A conversation with Vian Alnidawi and Sara Nassr is punctuated by so much giddy laughter that it's hard to believe they've known a moment of hardship. But the Iraqi-Syrian mother and daughter have endured more than their share. Due to Iraq's increasing instability around 2000, their family was forced to flee their homeland to Greece when Nassr was five, but then the aftermath of September 11 sent them to Syria—which they fled for Turkey after their building was bombed in 2012. In 2016, they arrived as refugees in Denver, Colorado, with limited English, no close contacts—and seemingly no professional skills.
But they did have undeniable talent: They were exceptional home cooks and found themselves at Comal Heritage Food Incubator, a local lunch kitchen run by aspiring immigrant restaurateurs. Today, against all odds, they've garnered a cult following for the Middle Eastern fare they prepare every Friday, which includes everything from kibbeh, a stuffed, fried dumpling, to basbousa, a coconut-semolina cake soaked in syrup (see the recipe). Fans include none other than celebrity chef Alon Shaya—who grew so enamored with the pair while in town for the Slow Food Nations conference last summer that he invited them to cook at the Women of Syria Dinner he cohosted at South Beach Wine & Food Festival in February. (Shaya also took the duo to an "awesome dinner" at Miami's Amara at Paraiso, says 22-year-old Nassr, who's now proficient in English.)
For the event, they prepared the lamb yogurt stew known as shakriyeh (see the recipe) and harak osbao, a lentil pasta stew that wowed the crowd: "Everybody said, 'We need more to go,'" Alnidawi recalls. The reaction awed them in turn—after all, she explains, such humble, hearty dishes from home are simply "what we made when the family got together."
"We always gathered at my grandma's house on the weekends—my aunts, my uncles, everybody," as many as 50 relatives in all, Nassr says. "Then my grandma cooked tons of food and my grandpa got angry." She giggles. "He would say, 'I hate weekends,' and then just go to his room." Too bad for him, because he spurned a feast.
At any given time, there were self-serve platters of biryani-like ouzi and jaj bl hamed w tum, baked chicken legs smothered in lemon and garlic with potatoes and onions (see the recipe). Lamb abounded in myriad preparations, from the shakriyeh to kebab and dumplings (shish barak) to stuffed zucchini bathed in yogurt sauce or stuffed eggplant baked with tomatoes and peppers. There were rice-filled grape leaves (yalangi); mlukhyeh, an earthy jute-leaf stew; and heaps of kibbeh—as many as 150 of the croquettes would be "all gone in 10 minutes," remembers Alnidawi.
Beverage options were equally colorful: Think tamarind juice, Arabic coffee and ayran, a salted yogurt drink Nassr loves because "it calms you down—it's really relaxing." She's less a fan of the polarizing licorice juice called erk-sous: "It's so healthy," her mom claims. "And not tasty," she retorts. Dessert was usually store-bought, she says, because "good bakeries are everywhere in Syria." Favorites included baklava and knafeh, a shredded phyllo-dough pastry filled with cheese and soaked in syrup. And Arabic ice cream, churned by hand with mastic gum and rolled in pistachios—the very thought of which makes both women sigh. Then there was homemade eggplant jam, which "we ate after the meal with bread and olives," Nassr explains. "My aunt couldn't stand up without doing this part."
But she would eventually, because, Nassr laughs, "we have to dance. We serve food, and then we play music and everybody just dances."
Ruth Tobias has been living, and writing about, the (mile) high life in Denver for 10 years and counting. Follow her on Instagram at @Denveater.
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