Thunder Bay

Sharing a taste of home: Thunder Bay woman, 24, one of 14 newcomers featured in UN cookbook

A 24-year-old Thunder Bay, Ont. woman is featured in Tastes from Home: Recipes from the Refugee Community, a new cookbook to mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Refugee Agency. Aya Wadi and her family fled Syria in 2017, but in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, successfully started a new restaurant.

Aya Wadi and her family fled Syria in 2017; in 2020, they successfully launched Royal Aleppo Food restaurant

Lubaba Shesho (left), Duha Shaar (middle) and Aya Wadi (right) participated in the Roots to Harvest Culture Kitchen in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Wadi and her mother Shaar opened Royal Aleppo Food in 2020. Wadi is one of 14 people featured in the UN cookbook, Tastes from Home: Recipes from the Refugee Community. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

Aya Wadi, 24, of Thunder Bay is sharing her culture through the flavours of her native country in both a new restaurant and a new cookbook, commissioned by the United Nations.

"We are so glad and honoured to be pictured in this cookbook," said Wadi, who, with her family, fled Syria in 2017, and eventually settled in the northwestern Ontario city.

In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, they opened Royal Aleppo Food, and now one of their specialities is being featured in Tastes from Home: Recipes from the Refugee Community. The United Nations Refugee Agency released the cookbook December 14 to mark its 70th anniversary.

The book is full of photographs and the stories of resilience, heartbreak and hope of the 14 people who made their way to Canada, the country they now call home.

Wadi's recipe is for ma'amoul, a date-filled cookie which she has fond memories of making with her mother and grandmother at her home in Syria.

'First bite melts in your mouth'

"I still remember those warm days where we made it where we were celebrating the last day of Ramadan. After we had a long day of fasting we would sit down at the table and use the wooden moulds to make ma'amoul. 

"The first bite melts in your mouth and then you can start tasting the dates that are sweet and with a little bit of blossom water that comes at the end."

Wadi said "it means a great deal to us" to be able to share part of her heritage, joking that people no longer need to go online to find a recipe for the sweet treat, they can just download the cookbook.

But she turns serious when she talks about the challenges of launching a new restaurant, even as others were shutting down during the pandemic.

"We were really, really scared that it might not work. We were expecting to fail, to be honest, especially in the pandemic. But thanks to the community who held us up and supported us. Like the first day we opened, I didn't expect that many customers and all the people really liked our food and they were coming to try our food. On our opening day I had to close one hour early because we sold out of everything," Wadi said.

Cookbook highlights newcomers' traditions

Sharing the stories of people like the Wadi family is the goal of the cookbook, said Lauren La Rose, who speaks for the UN Refugee Agency.

"We thought this would be a perfect project to highlight the rich, vibrant traditions of these amazing newcomers and also tell their stories of how they came to make their journey to Canada; and that includes Aya," she said.

The cookbook is available as a free ebook and can be downloaded online, with each download supporting refugees and their families.

You can hear the full interview with Aya Wadi on CBC's Superior Morning here.