When Ed Yousef came to Australia from Syria in 2013 as a teen, his dream focused solely on completing his HSC on Sydney soil.
Achieving what he set out to, Yousef went onto study medical science at UNSW in the pursuit of becoming a dentist. But then, somewhere between his home kitchen and the lab, the migrant’s path took an unexpected turn towards Syrian baklava.
“Towards the end of the degree, I had free time to learn to cook my mother’s recipes,” Yousef, now aged 24-years-old, tells SBS. “In these recipes, I found a way that I could show people my Syrian culture.”
“My baklava are triangle-shaped and open from both sides. In the middle, they are stuffed with a creamy, Syrian-style ricotta cheese. They are topped with pistachios and rose petals.”
With the help of his mum, who had arrived in Australia as a refugee one year earlier, Yousef quickly mastered a delicious repertoire of traditional Syrian dishes. But it was his family’s ricotta cheese baklava that catapulted his future career path from dentist-in-waiting to celebrated home cook.
“Every time I made my baklava for people, they would say ‘Ed, you should think about selling these’. Then one day, I was introduced to the staff at Settlement Services International [SSI]. They tried the baklava and saw an opportunity to invest in that recipe and me."
Yousef was given assistance from SSI’s Ignite Small Business Start-ups initiative to set up a Syrian catering business. Earlier this year, Yousef’s new Australian dream – Syriana Traditional Cuisine – became a reality.
The new catering service aims to take Sydneysiders on an authentic journey through the tastes of traditional Syrian food, offering dishes like mansaf rice with lamb; kawaji with potato, eggplant and zucchini; okra and coriander, onion, garlic and tomato salsa; and of course ricotta-cheese baklava.
“My baklava are triangle-shaped and open from both sides. In the middle, they are stuffed with a creamy, Syrian-style ricotta cheese. They are topped with pistachios and rose petals.
“Word of mouth has meant that a lot of people in Sydney’s inner west also know about my tahina cauliflower. It’s a very traditional Damascus-style dish made with a layer of caramelised onion and crispy cauliflower baked into a tahini sauce. For this dish I use 16 types of spices.” Although Yousef won’t give away his secret recipe, he does reveal that the sauce includes hints of cumin and pepper.
Fostering new food opportunities
Syriana Traditional Cuisine has catered for birthdays, cultural events and even political parties in Sydney’s inner west.
On Saturday 16 November, Yousef’s business will help to feed a 5,000-strong crowd at SSI New Beginnings Festival in Darling Harbour – an annual celebration of arts and culture that showcases the creative talents of people from refugee and migrant backgrounds.
“This festival will allow attendees to get to know people from migrant and refugee backgrounds, like Ed, through their food and art," says festival ambassador, Shyamla Eswaran, who is involved with organising the event. "It makes us focus on their creative potential, so the ‘labels’ of refugee and migrant are no longer relevant.”
“The more you give people like Ed Yousef genuine opportunities to run their food business, the more likely it is that he doesn’t have to be only defined by his migrant background forever. Instead, he will also be defined by what it is he does – and Ed is an amazing cook.”
Yousef’s Syriana food stall at the festival will serve fried kibbeh, falafels, fattoush salad and, of course, the dish that started it all – ricotta cheese baklava.
There’ll also be eight other international food offerings at the event serving dishes from the Cook Islands, Persian, Peru, Egypt, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Portugal and Sierra Leone.
“In Australia, a lot of the time culturally diverse food is available for people to try but it’s not always served by the people from that culture – people who have a direct connection to the food and the stories behind it,” Eswaran, a first generation Australian with Fijian Indian heritage, tells SBS.
“But the most amazing thing is that there will be people from these cultural backgrounds at the festival cooking and serving the food.”
Eswaran believes that the festival will help to promote the small business potential of the culturally diverse food stallholders at the event. But she’s also hopeful that the festival’s food offerings – cast within a global sea of performing art and cultural activities – will open people’s minds and hearts to the beauty of our diverse community.
“Food is the thing that hammers cultural diversity and brings acceptance home because it provides people with tangible nourishment. Food also presents a way telling cultural stories in a style that people can communally enjoy, even if they are not from that cultural background.
“That’s why New Beginnings Festival is so important. It allows people to open their minds [to new cultures] from a place of joy and enjoyment.”
2019 marks five years of SSI’s New Beginning Spring Festival. The event will be held on Saturday 16 November, midday-8pm at Darling Harbour's Tumbalong Park in Sydney.