UPDATE: Habeeb Salloum passed away in December 2019 at age 95. We continue to be inspired by him and his dynamic approach to life.
“Sharing a meal provides opportunities for understanding,” wrote Habeeb Salloum in the introduction of Arab Cooking on a Saskatchewan Homestead. His cookbook chronicles the Middle Eastern recipes he grew up in the dusty plains of Saskatchewan and shares his family’s journey from the village of Qaraoun, Syria.
In 1925, Salloum, his older brother and his mother left French-occupied Syria and followed his father, who was already working on farm in southern Saskatchewan. “My mother only spoke Arabic and one has to admire her perseverance in making the journey with two toddlers,” he says.
For his parents, food was their link to the former home. Living in a brand-new country, Salloum’s family grew traditional grains to sustain them through the long winters. Salloum says his mother, Shams, cooked classic home-cooked Syrian dishes. She would have to adapt ingredients for the ones available, such as using sorrel leaves to replace grape leaves, peanut butter to replace tahini, and vanilla for rose water.
“This creativity influenced my future love of cooking and creating recipes,” he says. It also set Salloum on a life-long path to enjoy good food.
Meals were comprised of chickpeas, lentils, kishk, fava beans, qawarma and burghul – a far cry from the bologna and sardine sandwiches Salloum saw the harvest crews eat. For his family, it was a case of “surviving the hell of the dirty 30s by using ‘old country’ methods in a ‘new country.’”
Not only did this Middle Eastern diet keep Salloum healthy during those years of a drought-stricken land, he says: “They were to form the base of my future adventures in the culinary world.”
Switching careers, from government employee to cookbook author
Salloum always had a desire to travel and write. After he retired in 1985 as a supervisor with the customs and excise department, he pursued both passions. Since then, he has written stories about his adventures for various publications.
His first cookbook, From the Lands of Figs and Olives: Over 300 Delicious and Unusual Recipes from the Middle East and North Africa was published in 1995. The book continues to be in demand, with a revised and updated version to be released in the fall.
The author says his passion for food came from the tasty home-cooked meals his mother made. “She was a genius at improvising with the ingredients she had on hand to continue the Syrian cooking tradition,” he recalls. Her meals form the core of the dishes he creates today, using a medley of herbs and spices and incorporating them with basic ingredients popular in Syrian cuisine such as burghul, tahini, za’atar and sumac.
With a recent increase of Syrians settling in Canada, Canadians are discovering Syrian cuisine and restaurants are popping up in major cities. However, back in 2005 when Salloum first wrote Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead, his intent to was to inform readers about this virtually unknown ethnic group that played a part in the development of Canada.
“Canada was built by immigrants who suffered, celebrated, ate, and worked to create better lives,” he says.
Families like Salloum’s helped change the landscape of Canadian farming and today lentils and chickpeas are now some of this country’s main exports. “My story is a lesson in how the world can change in accepting new people with new ideas in a positive way,” he says.
Author of seven cookbooks, Salloum has no plans on slowing down at age 94. “I am always thinking of new ideas,” he says. “Even though I move slower now, my brain is like that of a young man who carries a passion to move the world.” As well keeping himself engaged by thinking about what to do next, Salloum says he also stays healthy by continuing to eat the types of foods he grew up with, including: chickpeas, lentils, yogurt, olive oil and green vegetables, along with fruit and nuts.
The writer believes nothing should stop anyone from doing what the love as they age. “I feel elated when I write a verse of poetry, an article about history, or create a recipe,” he says. Salloum’s passion is what drives him to continue his work as an author and traveller. “I feel like a million dollars when I have an topic about which I feel other people will enjoy reading.”
Salloum’s next cookbook, The Scent of Pomegranates and Rosewater: Reviving the Beautiful Food Traditions of Syria, is a joint project between Salloum and his daughters, Leila and Muna. Available in October 2018, the cookbook shares his family’s heritage, history and traditions.
“Never walk with your head kept down,” he says. “Be proud of who you are and of your heritage.”