Feast from the East

The culinary traditions of the Caribbean’s Syrian-Lebanese community crossed the Atlantic with them a century ago...

  • The staff of Lawrence of Arabia prepare several Syrian dishes. Photograph by Andrea De Silva. All dishes prepared by Lawrence of Arabia, Trinidad
  • A panful of Arabic-seasoned potatoeos being tossed at Lawrence of Arabia. Photograph by Andrea De Silva. All dishes prepared by Lawrence of Arabia, Trinidad
  • A chicken gyro before it is wrapped. Photograph by Andrea De Silva. All dishes prepared by Lawrence of Arabia, Trinidad
  • Tabbouli is an Arabic salad, made with chopped parsley, bulgur, mint, tomatoes, onions, and other seasonings. Photograph by Andrea De Silva. All dishes prepared by Lawrence of Arabia, Trinidad

When I was growing up in Port of Spain during the Seventies, we knew nothing about Arabic food. It was not part of the national culinary tradition, and no one really thought about it. The “Syrians”, as people still refer to those Trinidadians whose grandparents migrated here from the Middle East, had not yet fully integrated into local society, and their cuisine and other traditions were known only to them.

They had arrived during the early1900s, after a period of uncertainty for Maronite Christians in what was then known as Greater Syria (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine), and many had arrived with very little. Their original destination was the USA, but after a gruelling three-month journey across the Atlantic, many stayed in the Caribbean. Trinidad was the first port of call after their ocean voyage from Marseilles in France, and many chose to stay, though some of the migrants would continue north and form communities in Antigua, Dominica, Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti, among other territories. The new arrivals worked very hard to establish themselves in their new home. In Trinidad they mostly made a living as cloth sellers, travelling by train and supplying people in far-flung corners of the island with the fabrics that were to become their passport to success in this country. Many people of my parents’ generation tell the story of the early days when the Arab men would sell cloth in the village markets and also house-to-house. My mother, who grew up in Fyzabad and Couva, in southern Trinidad, told me that the men would come to their village with bolts of cloth on their backs, and would call their customers with shouts of “Partake, partake!”

One of the secrets of their success was the strength of their community. They worked for one another, the newly-arrived being given cloth on credit by those who were already established, selling it at a profit, paying off their debt and sending money back to the Middle East for their families. Ultimately, they were able to bring their families to join them, and opened their own businesses. Through their hard work and cultural aptitude for business, the Syrian-Lebanese community eventually thrived, first through their cloth stores and then branching out into all manner of entrepreneurial ventures. Their names include Sabga, Aboud, Galy (Ghali), Hadeed, Elias, Abraham, Moses, Janoura and Salloum, and they are among the top business people in the country, but are now also involved in all aspects of Trinidadian culture and life.

Back in the Seventies, though, they were still a mystery to many people, warm and friendly with customers in their stores, but living private lives away from the gaze of the general public. The only outward hint of Middle Eastern heritage was the grapevines that twisted themselves around trellises in Woodbrook, west of downtown Port of Spain. I don’t recall seeing luscious grapes hanging from the vines, for presumably the climate didn’t nourish the fruit, but I later realised that the plants were not just a nostalgic symbol of home, but a way of ensuring they had ready access to one of the important ingredients of Arabic cuisine: grape leaves.

Today anyone can buy the ingredients for Arabic cuisine in specialty shops, and there are many Arabic restaurants, ranging from fine dining at Joseph’s to fast-food eateries which tend to be packed at lunchtime with office workers getting gyros and kebabs, to Adam’s, a gourmet deli, bakery and restaurant featuring a mix of Arabic and Mediterranean cuisine. Words like mezze, kibbe, tabouleh, hummus, fattoush and baba ganoush are no longer foreign to us. We have become accustomed to this type of food partly because of the entrepreneurship of the Syrian-Lebanese people who have spread Arabic cuisine throughout the world and made this once-exotic cuisine internationally recognised.

Najool Galy is a member of the Syrian-Lebanese community, one of many excellent cooks who are carrying on the culinary traditions of their parents. She has prepared Arabic food for charity events and passes on her knowledge by giving cooking classes. A second-generation Arab-Trinidadian married to the son of Elias Galy (Ghali), one of the very first Middle Eastern immigrants (he arrived from Lebanon in 1910), Galy recalls her early life growing up in San Fernando at a time when her family lived above their shop in a run-down part of town. “Our parents knew everyone, even the saga boys liming outside the house, who were very respectful and would keep an eye out for us. Never mind police would be running them down sometimes; we were all part of the scene on Mucurapo Street in those days.”

At that time, people of Arab heritage used to keep to themselves socially, and that, says Galy, came from their strong community traditions. Back in the Middle East, they would socialise among people whose families they knew. When they came to the Caribbean, they could vouch only for people who had come from their villages. “We couldn’t bring any friends home because our parents didn’t know their backgrounds. And we could not go to our friends’ homes.” Intermarriage was out of the question and it was the custom for men to send for brides from their home villages. But by the second generation things began to change and now, in the fourth generation, the tradition of socialising with only one’s own community has fallen away.

Coming from a desert culture that was originally nomadic, the early Middle Eastern immigrants had no problem adapting to some of the challenges of tropical life. For example, there was no refrigeration except for the icebox, and all food had to be made from scratch. When there was a special occasion, Ghaly says, it was an incredible amount of work because there was no question of preparing some of the food beforehand. “Everything had to be done that same day. To make kibbes, the meat had to be bought in the market that same morning, put through a manual grinder before we could start – there was no such thing as buying minced meat. Vegetables had to be bought fresh, sweets had to be made, everything for a big feast had to be done on the same day.” With the coming of electric appliances and fridges, the work was made easier and things were done differently. In fact, members of the Syrian-Lebanese community are among some of the most sought-after caterers, both for Arabic food, which has become popular for festive occasions, and all other types of local food. In coming to Trinidad, Galy says, the new immigrants found most ingredients they needed, though it would be many years before lamb, the chosen meat in their homeland, became readily available, and until then, beef was used as the substitute.

Even though the food is much the same,  there is some variation in the dishes among the Syrians and Lebanese. One example is the signature festive dish: rolled grape or cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and rice (known as malfoof). The Lebanese version is milder, flavoured with garlic and mint, while the Syrian dish has more onions and tomatoes, and is reddish in colour as a result.

Some recipes change when they cross the seas. An example is tabbouli, which, says Galy, is made in Lebanon with a lot of parsley, little wheat and a small amount of tomato, for colour. In Trinidad, it’s made with more wheat and tomato, and cucumber is added. As Galy puts it, “We have a melting pot of Arabic food here. Some of it is different, but it’s all very tasty.”


Arabic menu

Here’s what a typical day’s menu might look like in a traditional Syrian-Lebanese family:

BreakfastEggs fried in olive oil
Kalamata olives
Shankleesh (home-made goats’
milk cheese); in Trinidad it’s usually made
with skimmed cow’s milk.
Tomato and onion salad
Pita bread
Lunch Pita bread
Hummus: a dip made of ground chick peas,
sesame seed paste, lemon juice, and garlic
Baba ganough: roasted melongene,
sesame seed paste, garlic, salt.
Tabbouli: parsley salad with wheat, tomatoes,
cucumbers, lime and salt Grilled chicken or beef
or both Fried kibbes (beef or vegetarian)
DinnerStuffed grape or cabbage leaves
Arabic rice
Fattoush salad
Grilled chicken, beef or lamb


Samples of Arabic cuisine

  • Arabic bread (pita, sum sum): Pita is a flat, round bread, which can be easily split to make a sandwich. Sum sum bread is a thin crispbread with roasted sesame seeds
  • Baba ghanough (or baba ganoush): A dip made of char-grilled eggplant, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic pureé
  • Baklawa (baklava): Dessert of layered pastry filled with nuts and soaked in honey-lemon syrup, usually cut into triangular or diamond shapes
  • Arabic rice: Minced beef or lamb cooked in chicken stock, stir-fried with rice, and flavoured with onions, salt, pepper and cinnamon
  • Bulghur wheat: Parboiled and dried wheat kernels processed into grain, used in tabbouli and mixed with beef or lamb in kibbe
  • Falafel: Small deep-fried patties made of spicy ground chickpeas
  • Fattoush: Salad of toasted flatbread, cucumbers, tomatoes and mint
  • Grape leaves: Many of the grapevines I used to see in Woodbrook disappeared after members of the community sold their homes and moved to different districts. Bottled grape leaves are now available, so there is no need to cultivate grapevines. Still, it is a tradition lost, as the vines were lovingly tended and only certain men in the community would be responsible for pruning them
  • Hummus: Dip made of puréed chickpeas, tahini, lemon and garlic, served with Arabic bread
  • Kebab: Skewered chunks of meat or fish traditionally cooked over charcoal
  • Kibbe: Oval-shaped nuggets of ground lamb or beef and bulgur. Kibbes can be fried, roasted, baked as a casserole, or raw, and can be vegetarian as well
  • Knafi: Pastry made of cream of wheat, milk and layers of mozzarella cheese and topped with a syrup
  • Labenah: Thick creamy cheese, often spiced and used as a dip
  • Mamool: Cream of wheat dessert, stuffed with walnuts and dates.

Basics of Arabic cuisine

Arabic cuisine originated in the desert from the cooking styles of the original nomadic peoples of the region. It comprises regional cuisines from around the Arab world, from Iraq to Somalia to Egypt. Because this area lies along major trade routes, the cuisine has been influenced by different cultures, including Mediterranean and Indian (baba ganoush, for example, is very much like what is referred to as baigan or melongene choka in Indian cuisine in Trinidad).

The style developed from cooking under tents, and methods of preparation include grilling, roasting and baking. The food had to be easily transportable, and, without refrigeration, meat also had to move with the tribespeople: hence the importance of goat to the diet. The crucial seasoning ingredients are garlic, lemon (or lime) juice, mint and olive oil, but there are also special ingredients like sumac (powdered nutty-flavoured flakes) and za’ater (dried oregano with sesame seeds) that are now easy to find.

One of the occasions the Syrian-Lebanese community uses to showcase their traditional cuisine is at a maharajan or festival. This is a gathering for special occasions like weddings or anniversaries. It is a big celebration and typically features a feast, Arabic music, especially flute music, and Arabic dancing. A dinner or feast would begin with the mezze, an array of appetisers including olives, pickles, labhan (yogurt), nuts, shankleesh (Arabic blue cheese), hummous, tabbouli, raw kibbe, cold veggie-stuffed grape leaves, Arabic flatbread, all laid out in small dishes on a table or large, ornate serving tray. Other dishes would include stuffed grape leaves, kibbes, Arabic rice, hummous, baba ganoush and roasted meats. Desserts are often made with cream of wheat, milk, nuts and layers of phyllo pastry, and include baklawa and mamool.

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