On a Thursday morning in June, near the end of Ramadan, Majed Abdulraheem arrives for work at Union Kitchen. The brightly lit, shared commercial kitchen space in Northeast Washington is filled with chef's tables, pastry racks and the bustling of a dozen cooks building fledgling businesses. It's Chef Majed's second time at work today. Fasting makes the daytime heat of the kitchen too hard to manage, and so he was in the kitchen preparing orders late last night, into the early morning.
Abdulraheem, 29, works at Foodhini, a meal delivery service that employs immigrant chefs in Washington. The start-up was founded by Noobtsaa Philip Vang, a child of refugees from Laos, who discovered, after arriving from Minnesota to Georgetown three years ago to get his MBA, that he was missing the Hmong cuisine he grew up with. “I was really craving some of my mom’s food,” says Vang, “and I was thinking I wanted to find a grandma or auntie that was living in the neighborhood somewhere and just buy some of their food.”
He started mulling his own family’s immigration story: When his mom came to the United States, she had limited English skills, and finding work was difficult. His dad sometimes worked multiple jobs, sleeping in his car between shifts, to make sure the family had enough money to survive. What his mother did have, which might have been marketable if only she’d had the resources, was incredible skill as a chef. “There’s got to be a way to create opportunities for people like my mom,” he thought.
Abdulraheem is one of Foodhini's first chefs. On its website, he offers a menu of his own design: bamiatan, a dish of crisp mini okra sauteed in garlic and topped with cilantro; mutabbal, an eggplant-tahini dip similar to baba ghanouj; and kebab hindi, meatballs cooked in a spiced tomato stew. Like Vang, his love for food and for family are inextricably intertwined: Many of the items on Abdulraheem's menu are dishes his mother used to make for him when he was a kid growing up in a small town in southern Syria. Even after attending culinary school in Syria, and after years of working in restaurants, he still considers her, his original teacher, to be the better chef.
“You have to love cooking to be good at it,” Abdulraheem tells me through an interpreter. He is preparing the vegetables for fattoush, a staple salad of lettuce, tomato and crunchy pita chips. He stacks long leaves of romaine lettuce, one on top of the other, slicing them crosswise into small confetti ribbons as he talks, before perfectly dicing tomatoes. He cuts huge lemons in half, just once, and squeezes the juice out of them effortlessly. It’s a simple dish but one he loves to make, because it’s both universal and endlessly customizable. “I’m making fattoush, my wife will make fattoush, you can make fattoush,” he says. “But each time it will come out a little bit different, because it’s a reflection of you.”
When Abdulraheem arrived here in 2016, he became part of a long history of immigrants — often refugees — who reached the United States and began making food. You can find this tradition in Eden Center, the Northern Virginia strip mall packed with pho restaurants and pan-Asian groceries, built up by Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s. You can see it in the popular Ethiopian restaurants on U Street; in the restaurants of Peter Chang, who fled Washington's Chinese Embassy in 2003 and acquired one of the most loyal followings of any chef in America; or in the Thai and Indian restaurants in large cities and small towns across the country.
Compared with these other cuisines, Syrian food doesn’t have as strong a footprint in the United States. Americans are familiar with Middle Eastern food generally, but while there’s certainly overlap between Syrian food and other Levantine cuisines, they are far from identical. The flavors that distinguish Syrian cuisine, according to Dimah Mohd, a Syrian food blogger based in Dubai, include rose water, orange blossom water, pomegranate molasses and Aleppo pepper. Garlic, eggplant, lamb, parsley and mint dominate, too. On the whole, the food is milder than some of the spicier dishes popular in other parts of the region, with more stews made of creamy yogurt sauce. Kibbe — croquettes made of bulgur, ground meat and other spices that vary from cook to cook, based on style, family and region — are common, too. Hummus and shawarma, familiar to Americans, are staples of the cuisine; but so are makdous, tiny preserved eggplants stuffed with walnut and red pepper, and fatteh, a flatbread, yogurt and chickpea dish.
“It is a very rich cuisine, with noticeable regional differences, as well as the combination of sweet and sour flavors, with meat cooked with fruit or in fruit juice,” says Anissa Helou, a part-Syrian, part-Lebanese author who has written several cookbooks about the region’s food, including “Levant: Recipes and Memories From the Middle East.” Helou says that lumping together all the cuisines of the region can gloss over the wide varieties of deliciousness to be found there. “It is a shame, really,” she says, “because no one talks of European cuisine, for instance.”
What Abdulraheem and other refugee chefs bring when they come to America has implications beyond the kitchen. Cooking the dishes — sharing the foods of their home country — is a way of ensuring “that identity and heritage are not lost just because the homeland is,” says Poopa Dweck, author of the book “Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews.” They are “documenting history, in some way, for the next generation.”
It’s this diversity — the richness of so many cuisines and cultures, brought from all over the world — that makes American food so outstanding. At the moment, however, that tradition is under threat. The Trump administration has dedicated a lot of energy to barring Syrian refugees like Abdulraheem from coming into the country, while waging a multifront campaign against undocumented immigrants from Latin America. Continuing on this path would have a profound impact — not just on our food, but on our national identity.
It can be hard to explain to people who view immigration as a threat just what we stand to lose when we turn away from this ideal. Maybe a grand argument about American values isn’t the best place to begin. Maybe it’s best to start smaller, somewhere closer to home — somewhere like the dinner table.
There are things that Majed Abdulraheem doesn't usually talk about when he's at work chopping vegetables. But they're on his mind a lot: How, on his last visit to his parents' home in 2013, they begged him not to return to his apartment in Damascus but to flee Syria across the border to Jordan instead. How he did as his parents asked. And how he never got to see his father, who became ill during his exile, before he died.
Abdulraheem was working at a Damascus restaurant in 2011 when the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad started. Back then, he didn’t want to choose a side. But in the months that followed, it became unavoidable. Government checkpoints sprang up on the road between Damascus and his parents’ home. Rebels armed with guns started showing up in the streets. “Society as a whole started to divide,” he says. The checkpoints only seemed to make the roads less safe. It quickly became clear that it didn’t matter to the security forces whether you were a rebel fighter or a civilian. “The regime didn’t distinguish between the people who were involved or not,” he says. “A plane would come by and drop a bomb and just kill everyone.”
By the end of 2012, he says, “it got to the point where I didn’t even want to leave my house.” Each trip to the market — to pick up a bag of tomatoes, to buy a can of Pepsi — became an intolerably dangerous proposition. Every time he went out, he worried that he might not make it back home.
Then, one night in early 2013, he was at his parents’ home when they made a difficult request. “My mother began crying and begged me not to return to Damascus, but to leave for Jordan instead,” he says. “To this day, I still remember my mother and father, when I stayed with them, they wouldn’t sleep. They watched me all night. I could feel them watching over me until I got up in the morning. They were so upset for my safety.” Two days later, Abdulraheem took the small suitcase he’d packed for a short stay and got on a bus heading toward the border, leaving the rest of his belongings behind.
He crossed the border in total darkness, trying not to stumble on rocks or run into trees. It was a bracingly cold February night. No one dared use any light — not a flashlight, not a lit match, not a cellphone — for fear that the regime might spot them crossing and try to bomb them. The place where he crossed was desolate and mountainous. Most of the people crossing with him were women and children. “The whole night, people were crying,” he says. “To this day, I still hear it. I can’t get it out of my head.”
On the other side of the border in Jordan, a police officer was waiting to receive them. Abdulraheem was transferred to the Zaatari refugee camp but moved to Amman, the capital, shortly after. There, he reconnected with his fiancee, Walaa, and they got married. In 2016, they found out that their application to come to the United States had been approved, and they moved with their two young daughters, Rama and Lara, to Tucson, where they were relocated with the help of a refugee agency.
In Arizona, Abdulraheem went to work in a Tex-Mex restaurant, the B Line. The food was a little spicier than he was used to. Over time, though, he grew to love the food, and he bonded with the co-workers who taught him to cook it. After eight months, Majed, Walaa, Lara and Rama moved to a small apartment in Riverdale Park, Md., a D.C. suburb, to be closer to family. Once here, he got a job working with Foodhini and has worked there full time ever since. Someday, though, he dreams of striking out on his own.
Forty miles northeast of Union Kitchen, in the working-class Baltimore suburb of Dundalk, I met Rajaa Abbas, 43, and Salwa Al Hasrieh, 39, two Syrian refugees who recently came to the United States after living in Jordan. The pair quickly became friends after Hasrieh's arrival in fall 2016. Abbas and Hasrieh are part of a Baltimore-based catering collective known as Aleppo Kitchen. The group, which is made up of about 20 Syrian refugee women, was initially conceived of by Laila El Haddad, a Palestinian writer and co-author of the cookbook "The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey." The Muslim Social Services Agency, a Baltimore-based charitable organization, helps support the group, as does BRIDGE America — a local organization Haddad's husband and other members of Maryland's Muslim community put together to assist refugees as they settle into life in the United States.
“It started with a few women we knew. We asked, ‘Who do you know?’ ” Haddad says. More women in the community were arriving and were looking for ways to earn income. Haddad set them up with a WhatsApp group chat and began taking catering requests for them. “Up until now, it’s been all volunteer-run and focused on creating income for the women,” she says. “Beyond the financial element of it, what I’ve learned from observing it is that it’s very emotionally healing, even though we’re not yet meeting in a physical space.” The catering gigs are inconsistent, she says, but the collective usually gets several jobs each month.
Abbas’s kitchen, in the back of a low-slung rowhouse, is spacious but simple, with just a stovetop and a bit of counter space on either side of the sink. There are parts of the kitchen she hasn’t warmed to; at one point, laughing, she opens her dishwasher, revealing that it’s stuffed with Fanta bottles and plastic bags, temporary storage for her recycling. But she’s starting to make it feel more like a home. In her tiny fenced-in square of a back yard, she has dug a small trench around the perimeter, and in 10 months the soil has already yielded okra, green beans, parsley, mint and tomatoes.
On the day I visit, they cook a feast of chicken for me. Abbas rinses a large bowl of freekeh, a popular Levantine grain, sifting it with her hands. As she cuts an onion into a pot, Hasrieh rolls cooked chicken in a sauce made of tomato paste, yogurt, cardamom, cinnamon and ginger. The two tell me about their lives back home in Syria, as Haddad translates.
In Damascus, Abbas explains, she was a hairdresser, but she had always loved to cook; before she met her husband, her mother-in-law identified her as a potential match for her son because she brought so many good dishes to share with her on a pilgrimage. “We can help our families earn income,” she says of her and Hasrieh’s cooking for Aleppo Kitchen. “For me, it was a very natural thing to do, to cook.”
On the table in front of her, she puts a platter of lemony yalanji, grape leaves rolled the thickness of cigars and stuffed with tender rice and herbs, and the platter of spiced chicken on a bed of freekeh, cooked in cardamom, ginger, ghee and cinnamon, studded with almonds and topped with bright slices of pepper. Beside it is a large bowl of salatit khyar bi laban, a cool homemade yogurt dish mixed with diced cucumber, garlic and mint; a salad; and preserved eggplants stuffed with sweet pepper and walnut. Abbas says her reasons for coming to America were really about giving her kids a better life. But now that she’s here, and now that she’s had a chance to earn money with her cooking, she’d love to open a restaurant of her own someday.
In July, I attend a fundraising event catered by the women of Aleppo Kitchen, for the Global Center for Refugee Education and Science, a local nonprofit that aims to provide language training for refugees new to the United States. The fundraiser, on the second floor of the Saloon, a pub on U Street NW, is sold out. In the middle of the room, beneath strands of hanging lights, guests hover around platters of Syrian kabsa, chicken cooked in tomatoes, peppers, cloves, onion and cinnamon on rice; fattet al-makdous, flatbread topped with tomato-yogurt sauce and eggplants stuffed with meat; kunafa, a crispy, cheesy textured pastry, soaked in sweet syrup; and mamounia, a semolina pudding.
At the event, I speak to Rashid Al-Banna, who works with the Muslim Social Services Agency. He thinks there’s a market for more Syrian food in the region. Plus, he says, the women’s cooking is part of a larger mission: “Basically, what we’re trying to do with food is use it as a vehicle for people-to-people, culture-to-culture exchange. Food is like music or sports or the arts — it’s a great way to bond people, to bring them together. It’s universal.”
Sitting on couches in their small living room, Majed Abdulraheem and his wife, Walaa, describe to me the restaurant they hope to open together. "As we think of it, the main character of the cafe would be Syrian," Walaa says. "There might be add-ons that Majed would throw in — American or Mexican, perhaps — but primarily it would be a Syrian cafe." As we speak, their daughters ride tricycles and run in and out of the room, stopping occasionally to dive into their mother's arms. Behind her, on their dining room table, sit platters of shawarma, fattoush and kibbe that they prepared for the visit.
“That’s my dream,” Majed says. “Actually, I wouldn’t really call it a dream. It’s something I plan on doing in the future.” He says he would like to someday travel, to learn from restaurateurs in other countries. But it’s hard to imagine leaving the United States right now, given the current administration’s hostility toward letting refugees in.
In opening a restaurant, Majed would be following in the footsteps of countless immigrants to America. Among them is Seng Luangrath, owner of Thip Khao, the first all-Lao restaurant in the District. When she was a girl, Luangrath's favorite thing to do was cook with her grandmother in their kitchen. She'd been raised by her grandmother in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, while her mother worked and her father helped the U.S.-allied Royal Lao Army.
After the Communist takeover of Laos, her dad was taken into custody, and — just as Abdulraheem’s parents had done for him — Luangrath’s grandmother pulled her mother aside one day and told her it was time to flee the country. One child was expected to stay behind and take care of her elders. “Why not me? I can stay in the kitchen and help you,” she remembers telling her grandma. But it didn’t work: Luangrath’s grandmother chose her sister, who was more fearless than Luangrath.
Her mother and grandmother hired coyotes and told Seng and her brothers to pack their bags. They took a bus to the border, telling anyone who asked that they were taking a vacation to visit her father’s family in the country. Seng was terrified. She was 12 years old.
At the border, they temporarily separated her and her mother from her two brothers and told them to wait until late into the night. At 3 in the morning, the coyotes came. She and her mother and brothers were taken to the Mekong River. They crossed partly by boat, and when it got shallow enough, waded the rest of the way across. The water came up to their chests. As they neared the Thai side of the river, they heard gunshots firing behind them.
Once they made it to Thailand, the family was taken to a refugee camp. There, Luangrath continued learning how to cook. The camp had simple bamboo huts, with open sides, so she made her neighbors into her instructors and the camp into a sort of culinary school — watching through the sides of the hut, asking what they were making and if she could help. Her mother met a man who would eventually become her stepfather. He was a great cook, so she learned everything she could from him, too.
In the camp, they were provided a few staples, like steamed fish and Chinese sausage, so Seng took the produce to the entrance checkpoint and traded her items with the local Thai residents. “I learned so much about different styles of cooking,” she says of her time there. After two years in the camps and some time in the Philippines, Luangrath and her family were approved to come to the United States. They settled in the San Francisco Bay area, where Seng and her brothers were thrust into school with no English skills. Her mother and stepfather worked multiple jobs, and Seng became something like a second mother for the family.
“Every day, I would come home from school, do my homework and then start cooking dinner,” she recalls. In America, her cooking teachers were the chefs she watched on television. “I learned a lot from PBS,” she says. She watched Julia Child, Jacques Pépin and Martin Yan of “Yan Can Cook.” She remembers being fascinated by Child’s use of the oven — not common to Lao cuisine — and trying her first stir-fry, experimenting with different oils she could use, learning about cornstarch. On Saturdays, her mother would take her to do the grocery shopping in Chinatown, exposing her to a diverse array of new ingredients to try in the next week’s meals.
Even though she loved cooking, she would spend nearly 30 years in the United States before she got to open a restaurant of her own. Opening a restaurant in Washington is a big financial risk; the costs of rent and labor are too high for most people. But after years of working in her family’s flooring and construction businesses, Luangrath got her chance in 2010, when she was introduced to a woman who wanted to sell her Thai restaurant, Bangkok Golden in Virginia.
At first, it was difficult — Luangrath remembers having to close the first day midway through the afternoon because she was too overwhelmed trying to keep the place running — but once she figured out what she was doing, she got more confident. She began offering a few of her favorite Lao dishes on a separate menu. It attracted a small following. A few months later, The Washington Post's food critic, Tom Sietsema, came and tried the food. He raved about Luangrath's Lao offerings, and after that, she says, the interest in her cooking exploded.
Eventually, Luangrath opened Thip Khao, now one of the best- known Lao restaurants in the country, as well as one of the buzziest: Last year, it was recognized by Michelin, in its first guide to dining in the nation's capital, as one of the city's places to have a delicious meal for under $40. In 2015, Bon Appétit named it one of America's best new restaurants.
Being a refugee shaped every aspect of Luangrath’s culinary development. When Laotian people visit her packed restaurant, they often tell her they’re confused; she’s from Vientiane, which is in the center of the country, but she cooks some dishes like a southerner, and plenty of her menu items have personal touches they haven’t seen before. The dishes show a distinctiveness that only she could have come up with: a textured, crispy rice dish, inspired by one she used to buy as a kid; softened tofu wrapped in banana leaves and baked with dill and lemon grass, the result of experimenting with vegetarian ways of making a common Lao dish. “If I’d never fled the country, I probably wouldn’t get as much of the different styles,” she says.
A restaurant rooted in one’s own life experiences — that’s what Majed dreams of for himself someday. “I want something unique, that offers distinctive dishes,” he says. “Done the way I would do it.”
The culinary education of refugee chefs is unusual. It is at once cosmopolitan — thanks to the fusing of different influences during the chef’s travels — and narrowly defined by both physical barriers and the limitations of circumstance. The journeys of refugee chefs often spark creativity, born of necessity. The education, just like the migration, is sui generis. Just like America.
Marin Cogan is a writer in Washington. Michael Nahum and Reem Akkad translated for this article.
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