Nothing brings out that feeling of familiarity like food does. For Lebanese people, food is perhaps the most beloved part of our culture, and one that we indulge ourselves in the most.
Since the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s, many Lebanese people have left the country in search for a better life. A lot of them ended up in Canada, with the idea that it is a country that takes care of its people, and thus, they could establish a new, more peaceful life here.
However, many of them still cling to their traditional ways of living in the hopes of preserving some sense of homeyness.
Thus, as a Lebanese university student who was outrageously homesick when I arrived in Canada in 2017 to study journalism at the University of Ottawa, it was through familiar food that I attempted to quench my thirst for home.
The options were plentiful. There is a shawarma restaurant on what feels like every block and a lot of places serve what we call “Manoush’eh” (men-ou-sheh) but is known as pie here. There is humus in every store and many restaurants serve what is known in Lebanon as “Masheweh” (ma-sha-weh), which is essentially barbecued meats such as kebabs and chicken taouk.
However, before I ever got to discover all that, my first experience with my home’s food happened in the University of Ottawa cafeteria. The experience left me disheartened and discouraged, to say the least.
It was like someone spilled a drink all over a beautiful painting, as I witnessed how they massacred the traditional shawarma right in front of my eyes. A traditional chicken shawarma has the following elements: the chicken, the garlic sauce, the fries and the pickles. That’s all that it needs to create the lovely taste attributed to the sandwich that has seen it reach global acclaim.
So when I saw the chef throw all kinds of different vegetables into the sandwich and a multitude of different sauces, I was quite bewildered. However, the true tragedy was not in the overcompensation of the sandwich, but how underwhelming the taste of it all was.
The shawarma served to me that day lacked key fundamentals in the spicing of the chicken and garlic. It tasted bland when compared to the way it is served back home and left me disappointed. I was still in need of the right food to fill the hole in my heart.
However, I decided to stay optimistic. Perhaps it was just this specific cafeteria that served it to unacceptable standards, and surely other restaurants within Ottawa would do it justice?
Thus, the search for home began. I went on trying every single restaurant that reminded me of home, be it for shawarma or for any other traditionally Lebanese food. However, wherever I went, the feelings of being underwhelmed and disappointed seemed to follow, as it became a common theme with each experience.
They all lacked that kick – that extra bit of flavour that would make the food taste so good back home. However, one thing they did manage to do right, even if I did not realize it right away, was that they were slowly wiping away any feelings of homesickness I’d had at the start.
What took some time to understand was that even if the Lebanese food here was not an exact replica of the food back home, it didn’t need to be. This wasn’t Lebanon, this was Canada. Rather than cling on to the bits of Lebanon I found here, I needed to establish a new sense of familiarity in a new land.
By going from restaurant to restaurant, trying each one again and again in search of food that would mentally take me back home, I became more and more attached to what restaurants here are serving.
Despite them not living up to my expectations initially, I’d still crave the food from these restaurants. What was happening? I came to the conclusion that I had grown to love the Canadian take on Lebanese food.
Now I have specific favourites I often go back to: Food Frenz in Sandy Hill has potentially the best Manoush’eh I have ever had in my life. Fairouz on Clarence Street is like a piece of Lebanon got teleported to Ottawa. And Shawarma House in Kanata makes shawarma the most accurately I’ve seen in Ottawa.
Through my attempt to find familiarity and feel as though I am still back in Lebanon, I created a new sense of comfort with the options available here. In turn, I was able to find my place in my new home.