Damascus conversion

Categories: News and previews

In advance of her upcoming demo in support of #CookforSyria, Roberta Siao, manager of Mazi Mas, explores the huge influence of Syrian people and their food during her childhood in Brazil

Words: Roberta Siao
Portrait: Mara Klein

It never ceases to fascinate me how much more I understand now, as I get older, the concoction of cultures I grew up with, as a young girl in Rio de Janeiro in the 1980s. These many influences keep coming back to me as I rediscover so many ingredients and recipes I recognise from my upbringing and learn about the important culinary contribution of the many different immigrants who ended up living in Brazil: the Portuguese who colonised the country, the African slaves they brought over (a huge influence), and the many others who settled here—Spanish, Italians, Germans and others far away like Japanese, Chinese and people from the Middle East. Dishes that originated in the Middle East—taboule, quibe, baba ganoush—are as much a part of my mum’s and many other friends’ cooking repertoires as any other Brazilian dish.

I was lucky as a child to be a regular visitor to the houses of two Syrians for whom I have very the very highest esteem. Both were very elegant, charming women with great talent for cooking.

The kitchen table
The first one was the mother of my best friend at primary school. She was also a teacher in our school and a single mother of three kids. My friend, Alba, the youngest child and only daughter, used to invite me to her house regularly—a great opportunity for me to eat the most delightful food her mum cooked! A table was always ready (either the main table in the living room or, the most important for me, the kitchen one) in case an unexpected guest arrived, this being a common habit in most of the houses I knew! She always had boxes of delicious baklava and almond cookies—what now I recognise as being ghraybeh. The invitation to stay and eat with them was like a dream for me, as food was already by then a serious appreciation of mine.

Another fantastic influence in my love of Syrian cuisine was my mum’s best friend, Dona Zaine, a lady living in the same block of flats as us, who had an array of talents, being a very reputable seamstress and an amazing cook. I will never forget the many times I went to her house to eat her rice and lentil dish, mujadara, which she prepared in a particularly creamy way, almost like a Middle Eastern version of a risotto. What a delight! I also remember she use to be over-indulgent in the amount of olive oil she used and in her habit of drinking beer and few shots of cachaça, our local spirit. She used to laugh, saying she had a fantastic health, so why should she worry? She died a few years ago in her late nineties! She was definitely right!

Legendary sfihas
Another vivid memory from my childhood is of the Rottisseria Sirio Libanesa, still considered the best place for Middle Eastern food in Rio. I was lucky enough to go to school nearby. It has been there for 45 years, but it is still consistent in the quality of the food it serves: kaftas, quibes, stuffed leaves with meat and the most famous of all: their legendary sfihas—delightful triangular filled parcels. The dough is so soft it melts in your mouth! Still as famous and unique as when I was a child.

Only last year, on a visit to Rio, I had the opportunity to visit the restaurant and was truly happy and proud, not only to taste something so authentic and delicious, but also to see the same Syrian owner, today an old man, still at the till, collecting the payments. I always say hello and remind him I’ve been coming to his place to eat since I was a child. He seems to be amused by my story and always give me a timid smile. I am sure many others like me tell him similar story. We all keep coming back!

Join Roberta for tips, tastings and recipes in on Friday 4th November in the Market Hall, 12:30-2pm. This demo is part of Borough Market’s programme to support the #CookforSyria campaign