Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead

Habeeb Salloum's award-winning book of recipes and recollections of Syrian cuisine in 1930s' Saskatchewan has just been released in a new revised edition, Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead. We're pleased to feature the book's introduction by historian Sarah Carter, as well as three stew recipes from the book. Enjoy! 

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Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead has long been one of my favourite books, not only because of the delectable recipes, but because it is a unique work of prairie history. It weaves recipes into a beautiful memoir about growing up on a Saskatchewan farm. Written by the son of homesteaders from Syria, it brings to light the experiences of Arab settlers whose contribution to the history of Canada is not well known. As Habeeb Salloum writes,“today people stare in disbelief when they hear that Arabs homesteaded in western Canada.” They were the first to grow lentils and chickpeas, the pulse crops that are today central to the economy of the prairies. Acquiring seeds from relatives, Salloum’s parents drew on the knowledge of their ancestors who had cultivated pulses in semi-arid conditions for centuries.

As Habeeb Salloum writes,“today people stare in disbelief when they hear that Arabs homesteaded in western Canada.” They were the first to grow lentils and chickpeas, the pulse crops that are today central to the economy of the prairies.

The Salloum family survived Saskatchewan’s dustbowl of the 1930s because of these ancient pulse crops. While other farmers abandoned their farms and headed north, the Salloums persisted.

Arab settlers have a long history in Canada, and they included Muslims and Christians. Paul Anka is likely the most famous Canadian of Arab ancestry, but there were many others. They worked as travelling salespeople, and they ran restaurants, bakeries, and shops. There were Arabs in the fur trade. Annie Midlige, born in 1864 near Beirut, traded furs and established stores across a vast stretch of territory in Quebec. She had a 400-acre farm near Baskatong, where she also owned a hotel. Syrian and other Arab traders were active in the Canadian North, such as Esmeil Muhammed “Sam” Jamba, born in Syria (Lebanon today) in 1890. They settled throughout the West, but there was a significant cluster of Arabs in southern Saskatchewan on arid marginal land bypassed by earlier homesteaders. While some of the children of these settlers stayed on the farm, others served in the Canadian forces (as did Habeeb and his brother), and they were engineers, lawyers, accountants, and politicians. Two of the most famous Saskatchewanians of Syrian ancestry were musicians: internationally renowned concert pianist George Haddad (born in Eastend in 1918) and “Canada’s King of the Fiddle,” Ameen“King” Ganam (born in Swift Current in 1914).

But it was not easy. Salloum’s book documents the intolerance and prejudice Arab settlers encountered. He describes Saskatchewan as a “land where we tasted bitterness.”

He was called a “Black Syrian” and a “foreigner” by schoolmates. He left the parched prairies of blowing dust and piercing sand in 1940 at age sixteen, and returned only for visits, never to live. At that time, Salloum wanted to shed his Arab origins and assimilate, and he writes that because this was the desire of the children of other Arab settlers, few tried to write about their own history. Salloum even initially tried to replace Arab cuisine with food such as bologna and sardine sandwiches,but he soon longed for his mother’s recipes.

At that time, Salloum wanted to shed his Arab origins and assimilate, and he writes that because this was the desire of the children of other Arab settlers, few tried to write about their own history. Salloum even initially tried to replace Arab cuisine with food such as bologna and sardine sandwiches,but he soon longed for his mother’s recipes.

Salloum shares his mother’s dishes, the smells and tastes of his Saskatchewan boyhood, and adds other recipes from his travels. His attitude honours and echoes that of his mother, whose culinary work was always adaptable, inventive, and creative. Her Arab pastries were baked with saskatoon berries, for example, and she had numerous uses for dandelions. (There is a chapter on“the joys of saskatoons,” and one on dandelions.) The Salloum children and their mother scoured the prairies for wild greens that she substituted for the herbs and spices of Syria, and they picked huge quantities of saskatoons at the Coulee of Saint Claire near the town of Cadillac, joining another Arab family in the annual expedition. When writing about saskatoons, and in other sections of the book, Salloum acknowledges that his family and other settlers were occupying the land and drawing on the resources of the Indigenous people of the Plains, but as a boy he had no knowledge of the people and their history.

This book showcases the contributions of Arab settlers to the fabric of Canada. Recipes are the key to reclaiming this history. Salloum concludes his book with this statement: “The saga of the Arab immigrants is truly the story of Canada.” I share the hope that this history will not be forgotten and the belief that the saga of Arab immigrants is truly the story of Canada. This is a particularly important message now, as Canada hosts a new generation of Arab settlers. Salloum’s book helps us remember what being Canadian means, that we have always been a pluralist nation. It reminds us, too, that there have always been pernicious efforts to place limits on exactly who is deserving of full citizenship. We must continue to challenge and resist this prejudice and intolerance. And what better way than to sit down together and share food with our neighbours, old and new alike.

—Sarah Carter, Henry Marshall Tory Chair in the Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta

Salloum’s book helps us remember what being Canadian means, that we have always been a pluralist nation. It reminds us, too, that there have always been pernicious efforts to place limits on exactly who is deserving of full citizenship. We must continue to challenge and resist this prejudice and intolerance. And what better way than to sit down together and share food with our neighbours, old and new alike.

TUNISIAN LAMB AND POTATO STEW

Serves 4 to 6

1½ lbs lamb 680 g
3 medium potatoes 3
4 tbsps butter 60 ml
3 medium onions, finely chopped 3
4 cloves garlic, crushed 4
2 tsps salt 10 ml
1 tsp black pepper 5 ml
1 tsp sage 5 ml
½ tsp ground caraway seeds 2 ml
½ tsp allspice 2 ml
⅛ tsp cayenne ½ ml
2 cups water 500 ml
3 medium tomatoes, sliced in half 3
½ cup finely  chopped parsley 125 ml
½ cup toasted slivered almonds 125 ml

 

1. Cut lamb into 1-inch (2.5 cm) cubes. Peel and dice potatoes into 1-inch (2.5 cm) cubes. 2. Melt butter in a frying pan, then add meat, onions, and garlic, and sauté over medium heat until meat begins to brown. Stir in potatoes, salt, pepper, sage, caraway, allspice, cayenne, and water, then bring to boil. Cover, and cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. 3. Transfer frying pan contents into a casserole, then arrange tomato pieces, cut-side down on top of stew. Cover, then bake in a 350°F (180°C) preheated oven for 1 hour or until meat is well cooked. 4. Garnish with parsley and slivered almonds, then serve hot from casserole with rice.

 

BEAN STEW / YAKHNIT FASOOLIYA

Serves about 8

1 cup dried white navy beans 250 ml
6 cups water 1.5 L
1 lb beef 454 g
1 medium carrot 1
1 medium potato 1
4 tbsps olive oil 60 ml
2 medium onions, finely chopped 2
4 cloves garlic, crushed 4
2 cups stewed tomatoes 500 ml
4 tbsps finely chopped fresh cilantro 60 ml
2 tsps salt 10 ml
1 tsp cumin 5 ml
½ tsp black pepper 2 ml
½ tsp tarragon 2 ml
⅛ tsp cayenne ½ ml

 

1. Soak navy beans overnight and drain.

2. Place beans and water in a saucepan, then cook for 1½ hours or until beans are tender. Set aside with their water.

3. In the meantime, cut beef into ½-inch (1 cm) cubes. Peel carrot and slice into thin rounds. Peel potato and chop into medium- size pieces.

4. Heat oil in another saucepan, then sauté meat over medium heat until it begins to brown. Add onions and garlic, then sauté for a further 10 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients, including beans with their water, then cover and simmer over medium heat for 40 minutes or until meat and vegetables are tender, adding more water if necessary to increase sauce to desired consistency. Serve hot with rice.

 

FISH STEW WITH RICE / YAKHNIT SAMAK MAʿA RUZ

Serves 6 to 8

 

2 tsps salt, divided 10 ml
6 tbsps lemon juice, divided 90 ml
2 lbs fish fillet, any kind, cut into large pieces 907 g
5 tbsps olive oil 75 ml
1 medium onion, chopped 1
3 tbsps finely chopped fresh cilantro 45 ml
3 cloves garlic, crushed 3
 1 tsp black pepper 5 ml
½ tsp thyme 2 ml
4 tbsps tomato paste 60 ml
1½ cups water 375 ml
2 cups cooked rice 500 ml
½ lemon, sliced ½
1

small  tomato, sliced

sprigs of parsley

1

1. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of salt and 3 tbsps (45 ml) of lemon juice on fish fillet, then refrigerate for about 4 hours.

2. Heat oil in a frying pan, then add onion, coriander, garlic, pepper, thyme, and the remaining 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of salt, then stir-fry over medium heat until onions begin to brown. Stir in tomato paste, water, and the remaining 3 tbsps (45 ml) of lemon juice, then stir and simmer over low heat for 5 minutes.

3. Place fish in another frying pan. Pour the contents of the first frying pan over fish. Cover and allow to simmer over low heat for 25 minutes or until fish is cooked.

4. Place cooked rice on a serving platter, then carefully arrange fillet pieces over top of rice. Pour stew over fish and rice, then decorate with lemon and tomato slices and sprigs of parsley. Serve hot.

October 9, 2017
Books mentioned in this post
Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead

Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead

Recipes and Recollections from a Syrian Pioneer
edition:Paperback
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