Since Mayada Anjari immigrated to the United States as a refugee from Homs, Syria, in 2016, she’s helped support her family by cooking sold-out community dinners at the Rutgers Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side and other religious centers throughout the city. Now, she is bringing Syrian cuisine to American kitchens with the publication of a new cookbook, “The Bread and Salt Between Us” (out Friday).
“At first I wasn’t sure about making a cookbook,” Anjari, 32, who speaks Arabic, said over email via a translator. “But the more I thought about it, I realized it would be good for me and my family.”
Every Saturday for six months in 2017, cookbook author Jennifer Sit and translator Dalia El-Newehy traveled to Anjari’s house in Jersey City to cook with her. After a cup of coffee, the three would walk to the local C-Town to buy groceries. Then, they would return to the kitchen to cook before sitting down in the evening and eating the fruits of the day’s labor.
While Anjari cooked and El-Newehy translated, Sit converted Anjari’s actions into recipes.
The most difficult part was defining quantities, such as how high the stovetop flame should be or how long something should cook, Sit said.
“One of the biggest things is that Mayada doesn’t really measure — she’s really good at eyeballing,” Sit, 32, said. “I would know that the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ coffee cup she would use would equal one and a quarter cups.”
As Sit got to know Anjari and her four children, she compiled anecdotes to include in the book. The recipe for cheese fingers, for example, explains that the treats are a foolproof way for Anjari to soothe her two-year-old daughter, Jana, when she gets upset. Sit also fondly remembers tasting food for Anjari, who could not eat in the daytime during Ramadan, the month of fasting in Islam.
Everyone involved in the project, from the proofreader to the copy editor to the publicist, worked on a volunteer basis, Sit said. All proceeds will go to Anjari and the Rutgers Presbyterian Church’s New Americans Committee, which helps refugees, asylum-seekers and others find employment.
Formerly the Refugee Task Force, the committee sponsored Anjari’s family through the Church World Service when they came to the U.S. When the group realized Anjari’s cooking skill, they started hosting the dinners as a way for Anjari to make money — and more.
“It’s been a way to raise awareness about the plight of the refugee,” said Nancy Muirhead, a nonprofit lawyer who’s the chair of the New Americans Committee. “Breaking bread and speaking together about these issues is a great way to build understanding.”
With the publication, Anjari is excited to bring her cooking to a larger audience.
“I hope many Americans will try my different recipes so that they can experience Syrian dishes,” she said.
With Meredith Deliso