Majdi Al Khdraa, 25, brings a plate of falafel balls out of the Alshami restaurant kitchen to a family of five seated at one of the diner’s nine snug stalls. As he walks, he peeks a glance at the door, where Lebanese and Syrian sweets and platters of pudding called muhallabia tempt passersby.
After delivering the falafel, Al Khdraa pats a little boy on the head. A thin smile protrudes from his veneer of five-o’clock shadow as he returns to the cash register. At his perch, he observes the chaos of pedestrians, cars and street vendors on Avenue Al Maghrib Al Arabi in Morocco’s capital city, Rabat, but keeps diners in his periphery, ready to dash over with extra pita or a napkin.
When Al Khdraa was a boy in Damascus, Syria, long before the war that has engulfed his country, his family operated a cosmetics shop. He went to school, studying English and French and dreaming of potential studies abroad. But as the Syrian civil war escalated in July 2012, Al Khdraa and his family sold their house, car and other belongings. They each packed a bag of clothes and fled by plane to Lebanon.
“It was the only choice we had,” Al Khdraa says.
Morocco is safe landing spot
After 15 days in Beirut, the family flew to Morocco, one of the few countries that would accept them for permanent residency. In the eyes of Syrians, Al Khdraa says, Morocco is the safest landing spot in the Arab world. Morocco granted about 3,600 Syrian refugees legal status last year, according to a government report. These documents must be renewed annually.
Several months after arriving in Rabat, Al Khdraa got a job at Alshami. Wasim Alkhouga, 35, had just opened up the diner, and he quickly recruited a team of mostly Syrian refugees.
“It’s hard to find each other,” Alkhouga says. He recalls his arrival in Rabat two decades ago when his family relocated for work. He was 10 at the time and spent his first year blundering words in Darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, which is quite different from his own, he says. In a city that’s receiving dozens of Syrian refugees by the month, Alshami reminds the city’s burgeoning émigré community of home.
From the lunchtime grab-and-go shawarma sandwich for 18 MAD ($1.88), to the light but filling lentil soup ($1.26), to their “famous” falafel ($2.09), the diner attracts Moroccans, Syrians and tourists. Al Khdraa recommends his personal favorite, the mix grill ($6.17), an array of shish, lamb and chicken kebabs.
Syrian falafels are a popular street food
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Although the Egyptians claim to have invented the falafel, the Syrian variety of chickpeas, garlic and spices became a phenomenon, sold by street vendors, fast food chains and restaurants around the world. In what is known as the Levant region (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Jordan), the croquettes are often served with tahini and pita as a precursor to the main course. During Ramadan, the balls are sometimes eaten for iftar, the meal after sunset that breaks the fast.
Alkhouga learned falafel fundamentals from his father. There are only a handful of ingredients, but he says patience is everything. The process begins with soaking chickpeas in water for 10 hours and ends with five minutes in boiling vegetable oil. “Don’t touch it,” Alkhouga warns, “or it will shatter.”
Alkhouga applies this singular approach to all food. He takes traditional ingredients to create timeless flavors known throughout the region. Unlike most restaurants, Alshami barbecues the shawarma meat before cooking, Al Khdraa says, pointing to the rotisserie outside. After garnishing, the shawarma is lightly cooked for 25 minutes and served hot. While it’s a steady process, Alshami makes large quantities to accommodate lunchtime demand, so the wait time is insignificant.
As he attends to a steady stream of customers, Al Khdraa says he carries painful memories of his home city 2,400 miles away. He says that he has adapted to Rabat, but longs for the day when he return. Once the violence stops, Alkhouga also says he’d “return in an instant.”
Both realize that day could be years off, but neither forgets the friends and family who stayed in Syria amid death tolls that have averaged about 150 people per day during the course of the four-year civil war, according to the United Nations. Al Khdraa calls home nearly every week and adds, “They say, ‘We made it for this week.’ “
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: 5 to 6 servings
2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of chickpeas
3/4 to 1 ounce (20 to 30 grams) of garlic cloves
1 tablespoon of salt
Few pinches of parsley
Cumin, pepper, to taste, optional
Soy or corn oil
1. Put chickpeas in water at room temperature for at least 10 hours.
2. Grind up chickpeas in a blender, or preferably an ice crusher.
3. Add seasonings.
4. Place mixture in falafel scooper to form into balls.
5. Set balls into boiling soy or corn oil for five minutes. Temperature at least 320 F.
6. Serve right away with pita bread and tahini sauce.
Main photo: Falafel, a Middle Eastern dish of spiced mashed chickpeas, is formed into balls or patties, deep-fried and sometimes eaten in a pita. Credit: Copyright 2012 iStock/mphillips007
Ben Bartenstein and Julia Barstow are in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program.