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Food & Wine In Montreal, refugee finds sense of home through food

Nancy Solakian has tried a few new dishes in Quebec, including lasagna, which isn’t far from her culinary roots, since some forms of byorek are layered just like the pasta dish.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

This story is part of Crossings, a series chronicling the global refugee and migrant experience. Follow the series and add your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #GlobeCrossings.

Name: Nancy Solakian

Age: 19

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Home country: Syria

These days, the Syrian city of Aleppo relies on food aid from the Red Cross, whenever the fighting by opposing armies stops long enough for anything to be delivered. It's said that the whole city smells of cauliflower, because that's almost the only vegetable available. Just a few years ago, this hungry city was being feted in the international travel press as a great food destination. There's even a cookbook coming out soon, about the wonderful food that can no longer be found there, called The Aleppo Cookbook: Celebrating the Legendary Cuisine of Syria, by Lebanese chef Marlene Matar.

Aleppo cuisine in its full diversity is now mainly experienced in places far from the conflict, such as the kitchen of the small Montreal apartment where Nancy Solakian lives with her parents and two siblings. The Solakians fled Aleppo for Beirut in 2012, arriving in Canada last January. Their place is in Cartierville, an area of town where it's not hard to find Middle Eastern food shops that stock most of what the Solakians, who are Christian Armenians, need to make the dishes they ate back home.

Nancy listed off some of her favourites: sarma, stuffed grape leaves; kufta, meatballs in yogurt sauce; manti, stuffed dumplings made with fine dough; and dolma, stuffed baby eggplants and peppers. The Solakians also eat byorek, a savoury pastry made with meat or Armenian string cheese. Many North American recipes for byorek call for packaged phyllo pastry, but that's not always how it's done in Nancy's house.

"My mom makes the dough herself," she said. "She only uses phyllo pastry when she will make byorek with meat."

All of these dishes are known in Syria, Lebanon, Canada and all of the other countries to which Armenians fled after the 1915 genocide in Turkey. But many Armenian dishes also play a role in other cuisines, in which they may have slightly different names or ingredients. Close variants of byorek, for instance, are found in Greece, Turkey, Tunisia, Bosnia and other parts of Asia Minor, Europe and North Africa. If you were to map all the places where something like byorek is celebrated as local cuisine, you would end up with a territory very similar to that controlled for hundreds of years by the Ottoman Empire.

Dolmas, in the broad sense of any kind of stuffed vegetable, occupy a similar footprint, and most authorities say that the word is originally Turkish. But it doesn't really matter who came up with the dishes and who adapted them later. What is striking is that these foods have been peacefully enjoyed by peoples who have over the centuries battled with each other and occupied each other's lands. Horrific things have been done, and are still being done, by those who imagine they have huge political or cultural differences, but whose stomachs all speak the same language.

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Of course, any time people migrate for any reason, they take their food practices and preferences with them. That's why restaurants in a city of immigrants such as Montreal have such diverse menus, including supposed "national" dishes that have been influenced by other cuisines. The Restaurant Alep near the Jean Talon Market, for instance, offers what it describes as "a unique cuisine that stems from a fertile marriage between Armenia and Syria." I had a tasty lunch at the related café, Le Petit Alep, before Nancy mentioned that both places are owned by a cousin of her mother.

Nancy has tried some dishes that are outside her tradition but common in Quebec, including poutine, which she didn't much like, and lasagna, which she did. She has even made it herself, from scratch, in the little kitchen in Cartierville. But in a sense, she wasn't straying far from her culinary roots, since some forms of byorek are layered just like lasagna. Wherever you go, whatever you encounter, your stomach finds its way home.

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