promised to make me shawarma – something I used to eat every night in Toronto after cleaning down the restaurant kitchen (the shawarma shop on the way to my apartment was the only restaurant still open at 2am!).
“There is one Halal restaurant (Kebabish) in Thurles,” she said later at her house, in between bites of shawarma and fresh lemon, “but we usually prefer to eat at home.”
I don’t blame her. Reham could make millions selling her homemade pickles and I would be a daily patron if her family ever decided to open a shawarma shop in Thurles.
… Have I mentioned I LOVE SHAWARMA?
In Toronto you can’t walk 500 metres without seeing a shawarma shop. Not all shawarma are created equal, though – the best ones are filled with juicy, spit-roasted slices of chicken or lamb, a generous smear of garlic cream sauce, fresh tomato and pickles and maybe a dollop of hummus for good measure. You can get them in a pita wrap, or with all the ingredients piled on a plate with fries.
Reham doesn’t have a spit (at least, I didn’t see one in the kitchen), but the chicken was moist and deliciously spiced. She wrapped the chicken and sauce in pita and toasted the whole thing on a grill – burrito-style! We then dipped our shawarma in extra garlic sauce and piled them with fried potatoes and bright red pickled turnip.
I was so full after the shawarma, but there was a delicious looking baklava for dessert filled with thickened cream and flavoured with rose water – how could I pass that up? I downed two pieces along with my cardamom-infused Arabic coffee.
I’m so glad to have met my Syrian neighbours in Thurles. They are as mad about food as I am, they’re fun to be around and they teach me new things all the time. As a newcomer myself it’s great to spend some time with other non-Irish people every now and then!
I’d encourage anyone interested in getting to know their local Syrian community to research any local men’s/women’s groups that might be involved. You can also contact your local representatives to ask how you can get stuck in.
The Irish Food Bloggers involved in this linky are supporting Amnesty International’s “I Welcome Refugees” campaign. Click on the link to learn more about this great initiative.
In the meantime, you can make this shawarma and baklava. You won’t regret it.
*Thanks to Billy at Rookie Cook for organizing this! Here are links to other #IrelandCooksforSyria blog posts (will add to this as they come):
The Honest Project
Colm O’Gorman & here’s Colm’s piece in the Irish Times
Spiced Chicken Shawarma with Creamy Garlic Sauce
For the Chicken:
500g chicken breasts or boneless thighs, sliced into large pieces
2-3 pita wraps
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp each:
all-purpose Syrian spice mix (you can find it in Halal shops)
pinch of cinnamon
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
100g plain Greek yogurt
2 tsp salt
For the Garlic Sauce:
5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
juice of one lemon
1 egg white
2 Tbsp ice water
1 cup rapeseed oil (or canola; sunflower – any mild oil)
good pinch of sea salt
- Marinate your chicken in the spices, garlic, lemon juice and yogurt for at least an hour.
- Saute or grill your chicken pieces until fully cooked. Open up the pita and spread 1 Tbsp garlic sauce in each. Layer the chicken into the pita and roll up tightly like a burrito.
- Grill the shawarma wraps until hot all the way through and the outside is slightly toasty. Slice into 2-3 pieces per pita.
- Serve with French fries, extra garlic sauce, dill pickles, pickled turnip and beetroot, fresh cucumber, fresh carrot, and slices of fresh lemon (you eat the lemon, it’s not for juice!).
Cream, Rosewater and Pistachio Baklava
at least 16 sheets phyllo pastry (8 for the bottom and 8 for the top)
melted butter (about 60g/1/4 cup)
250g/1 cup crushed or blitzed pistachios
Rose Water Syrup:
2 tsp rose water
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup honey
250ml/1 cup heavy cream
250ml/1 cup whole milk
60g/1/4 cup sugar
3 Tbsp cornstarch
2 tsp vanilla
- Make the rose water syrup: in a small saucepan, combine the lemon juice, water, rose water and honey. Bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes (until slightly thickened). Set aside to cool.
- Make the cream filling: in a saucepan, combine all of the ingredients, stirring until smooth. Slowly bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly, and boil for 2 minutes to fully thicken. Remove from heat, allow to cool slightly, then wrap clingfilm directly onto the surface of the filling (to avoid a skin forming) and chill for 1 hour.
- Preheat your oven to 180∘C (350∘F)
- Line the bottom of a small, lightly buttered casserole dish with half the phyllo pastry, brushing each sheet with melted butter before adding the next. On top of this, add the cream filling and spread evenly.
- Add the remaining phyllo sheets on top of the cream filling, again brushing each sheet with melted butter (including the top sheet). Using a sharp knife, lightly score the top of the baklava with a diamond or square design.
- Bake the baklava for about 40 minutes (check after 30). The pastry should be golden brown and puffed-up and the diamond or square design on top should be prominent.
- Sprinkle the top of the hot baklava with the crushed pistachios and then douse the whole thing in syrup (this must be done as soon as it comes out of the oven). Allow to cool before cutting and serving.
- You will want to eat this within 2 days (the fresher it is, the better it tastes).