I wasn’t sure what exactly I’d signed up for when I accepted a vague dinner invitation from a friend a few weeks ago. The details were hazy, but I knew all I needed to know to say yes: I’d be enjoying a meal prepared by Syrian cooks who were refugees from Damascus. Having never experienced Syrian food, it was an invitation I needed to accept.
Gradually more details trickled in. The chefs were a wife and husband, Ruwaida and Khaled, who came to Atlanta by way of Jordan with their daughter and son in tow about seven months ago. Atlanta-based writer Amanda Avutu wrote a popular essay about her relationship with this family for the New York Times’ Modern Love column and also penned a story about them for our upcoming May issue of Atlanta magazine. Amanda has been the family’s lifeline to acclimating to life in America and now helps them put on supper clubs where diners are treated to a Syrian feast of bacchanalian proportions. Sitting down to dinner here is like dining at Hogwarts—the bounty of food seems to appear magically, over and over, upon the table. Ruwaida is also a gifted pastry chef who crafts tiny cookies in several kaleidoscopic shapes. Some of the old wooden cookie molds she uses are family heirlooms she carried with her from Syria.
While the dinner was titled “A Night in Sweet, Sweet Syria,” Ruwaida’s savory cooking was front and center. Khaled helped her in the kitchen while their children chatted with guests and served as makeshift translators as their parents churned out the feast. “Although Ruwaida has no formal culinary training, she learned to cook at her mom’s hip from the time she was ten,” Amanda told me via email. “The supper clubs got started as a way for the family to share a little bit of their pride in their Syrian culture with Americans, to whom the war-torn nation they see on the news is their only sense of the country.”
When we arrived, each guest received a white rectangular name tag with our name inscribed in English and Arabic. The table was set with dishes such as velvety smooth hummus, baba ghanoush, bowls of enormous cut limes, and kibbeh (a fried lamb, beef, and pine nut fritter) soaked in sour labneih (yogurt). When a platter of kibbeh was passed around, no one refused, even those of us who’d already savored two or three from the table. A simple bowl of yellow lentil and broken rice soup scented with saffron started off the courses.
Next, platters of ouzi (rice, almond, and pea-stuffed pastries) and fatayer sabanekh (spinach-stuffed pastries) were passed, to be eaten with the mandi chicken served over a platter of yellow rice bejeweled with sliced limes. The ouzi was filled with rice, almonds, and peas; its pastry crisp on the bottom. Chicken shish kabobs served with cabbage slaw upon flats of chili-paste-slathered bread were next, but at that point, I was way too full to indulge. Knowing our host had an exceptional reputation for cookies, I wanted to save room for dessert. I turned to the friend who’d invited me and said, “I ate so much I have a food baby.” Even though Ruwaida speaks little English, she laughed loudly in recognition, “Baby food! Food baby!” We laughed in unison—bemoaning overindulging is clearly universal, regardless of any language barrier.
When the cookies arrived, it was obvious we were in for a treat. Each was crumbly morsel was filled with jam, some an intense chocolate flavor with a hint of coffee. Ruwaida hopes to start her own cookie business soon and with such sentiment behind her baking (see the below handout from our dinner), she is sure to be a success.
The supper clubs are currently invitation-only events that take place in various friends’ homes in and around Atlanta and are currently booked through June. Ruwaida and Khaled are ultimately interested in opening a small neighborhood restaurant. You can follow their story on Facebook, or if you want to help the family raise funds for their forthcoming cookie business and restaurant dreams, you can donate to their GoFundMe Page.