Donia's feast: Cooking lessons from an Iraqi refugee | Dish | Indy Week
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Donia's feast: Cooking lessons from an Iraqi refugee 

A meal by Donia Khalaf

Photo by D.L. Anderson

A meal by Donia Khalaf

On my first visit to the Khalaf family home in Durham, Donia opens the door and apologizes. "The smell is so strong," she says.

A stovetop gurgle emanates from the kitchen, the sound effect to the scent of garlic and tomato trailing toward the front door. Donia looks at me with a concerned smile, her kind, espresso-brown eyes seeming to ask for forgiveness. I tell her that it actually smells delicious in here, like a real home. Her smile broadens into a shy, pleased grin, swooping into two deep-set dimples, framed by freckles.

The same timid smile surfaced in July, when Donia taught an Iraqi cooking class at Durham Spirits Co. to more than 20 novice home cooks and expert chefs. All Americans, they were thirsty for a culinary trip into the exotic, and were equally intrigued by Donia's story as an Iraqi refugee.

Her biryani, fattoush salad and "Lebanese nights" custard dessert highlighted a natural talent: to feed peole. The biryani presentation sharpened our appetites long before each of us could grab a fork. Donia heaped sautéed rice and crumbled vermicelli-like noodles dotted with toasted almonds and raisins onto a serving platter, spreading fragrant chunks of chicken from its center peak toward edges framed by hard-boiled eggs, seared crisp and halved. Her fattoush salad veered from what we normally see in Middle-Eastern delis, speckled scarlet with diced beets and crunchy hints of pita bread strategically scattered at the top of the bowl to avoid mush among firm diced bits of cucumber and tomato.

"You should be able to taste everything with your eyes," she later tells me.

At the class, her children, Mohamed, 11, and Maryam, 8, bustled about, proudly snapping photos of their mother's culinary instruction debut while serving as impromptu translators. Donia, soft-spoken and intelligent, doesn't need to be uncomfortable about her English, though she says she is after being in the U.S. for only a year and a half. Still, she carefully fielded questions and with as much detail as possible, a testament to her experience as a middle school history teacher in Baghdad.

This morning in her family's apartment, the ringlets in her hair are loose, resting just above her shoulders, as she alternates between stirring a pot of soup to welcome an Iraqi family arriving in town that day, serving tea in tiny traditional porcelain cups she packed and transported from overseas, and typing what she can't express off-the-cuff into Google Translate.

Donia is comfortable in her kitchen, talking woman-to-woman. The warmhearted home chef lets me try the kubba in the soup, an oval-shaped minced meatball made heartier by a thick outer rim of bulgur wheat and semolina. She fishes through a second freezer in the dining room corner to show me various halal meats and special breads she bought from local Arab and Indian stores. She flips the pages of cookbooks written in elegant Arabic script, from right to left, that highlight foods from all over the world. She gushes over Giada de Laurentiis' cooking shows ("I wish to correspond with her one day") and admits she can only tolerate so much of the fast-talking, rapid-fire technique of Rachael Ray.

Mohamed chimes in later in the discerning tone of a preteen son, one who's developing a Southern accent. "Every day she makes a new food from a new country, and we're the first to try it!" he says, giggling.

Her charismatic husband, 40-year-old Ghazwan, a picky eater, often tells his wife she could have her own television show. He appreciates Donia's exploration by stove to faraway lands ("Anything—if you eat it every day—it will be boring"), unless it's Chinese food. She's a fan of Chinese seafood dishes and the combined flavors of sweet and sour; Ghazwan crinkles his nose at the thought.

During our first chat, an Iraqi neighbor unexpectedly rings the doorbell to drop off her sleeping toddler so she can go shopping. While the boy snores on the couch, Donia runs into the kitchen again. "She's hungry," she says of her friend before ladling kubba into a small bowl. The young woman greets me with a lively hello, vigorously scooping spoonfuls into her mouth while, in loud whispering, they spin quick Arabic into a seemingly intriguing conversation. It turns out to be about the friend's wedding, for which she and Donia will soon be baking a cake.

Donia's fastidious, simple word choice in accented English coupled with a calming demeanor give every mention of food the air of a parable. Take the anecdotes of her youth, when her worried mother, though predictably instilling the importance of cooking for an Iraqi woman's future as a wife, refused to let Donia near a burner for fear of an accident. Donia quietly rebelled as a teenager, waiting for her mother to fall asleep before whipping up traditional meals taken from tattered cookbooks while her sister stood guard with a grumbling stomach. She remembers teaching herself how to cook maqluba—literally meaning "upside down"–in which sizzling eggplant is topped with rice and then flipped onto a platter, the oil nearly splattering her.

"Sometimes I would do this during the day, during her nap. Other times, very late, after midnight," Donia said. "Most of the time it was bad and I would throw it all away and hide it. But if it was good, I'd say 'Hey Mom, try it.' Usually those were easy things. She couldn't be mad."

At the university, Donia studied Islamic history and completed a master's thesis focused on Egyptian burial rituals. Her intrigue for history led her to an interest in the foods of Egypt. Little did she know that, after marrying Ghazwan, she would experience maqluba, an emotional chaos. They fled to Egypt as refugees. For safety reasons, the couple prefers not to give specific details of their refugee status. Donia recounts that before the war, their quiet Baghdad suburb was peaceful. On Sundays, she often threw backyard garden parties with a slew of friends and family. The Iraqis enjoy a long summer, from March to December, with a fruitful harvest to savor: dates, eggplant and tomatoes. Sundays included kebab on the grill, traditional buffalo milk cream for dessert and a day of preparation in folding grape leaves into rolled dolma. "The dolma likes many, many people," Donia says.

When the war began, the family's life changed. One of Mohamed's childhood friends was kidnapped for ransom. The Khalafs received threats, and the garden became empty on Sundays, the doors locked and the family in fear.

"I couldn't sleep at night," Donia says. "I was scared about my kids and my husband, too. Some people wanted to kill him. We couldn't stay in Iraq."

I ask little Maryam if she misses anything about home. She replies with dimples that match her mother's: "I have never even seen Iraq!" She was 3 when her family fled to Egypt. Through her mother's cooking, she maintains happy reminders of home. Ghazwan says that he likes his children to eat the traditional meals he and Donia grew up with. "I'm always encouraging them to keep these steps, these traditions, in their minds."

Which is not to say the kids—and Donia—aren't accepting of their newfound American food culture. "The kids love Kentucky," Donia says, meaning the fictitious colonel's famed fast-food fried chicken. She makes it for them at home using a recipe that she actually learned in Iraq with milk, eggs and the ever-so-American corn flakes. "You know, the big rooster on the box."

My second visit to the Khalaf home happens to be Donia and Ghazwan's 13th wedding anniversary, their second in the U.S. Donia invited her friend Amy, an American nurse, to feast with us on a leg of lamb that Donia meticulously prepared hours earlier. A re-enactment, or practice for the upcoming class Donia will teach, includes swift slits into the raw meat: secret nooks for aromatic whole green cardamom pods, cloves and garlic. Donia pressed her own special spice rub into the meat; a rich, pomegranate molasses pooled on top. We were persistently treated to seconds, thirds and, yes, fourths.

Fortunately, seconds of Donia's cooking class and more Recipe With Refugees courses are being scheduled. For more information, or to volunteer with the classes, contact Sarah Ferguson at Church World Service at activitiesrdu@churchworldservice.org.

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