"Cooking is a message," says Racha Abou Alchamat, the brains trust behind Racha's Syrian Kitchen, and we are lucky to hear it.
Along with friend and kitchen partner Nidal Alali, they run a Syrian catering and events service in Sydney that shares dishes from her homeland and spotlights the Syrian migrant story.
After kicking things off with the joys of 'real knafeh', which she explains hinges on the quality of the cheese, must be cooked with ghee and be made and served straight away, she pauses then jumps up to stir cardamom into a pot of black coffee bubbling over the stove. Insisting I try a cup, she smiles and says, "this is how we coffee, this is the Syrian way".
Her warmth and hospitality are a big part of her story and in fact, run in her blood. Born in the Syrian capital of Damascus, Racha emigrated to Australia six years ago. Her father ran his own small café in Damascus, which quickly grew into a restaurant across multiple locations. This meant he was always on the move, but during those pockets where he was at home, he would often be in the kitchen cooking and talking about food. "'Try this food!' My father used to say this to me all the time. 'You have to try the food and then if you don't like it, you don't need to eat. But first, you have to try everything'," says Racha. "My mum is also a great cook. But she said to my father all the time, 'It is either you or me in the kitchen. It can't be both of us!'"
Racha's migration story is that all too familiar one. A mother of two with a hope for a new life, new possibilities and ultimately safety, without having to hide her Syrian heritage. "There was no option for us to go back to what was home, to our city," says Racha, who spent several years in Dubai with her husband. "My parents were there [Syria], and they tell me the stories of what is happening and also having people close their door on us because we were Syrian because we are in a war, that was a really hard time," Racha shares fighting back tears.
"Syrian food is more than barbecue and hummus."
Racha's Syrian Kitchen blossomed after the success of her first stall at a Moon Festival, hosted every year by her children's school. It was the first time in 20 years since Middle Eastern food, including Syrian food for that matter, had been a part of the festival's offering. Even then she didn't realise that her home-cooked Syrian dishes would lead to a business opportunity that would combine her Syrian traditions with her newfound Australian identity.
"Syrian food is more than barbecue and hummus," says Racha. "Syrian food takes lots of time to prepare, two to three hours, and it's also lots of stews, stuffed zucchini and vine leaves and there's also plenty of meat — usually chicken or lamb — and rice, rice with everything."
One of the many dishes that feature on Racha's rotating menu includes Syrian baba ganoush. Not the charred eggplant and tahini dip you might come to expect, rather the Syrian grilled eggplant dish featuring plenty of fresh vegetables, bell peppers, onions and pomegranate molasses — and if you've been to one of Racha's events, then you'll know she always come out from the kitchen to talk about the dishes and get to know those she has cooked for. Alongside the baba is a spread that spans many Syrian favourites, some of which will feature as part of this year's Refugee Week pop-up feast at Sydney's Cafe Fredas'. Beloved fattoush salad and kebet sleek (vegetarian kibbeh of ground potato and bulghur) and chicken shawarma platters with all the pickle and garlic trimmings, to fattet magdous (crispy flatbread and a tomato and onion sauce, topped with eggplant, minced beef and tahini yoghurt) and of course, there has to be room for dessert. Hot cheesy knafeh, ma'amoul semolina biscuits or sha’ebeyat, handmade filo pastries filled with ashta (clotted cream), walnuts and drizzled in orange blossom syrup.
The way Racha speaks about food is akin to how much she wants to shake up what it means to be a migrant in this country, to be Syrian and to be able to change minds and attitudes over sharing plates.
After cooking at the launch event for social enterprise Welcome Merchant, which showcases Australian refugee-run businesses, Racha expresses her gratitude for initiatives like this and the support and connections she has made because of founder Marjorie Tenchavez. "Many migrants, many women, many mothers, they are struggling. They are smart and they want to create opportunities, maybe not always businesses, but they want to work and want to be out in the community, but don't know how to do that without somebody supporting them and taking a chance," says Racha.
"I want to introduce our food to people. I want to show that Syrian people can do a lot even if we were in war."
Racha's favourite food memories were also born in Syria and have since been stored away for whenever she is homesick. In fact, it wasn't until she moved to Australia that she truly realised just how important food was in her life and how it brought back times with her family.
Her family would gather at her grandfather's home two to three times a week. Her father, grandma and aunts would cook for the 40 to 50 people who would squeeze into their small place to eat. "Zucchini and stuffed vine leaves I remember a lot and a tray, like the size of the table would be full. Everyone would come there quickly put their hands in trying to grab whatever they can because they love this food and they know that nothing would be left for them if they were not quick," she says.
From memories of her father's cooked kibbeh stashed in her freezer to 'lazy Fridays' featuring fatteh of chickpeas, crispy flatbread, tahini, yoghurt, parsley, pine nuts and ghee, it was eating rice straight from the pot just as my mother finished cooking, which brought nostalgia to her face. "I know it's only rice and butter, but still you can smell this coming into your head and filling the house, this was home."
While Racha has felt the full throttle of a new life, a new community and with that new connections and challenges, her business has given her the strength to reach out and simply talk to people.
"I do this because I want to introduce our food to people. I want to show that Syrian people can do a lot even if we were in war. I want people to know that Syrian people are human, that we are educated, we care and we have an amazing culture. We all have a story, a history. This is why I cook."