For my birthday this year a friend, who lives in the Middle East, ordered a copy of this beautiful book called Tea and Thread: portraits of middle eastern women far from home. I was surprised and touched by her thoughtfulness and when I opened the package in the mail I was captured by the beautiful photographs and women featured in the book. As the title suggests, the book offers glimpses into the lives of 17 women and their families as they reflect on life before the war, war-time difficulties and the uncertainties of being a refugee.
Along with their stories, the women share recipes and traditional handicraft projects. It may seem absurd to move from traumatic events to seemingly trivial details as craft instructions or cookery but as co-author Katrina Flett Gulbrandsen writes in the introduction, ‘It is often a comfort and source of healing to remember and recreate sensory memories that recall happier times; even in the midst of tragedy and upheaval…’ The book features recipes such as khobiz (flatbread), tashreeb (stewed lamb shanks,) tabbouleh and Arabic mint tea and handicrafts such as Syrian style henna, palm weaving, Palestinian embroidery and cold process olive oil soap.
I’ve wanted to cook a recipe from the book but I also wanted to take the time to engage in the story of the woman behind each recipe. I’ve needed time and space to engage with stories that are hard to hear. So recently I organised with a friend to meet and cook duwali together on Saturday morning. Duwali is a recipe shared by Wesam who left Syria with her husband and four children in 2013 and currently lives in Jordan.
On Friday afternoon I picked 60 or so fresh vine leaves from a grapevine at the Bible Garden at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University (where I work and had permission to take). Emma and I met on Saturday morning and prepared the vine leaves as per the recipe below. We worked as a team – I laid out the vine leaves and Emma filled them with the mince and rice stuffing. We filled the pot with the parcels and let them steam for an hour and a half.
Another friend joined us for lunch and before we ate together we read the short story about Wesam and her family. For the last 18 months my husband and I have been in a state of transition – waiting for direction for jobs and where to live. We’ve been negotiating long distance relationship and living with friends until things become clearer. It’s felt like a long time of waiting and feeling unsettled. It took 18 months of hardship and unease for Wesam and her family to leave Syria before beginning a new life in Jordan. Now they face a new life with different hardships. I feel humbled to hear her story.
We all agreed the parcels of meat were delicious. The bulb of garlic infused the duwali and we decided not to waste it and smeared it over the duwali. There was a subtle flavour of lemon to enjoy and Emma had some pomegranate molasse in the fridge so we tried that with the duwali as well which was a lovely accompaniment.
This book would make a lovely Christmas gift and an opportunity to engage with stories of refugees. And all profits from the sales of this book support refugee relief programs in the Middle East. The duwali recipe is republished with permission.
60 fresh vine leaves or 375g preserved vine leaves – drained weight
2 tablespoons lemon juice for cooking, plus 2 tablespoons to garnish before serving
2 tablespoons butter or ghee
1 bulb or garlic, separated into cloves
500ml water or chicken stock
2 tablespoons oil
1 onion, finely chopped
750g minced meat (lamb or beef), raw
110g short-grain rice (uncooked)
Salt and pepper, to taste
If working with fresh vine leaves, rinse the leaves in cold water and then add them to a saucepan of boiling water, 20 at a time, and boil for 2 minutes. Remove to a pot of cold water, then drain in a colander. If using preserved vine leaves, rinse and drain them in a colander.
To make the filling, fry the onion gently in oil until soft. Add the onion to a bowl with the other filling ingredients and mix.
Open the leaves and place them shiny side down on your work surface. Remove any stems. Place 1 tablespoon of filling near the stem end. Fold the stem end and sides over the filing, then roll up firmly. Repeat. Set aside any damaged leaves to line the cooking pan.
Place 1 tablespoon of butter in a heavy-based saucepan along with the garlic. Cover the butter and garlic with a layer of leaves, then pack in the rolls, closely together, in layers. Sprinkle each layer with lemon juice.
Cover the top layer with the remaining vine leaves, add the remaining butter, and the stock. Place an inverted plate over the roles so that they keep their shape during cooking. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat. Simmer gently, covered for about 1 ½ – 2 hours.
Drain the duwali and arrange on a serving dish, sprinkling with lemon juice, if desired.