A Taste of Syria
Crispy chickpea fritters and zingy sides are at the heart of Rasmi’s Falafel.
Foot traffic is starting to pick up midmorning on the sunny main drag of the Orangeville Farmers’ Market. It’s opening day in early May and, as if on cue, it brought the first weather suggesting summer will, indeed, arrive. Everyone here seems relieved and happy.
No one is smiling more than Rasmi AlHariri and Islam Salamah as they greet new and returning customers at Rasmi’s Falafel tent. Wearing crisp new aprons (which include their first names to gently remind folks who’s who), Rasmi and Islam beam at each other and their 13-year-old son Mamdouh as they serve snacks and lunch to the growing crowd.
Rasmi mans the deep fry station, portioning out and dropping single scoops of thick chickpea batter into hot vegetable oil, keeping watch until they’re ready to be lifted out and sprinkled with tangy sumac, then bagged or served hot in a wrap. They usually take about 10 minutes, he says, but today’s light breeze means they need a little longer.
The family debuted Rasmi’s Falafel at the indoor Winter Farmer’s Market in November 2016, just five months after arriving in town as Syrian refugees.
Rasmi had worked in the food industry and at his family’s olive orchard back home, where they made olive oil. (Rasmi and his brothers still own the land, but the trees were harvested for heat and cooking fuel or destroyed during the war.) Once here, the quest for another staple, “real falafel” as Rasmi calls it, led him to making them from scratch for his new immediate circle. From there, with the encouragement of sponsors who knew of other Syrians starting food businesses, the spark was lit.
“He has a great passion for food,” says Lori Kerr, a member of the sponsor group who helps out and often works the counter. She explains Rasmi is very particular when it comes to the exact kind of chickpeas he buys and the right texture. Because they aren’t ground too finely and he adds no flour, his falafel is crunchy and crispy, not mushy.
Islam is the wrap engineer and the spike beside her station holds just four or five orders scribbled on neon Post-its, so she works at a leisurely pace for now – a good thing, since a number of women, many from their sponsor group New Neighbours, duck under the tent for hugs. The couple’s other two kids, four-year-old Laith and nine-year-old Duha, also pop by with sponsors who care for them during market time.
Back at it, Islam smears hummus on a papery pita, then scoops up four falafels from a warming tray and flattens them. Pickled cucumbers, pickled turnip, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, tahini sauce and hot sauce follow, before Islam folds it all up. After a quick press on the grill beside the fryer, she bundles it in green and white paper and hands it off like a relay baton to a customer.
Mamdouh is in his element, helping tally bills, chatting in Arabic with his parents and greeting school chums – one, a fellow Syrian newcomer, bikes by and they holler back and forth in their native tongue. Mamdouh and Lori also sell other take-home offerings: cookies, pastries, hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh and lemon garlic salad.
Earlier, with Mamdouh’s help, the family wrote down the recipe for lemon garlic salad, taking measure of ingredients usually added by instinct. The Syrian classic has no oil, hence its sharp kick. Consider it akin to a condiment, a foil for falafel, plain salad or rice dishes.
Sharing their Syrian culinary history is, they hope, how Rasmi and Islam will secure their future here. They’re offering an expanded menu for a growing roster of catering clients. To help boost his output, Rasmi and his sponsors are looking for equipment to make falafel in quantity. And Orangeville cheese shop owner Christine Patton has been mentoring them on branding and marketing.
Today, they’re winning new fans one bite at a time, handing out single falafel balls and watching faces light up. “I like to give people one to try,” says Islam. “Some people have never had falafel.”
It’s hard to believe that will remain true here for long.