Lamb Dumplings, Lentils And A Bittersweet Taste Of Home

Feb 22, 2015
Originally published on February 22, 2015 7:22 pm

For people living in a new country, a taste of home can be a powerful emotional experience.

All the more so when you've left your country because of war.

Iraq has taken in about a quarter-million people fleeing Syria's civil war. In the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, one of Syria's most famous restaurants is re-creating the tastes of Damascus.

Naranj restaurant keeps a list of the world leaders who have dined at its branch back in Syria. The list is at least 25 names long, and that's not counting the movie stars. Rumor has it Syrian President Bashar Assad eats at the Damascus location twice a week.

Bassam Awwad, food and beverage manager for Naranj Irbil, says the rumor is nearly true.

He comes "when he needs," Awwad says. "Not exactly twice. Maybe ... monthly."

Awwad has been with the company for a decade. He moved from Damascus to Irbil about a year ago. His wife and son still live in Syria.

"It's so difficult," he says. "But when you put your fingerprint in another world, and people know ... this is Damascus cuisine — we're proud about that."

The original restaurant in the old city of Damascus is still operating, which makes it difficult for the Irbil staff to talk about politics.

Steer the conversation toward the war, and Awwad diplomatically says, "Ah, let us speak about the food."

There is a lot to say about the food at Naranj. The menu is a thick book, with dishes from all over Syria. Some are familiar to Americans, like hummus and tabouli.

Others are distinctly local dishes: lamb dumplings in yogurt sauce; a bowl of lentils with frizzled onions, pomegranate seeds, a green herb paste and bits of dough that are both boiled like pasta and fried to a puffy crunch.

When Awwad describes the food, he doesn't talk about ingredients.

"Naranj is about how your mother [cooks] in the house," he says. "You have to put something from your sensitive inside the food."

Nearly all the ingredients, from the wheat to the olive oil, come from Syria. Even the hookahs that people smoke are made in Syria and have Syrian tobacco, giving the entire restaurant — from the sounds to the smells — a strong sense of place.

Maya Elzen lived in Damascus for 13 years and went to Naranj there every weekend.

"So it's like home," Elzen says. "Now, we come here instead."

She's on a girls' night out with six of her best friends. It's a fun outing, but there's also a little bit of mourning for the Syria that's gone.

"I know I'm not going to be able to go there anymore," she says. "I always tell my friends that the ones who didn't visit Syria have missed it. They can't see it the way it was before, which is a shame."

Naranj now has six locations around the Mideast. For those who've left Syria — at least those wealthy enough to afford a meal at a restaurant as nice as this — Naranj is a sort of lifeline.

Shadi Jaber, a Syrian plastic surgeon, says that in Irbil he recognizes many Naranj staff members from when they were in all Damascus. Jaber trained in France and would often fly from Damascus to Paris.

"Every time, I was going to Naranj the day before my departure," he says. "I have to taste their delicious food before my departure."

In Irbil, he now eats at Naranj just as often as he used to. Whenever he's there, he posts about it on social media, and gets wistful replies from Syrian friends around the world who miss that taste of home.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

For people living in a new country, a taste of home can be a powerful emotional experience - all the more so when you've left your country because of war. Iraq has taken in about a quarter million people fleeing Syria's civil war. In the Iraqi city of Erbil, one of Syria's most famous restaurants is re-creating the tastes of Damascus. NPR's Ari Shapiro went to visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT RESTAURANT NOISE)

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Naranj restaurant keeps a list of the world leaders who have dined at its branch in Damascus - back in Syria. The list is at least 25 names long. That's not counting the movie stars who get their own page. Rumor has it Syrian President Bashar al-Assad eats at the Damascus location twice a week. I asked Bassam Awwad if it's true.

BASSAM AWWAD: He come when he need, not exactly twice - maybe one monthly.

SHAPIRO: Awwad is food and beverage manager for Naranj Erbil. He's been with the company for a decade and moved from Damascus here to northern Iraq about a year ago. His wife and son still live in Syria.

AWWAD: Yeah, it's so difficult. But when you put your fingerprint...

SHAPIRO: Your fingerprint.

AWWAD: ...In another world and every people know this is Damascus cuisine, we proud about that.

SHAPIRO: The original restaurant in the old city of Damascus is still operating. For that reason, it's a little complicated for the staff here to talk about politics. Steer the conversation towards the war and Awwad diplomatically says...

AWWAD: Let us speak about the food.

SHAPIRO: There is a lot that to say about the food at Naranj. The menu is a thick book with dishes from all over Syria. Some are familiar to Americans - hummus and tabouli. Others are distinctly local dishes - lamb dumplings in yogurt sauce; a bowl of lentils with frizzled onions, pomegranate seeds, a green herb paste and bits of dough that are both boiled like pasta and fried to a puffy crunch. When I ask Awwad to describe the food, he doesn't talk about ingredients.

AWWAD: Naranj is about how your mother cooking in the house. You have to put something from your sensitive inside the food.

SHAPIRO: Nearly all the ingredients, from the wheat to the olive oil, come from Syria. Even the hookahs that people smoke here are made in Syria with Syrian tobacco. That gives the entire restaurant, from the sounds to the smells, a strong sense of place. Maya Elzen lived in Damascus for 13 years and went to Naranj every weekend.

MAYA ELZEN: So it's like home now. We come here instead.

SHAPIRO: She's on a girls' night out with six of her best friends. It's a fun outing, but there's also a little bit of mourning for the Syria that's gone.

ELZEN: I know I'm not going to be able to go there anymore and I always tell my friends that the ones who didn't visit Syria, they missed it. They cannot see it as it was before, which is a shame.

SHAPIRO: I came in early and I talked to the staff and they said nothing is forever except God. This war will end. We will go back. But you're saying...

ELZEN: I don't believe it. Look at Baghdad. It didn't go back and it will never go back again.

SHAPIRO: Naranj now has six locations around the Mideast. And for those who've left Syria - at least those wealthy enough to afford a meal at a restaurant as nice as this - the restaurant is a sort of lifeline. Shadi Jaber is a Syrian plastic surgeon now living in Erbil.

SHADI JABER: They have big staff from Damascus so I'm used to the faces.

SHAPIRO: You actually see the same waiters you know.

JABER: A lot of them.

SHAPIRO: He trained in France and would often fly from Damascus to Paris.

JABER: Every time I was going to Naranj the day before my departure. I have to taste their delicious food before my departure.

SHAPIRO: In Erbil, he now eats at Naranj just as often as he used to. Whenever he's there, he posts about it on social media. And he gets wistful replies from Syrian friends around the world who don't have that taste of home. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Erbil, northern Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.