Habeeb Salloum is 93. Ever since his family left French-occupied Syria in the 1920s for a homestead in northern Saskatchewan, he has witnessed Syrian food evolve from an unknown entity in Canada to a vibrant, respected cuisine.
Amid the ravages of the Great Depression, his family lived on an isolated plain, far from any neighbours. Facing a brand-new country and climate, they grew traditional Syrian grains and legumes to sustain themselves through the long prairie winters.
Salloum first chronicled these traditional recipes – from simple dishes his family ate on their farm to elaborate classics – in 2005, in the first, spiral-bound version of Arab Cooking on a Saskatchewan Homestead. With a new wave of Syrian immigrants sparking interest in the country's food and culture, Salloum has just revisited and adapted his recipes.
The stylish new edition will be published by the University of Regina Press at the end of September and touches on everything from the Syrian civil war to the meals that nourished Salloum's family through the Depression years.
The Globe and Mail spoke with Salloum about his near-century of experience with Syrian food.
How have attitudes toward Middle Eastern food evolved since you were growing up?
When the first settlers left the Middle East to come to Canada, they were poor and were forced to survive on basic foods. For the modern immigrants, their food will be seen to be a higher standard. Mediterranean cuisine – and with that, Syrian cuisine – spread like wildfire because it's a healthy cuisine. Our traditional foods, like chickpeas, lentils, bulgur, tahini, are all sold now as health foods.
With the recent arrival of thousands of Syrians, how do you think Syrian food in Canada will develop?
Syrians bring with them a strong culinary tradition and their communities will bring food to the forefront. But it was not always like that. I was once interviewed for a book about the history of Arab populations in Canada, but there was no information to be found about Syrian immigrants. So I thought to myself, I'm going to write our history.
How do the struggles facing Syrian newcomers today differ from those your family faced when they first arrived in Canada?
My parents came from a society where socializing was one of the most important things. You come from a place where every night you sit with friends and neighbours and family, then you come to Canada, to a farm on a homestead where you're isolated. That first generation that came at the turn of the century, most of them were never able to go back.
Syrians in Canada today don't have that same isolation and they have better defences because they have more pride in who they are.
You wrote about your desire as a young man to assimilate and "Canadianize," without any trace of your culture and traditions. What would you say to new arrivals in Canada about this tendency?
The people who are coming now are much more educated. The early immigrants who came, they were just surviving. My mother could read and write, so she taught my father, but most of the immigrants were semi-illiterate or illiterate and didn't know anything about their history. Now, the demographics have changed. New immigrants bring something different: They have more pride and they don't feel that they have to hide who they are.
What recipes would you recommend to someone who has never cooked Syrian food before?
Stuffed cabbage or stuffed grape leaves are great, simple dishes. They're healthy, absolutely delicious and they look good on the table. I've spent half a century curating these kinds of recipes.
What is your favourite Syrian dish to cook?
One of my favourite dishes is a mix of lentils and rice, called mujaddara. It's traditionally viewed as peasant food, but it has such a rich history. In the Bible, Esau sold his birthright to his twin brother, Jacob, for a dish of pottage. This dish, mujaddara, is the pottage they're talking about. Muslims and Christians in the Middle East all believe in that – Esau sold his birthright for mujaddara.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.