Faeza, an Iraqi in her Rich Kitchen

faezaFaeza is in her Tucson kitchen, surrounded by the smells and sounds of Iraqi cooking. This is not just everyday lunch or dinner hurriedly placed on the table. The deep freeze is full of kubbah (patties made from various meats, grains or potatoes), sour orange concentrate and vegetables, the frig is crammed with homemade yogurt, cucumber, mango or cabbage pickles, the cupboards bursting with large jars of spices, including her own curry powder and condiments she has sent to her from back home. Arabic hospitality is on display in this refugee home – the coffee table has a large, round, sectional server with almonds, pistachios, watermelon seeds and candy. Water from the cooler, sour orange juice and cardamom tea is always offered. Anyone who calls for an appointment is carefully scheduled around meals, which appear as if by magic from what seems to be an empty stove.

“I learned everything from my mother. She was a very good cook, and also sewing, crocheting, knitting. When I lived in Turkey, I also learned Turkish cooking. I mix it with Iraqi. Turkey and Syria, our neighbors, have very delicious food. But, Iraqi cooking methods and spices are different. And, we prepare every dish with at least some meat; we do not eat much vegetarian food”.

Falafel

Falafel

Falafel is a common dish in the Middle East, well-known to many Americans but often, heavy and greasy. In Faeza’s hands, falafel becomes light and delicate, a bite-sized morsel replete with flavor. She uses only dried chick peas which have been soaked for two days and then re-dried (absolutely never use canned chick peas), with cilantro, parsley (any kind), onions, garlic, cumin, curry powder, ground red peppers, salt and baking soda. Blended in a simple food processor which threatens to overheat but does not, the mixture rests for 5-10 minutes before being shaped in a special press. Then the small, round cakes are dropped into gently boiling vegetable oil and fried till golden brown. Falafel is often served alone or with yogurt sauce. In Faeza’s home, it is eaten wrapped in Iraqi bread (a flat yeast bread cooked in a clay domed oven) with mango or cabbage pickles, tomatoes, cucumbers and green peppers finely sliced with an old mandoline as well as sprigs of mint or basil. Her daughter and son add or substitute ketchup although they learned to use mayonnaise when living in exile in Syria.

“I bought the mandoline in Greece, 35 years ago, when my husband and I were on our honeymoon. It was in my suitcase, from Iraq to Syria, from Syria to Tucson. I did not bring much but, I had to have this mandolin”.

Iraqi date and cardammon

Iraqi date and cardammon

In Iraq, Faeza and her family were dentists, with a large practice in Bagdad which she managed. Their house was always full of relatives and visitors, coming to share the dishes from all over Iraq, Turkey and Syria for which she was renowned. When Faeza was not at the clinic, she and the children, not always willingly, preserved and prepared specialty foods – date syrup and vinegar, qemar ( a heavy, sweet cream eaten with kahi, a thinly layered dough), fig and dozens of other jams, cured olives . Though she gleans local fruit with Iskashitaa, a refugee harvesting network in Tucson, there is rarely enough to make the quantities she would want. Faeza’s dream, after all the years of war and displacement, is a restaurant of her own or, for now, making and selling her falafel, kubbah, dolmas and other Iraqi delicacies, from a cooperatively-run food truck she will create with refugee and immigrant women from everywhere.