How food helped five newcomers find their Swiss homesA seat at Switzerland’s table
Follow their journeys, and learn their recipes – some with a Swiss twist.
01 Urbania to Bern
Urbania to BernThe man who legalised spaghetti
Adriano Tallarini Italy
Adriano Tallarini Italy
Mid-morning on a Tuesday, when most of the city’s restaurants are empty or still closed, dozens of customers at Bern’s Dolce Vita restaurant are already chatting amid the warm fragrance of coffee. Some people are reading the paper, others are deep in conversation and one or two are already raising a glass of beer among friends.
Here and there a few words are spoken in Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, but the dominant language is the Bernese dialect of German. This Italian restaurant is clearly a neighbourhood meeting-place.
The credit for all this is largely due to the proprietor of the “Dolce Vita”, 89-year-old Adriano Tallarini. With a little sheepskin hat on his head and a sheaf of photographs in hand, the legendary restaurateur joins me at a table, serves me a coffee, and starts to tell his story.
Today, Italians like Tallarini make up Switzerland’s biggest single community of foreign residents, and they are often pointed to as a model of successful integration. Italian food is part of everyday life in the country. But it wasn’t always that way.
Particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, Italian immigrants faced prejudice and mistrust from the Swiss. Popular initiatives aimed at them, railing against "too many foreigners", often played up prejudices about food. As well as eating too much garlic, Italians were accused of having bizarre taste in meat – anything from cats to swans.
No money around
Tallarini was born in Urbania, in Italy’s eastern Pesaro province. His parents ran an osteria.
"The osteria is the most basic kind of restaurant where you can eat very cheaply, but very well prepared food,” he explains. “That was the environment I grew up in."
He recalls that "there never seemed to be much money around". And so, in 1955 - like many others before him - he decided to try his luck abroad.
After an initial bizarre experience working at the station buffet in the ski resort of Wengen (the story involves extra-marital intrigue and unfounded suspicions of venereal disease), Tallarini arrived in Bern and started working as a waiter at the “Walliser Kanne” restaurant.
He worked there for a decade, amid a constant lack of ventilation – “you could cut the air with a knife it was so smoky”. Then, he decided to complete his education and ended up managing the “Casa d'Italia” establishment.
"It was there that the battle of my life and my real passion began. I gave it everything I had,” he recalls.
Tallarini’s hard work paid off. The Casa d'Italia was not yet a business open to the public, but a kind of club for the Italian community. Its license only allowed it to serve Italians, but Swiss customers started making their way to the restaurant more and more. In 1982, the restaurant’s "segregation” officially ended. "Spaghetti legalised” declared a headline in the local paper "Der Bund".
This example of integration even made an impression on the Italian government. In 1986, Tallarini was awarded the country’s distinction “Cavaliere della Repubblica”, or “Knight of the Republic”, for his work on behalf of the Italian community.
A year later Werner Bircher, then the mayor of Bern, wrote him a testimonial letter stating, "with great courage, ability and dedication, Adriano Tallarini has brought the Casa d'Italia to full fruition, and has contributed in a decisive way to creating good relations between Italians and Berne natives in this location, through sharing the enjoyment of fine food.”
“He has made the Casa d'Italia into much more than just a restaurant. It is a popular meeting place where his own compatriots, as well as ordinary citizens and groups in the city, can feel at home."
Tallarini also had economic success.
"When I arrived, the annual profits amounted to 400,000 francs and when I left, 14 years later, it was 4.7 million,” he recalls with pride.
Tallarini eventually took over another Italian restaurant in Bern, called the “Boccalino”. It’s one of many establishments he has owned in the city, some just because they were near one he already had.
"It kept away the competition,” he quips.
Tallarini has made a success of every restuarant he has ever owned. One of which he seems to be particularly proud is called "il Mappamondo", meaning “the globe”. He chose that name because it was to be a place "for people of all different sorts, nationalities and colours. With a big room for club get-togethers. It really became the place for everybody."
What’s his secret to success? It must be a question he gets often, because he immediately begins to reel off the principles of his work ethic like a schoolboy reciting a lesson by heart.
"Always being there, always available, cordiality and hospitality, always a guarantee of fresh foods, quality and quantity. There can be no question about all of that." Another aspect is the staff. Not only do I respect them and pay them well, but I love them as if they were part of the family."
"Then there is the question of price. Here in the ‘Dolce Vita’ I haven’t raised my prices for ten years."
His obvious passion and love for what he does is clearly the biggest factor. Today, Tallarini has sold all his restaurants but the “Dolce Vita”, but in the mornings he often "does the cash" there and spends every afternoon at the restaurant playing cards – or, as he puts it, “arguing over cards” – with a group of friends.
"Whenever I walk by, I greet the customers and ask them if they have been well taken care of. They answer “wie immer” (‘as always’), and that for me is more valuable than any paycheque. That’s what keeps me going and makes me feel good about life."
02 Oporto to Fribourg
Oporto to FribourgI came to Switzerland on an adventure
Nelo Lopes Portugal
Nelo Lopes Portugal
It is winter in western Switzerland and the biting wind forces people to walk with their heads down, huddled inside coats. I stomp my feet to get rid of the excess snow before entering the warmth of a bakery.
"Bom dia!" says the woman at the counter, bidding me good morning in Portuguese and awaiting my request.
All around, I see pastries of cream, sweet croissants and “sonhos” – known as Berliners to the Swiss, and doughnuts in other parts of the world - as well as other delicacies covered with creams and delicate egg threads that make me wonder for a moment whether I'm still in Switzerland.
The smell of the place triggers homesickness. Both in Brazil and in other Portuguese-speaking countries, bakeries have always been a business maintained by Portuguese, so there is a certain familiarity among the regular customers. But some who respond to “bom dia” with a hesitant "bonjour" cast a curious glance around, unsure where they’ve landed.
"Sixty to 70% of our clients are Portuguese," says Manuel Fernando de Oliveira Lopes, better known here as Nelo Lopes. "Sometimes the clerks try to guess by the customer's face before saying “bonjour”, but it doesn’t always work," laughs the boss.
In fact, the many Portuguese customers only come as a surprise to tourists and foreigners not familiar with Switzerland.
About 270,000 Portuguese live in Switzerland, making it the third-largest foreign community in the country. Many of them live in French-speaking Switzerland. In the canton of Neuchâtel, for example, "da Silva" has become the most common surname, well ahead of traditional cantonal names such as Jeanneret or Robert.
The situation is similar in nearby Fribourg, where Lopes has his bakery. The Portuguese accent can be heard in many shops in the cities of Fribourg and Bulle and it is common to hear the language spoken on the street.
Unlike the two largest groups of foreigners in Switzerland - Italians and Germans, from neighbouring countries - the Portuguese have a culture very different from that of the Swiss, especially when it comes to food. But over the years, Portuguese restaurants have become as much a part of the fabric of places like Fribourg as its wine cellars or fondue restaurants.
Same ingredients, different result
“The bread itself is identical, the components are the same, but there are different techniques and habits," says Lopes of a staple found in both the Swiss and Portuguese diets. But the Portuguese consume twice or even three times as much bread as the Swiss, the baker says.
"[They] have the habit of going to the bakery every day to get three, four or five loaves of bread, maybe going twice just to get the fresh hot bread. Here, they buy bread every two or three days. "
Lopes adapted his bakery to cater to such Swiss habits. So, along with the various smaller rolls, there are also larger, whole-grain breads and even very typical seasonal specialties, such as "Stollen", a German cake with raisins and candied fruits.
Many of the Portuguese living in Switzerland seem to have taken on the Swiss habit of only coming to the bakery every few days, though perhaps for other reasons.
"The Portuguese here - or in any other country they have migrated to - always try not to spend too much, because they go to another country to save and not to spend,” Lopes says. “They avoid coming every day for breakfast, and maybe they come to the bakery once or twice a week, or only at the weekend."
Coming to Switzerland
Coming to Switzerland
"I came to Switzerland on an adventure, not out of necessity as many people do,” Lopes says. “Switzerland is a country renowned for chocolate and I am a chocolate fanatic. That’s the kind of pastry art that interests me the most.”
But he entered the world of pastries and confectionary purely by chance. At the end of his formal schooling in Portugal, the young Lopes decided to stop studying and entered the job market instead. "Pastry was the first job opportunity that came along and the more I discovered the profession, the more I felt the need to specialise in it," explains the confectioner, who is now 37 years old.
"I started looking for professionals who could give me this specific training, this was the path I wanted to follow," he says. And so, the boy from a small community in northern Portugal began attending a professional culinary school in Oporto, the country’s second-largest city.
He soon became an expert in personalised cakes - 3D creations with figurines - and his passion for working with chocolate aroused his curiosity about Switzerland.
The opportunity to move to the Alpine country came about through a friend who invited him to work in a company specialising in Portuguese products.
Breaking bread, making a living
It was not difficult for the baker to land on his feet in Switzerland, because the company he worked for helped him fit in. His colleagues had a good command of the language and knew how to rent an apartment and get the necessary paperwork.
But learning about the culture took more time. Before moving, Lopes had only been on vacation in Switzerland, which left him with images of snow, mountains and chocolate – but not much of an idea of how everyday life would treat him.
When he began working in the country, he quickly discovered that earning a living as a baker demands hard work, just like in Portugal.
“I used to live for work and here it is the same thing,” Lopes says. “I have very little spare time, and when I do have time off, I dedicate myself to studying and researching for my job.”
“In my profession it is necessary to work seven days a week, day and night.”
Years later, he’s still learning about the quirks of Swiss cuisine and picking up inspiration for new dishes.
"Swiss pastry does not have much variety,” he points out. “They do just a few things, but what is done is very well done.”
Then there’s the cheese, which he’s become a fan of, especially in delicate specialties like tarts and quiches. And he continues to be intrigued by combinations of ice creams, meringues and mousses in Swiss desserts like “vacherin glacé”, found in the Fribourg region.
The Portuguese confectioner does not regret having chosen this place and this path in life. His business now employs seven people, and he provides bread and pastries to restaurants and markets across the area.
His commitment to his employees and clients, and to accomplishing a job well done, gives him the strength to endure homesickness and the long months of cold that can accompany life for a Portuguese in Switzerland.
RecipePasteis de nata
For the pastry dough
- 2 cups minus 2 tbsp flour (272 g)
- 1/4 tsp salt (1 g)
- 3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp cold water (207 ml)
- 1 cup butter (227 g)
- 3 tbsp flour (27 g)
- 1 1/4 cups milk (296 ml)
- 1 1/3 cups sugar (264 g)
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2/3 cup water (158 ml)
- 1/2 tsp vanilla (3 ml)
- 6 egg yolks, whisked
- Icing sugar and ground cinnamon for dusting
- In a stand mixer with a dough hook, mix the flour, salt and water until a soft dough forms, about 30 seconds.
- Flour a work surface and pat the dough into a square. Flour the dough, cover with plastic wrap and rest at room temperature for 15 minutes.
- Roll out the dough into a 45-cm square.
- Trim any uneven edges, then dot 2/3 of the dough with 1/3 of the butter, leaving a 2-cm border around the edge.
- Fold the 1/3 unbuttered portion over the rest of the dough. Fold another 1/3 of the dough, pat down the dough, then pinch the edges to seal.
- Flour the work surface, then roll the dough out once more to a 45-cm square, and repeat steps 4 and 5.
- Roll out the dough into a 45 x 53-cm rectangle. Spread the remaining butter over the entire surface.
- Lift the edge of the dough and roll it away into a tight log, trim the edges, then cut in half. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and chill for two hours or overnight.
- Whisk the flour and ¼ milk until smooth.
- Bring the sugar, cinnamon and water to a boil in a saucepan and cook to 100°C (220°F).
- In another saucepan, bring the remaining 1 cup milk to the boil, then whisk into the flour mixture.
- Remove the cinnamon stick, then whisk the syrup into the milk-and-flour mixture. Add the vanilla, then whisk in the yolks.
- Strain the mixture into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap.
- Place an oven rack in top third of oven and heat to 290°C (550°F).
- Remove a pastry log from the fridge, then roll it out onto a lightly floured surface. Cut into 2-cm pieces.
- Place each piece of dough at bottom of a greased 12-cup mini muffin pan.
- Dip your thumbs into a small cup of water, flatten the dough into the bottom of the pan, then smooth up the sides to create a raised lip.
- Fill each cup ¾ full with the custard.
- Bake until the edges of the dough are browned, about 8-9 minutes.
- Allow the tarts to cool in the pan, then transfer to a rack. Sprinkle with icing sugar and cinnamon.
- Repeat steps 1-7 for the remaining pastry and custard.
This is a condensed version of a recipe by Leite’s Culinaria.
03 Taipei to Olten
Taipei to OltenThe smell of food in the hallway is why I live here
Liyah Huiling Jenni Taiwan
Liyah Huiling Jenni Taiwan
From the balcony of her apartment, she can see the playground of the local kindergarten where her children used to play. But now that both her son and daughter are studying at middle school, Liyah’s balcony is used for other purposes. There are green plants, common in Swiss apartments, and something curious – a huge round earthenware pickle jar. When autumn comes, its contents are always a surprise. Sometimes, it’s Korean kimchi. Or it might be full of soft-boiled tea eggs, a typical Taiwanese dish.
Liyah was born in one of the most sparsely populated parts of Taiwan island where human connections are central to everyday life. Her childhood memories involve dad’s school, mum’s grocery store, the farm work of pig-feeding and rice-harvesting, and genuine friendship among neighbours who shared food with each other.
Liyah left her hometown at 13 years old to attend junior high school, senior high school and university in other places, ultimately in Taipei. As she travelled further and further from her hometown, eventually to the United States, Malaysia and Bahrain with her Swiss husband, she also lost the opportunity to improve her cooking skills – there was always somewhere to eat good Asian food.
Had it not been for Switzerland, Liyah’s gastronomic talents might have gone undiscovered.
‘Switzerland taught me to cook’
In 2006, Liyah’s family moved back to her husband Eugen’s hometown of Olten, in the German-speaking part of the country between Bern and Zurich.
“All of a sudden, I found that there was no place to eat. The taste of the food at those Asian restaurants doesn’t seem to agree with me. And the prices are quite high.”
Olten’s sushi chef
Olten’s sushi chef
“The reason why I chose to live in my apartment is because of the nice smell of food,” she says. “When I came here for the first time, I was met by the aroma of Indian cuisine in the hallway, which made me feel so warm.
”There are six families living in the unit – Indians, Romanians, Italians, and some Swiss, including an elderly woman who lives upstairs.
“At times, I give her some of my homemade jams and she is always extremely pleased. But she never invites me in for a cup of tea,” Liyah says. “Perhaps that’s the way how Swiss people are, friendly but still with some distance. I just need to get used to it and try to understand.
”But it’s different with her Indian neighbours, all mothers, who often come by with their children.
“Thanks to them, I never felt lonely when I first arrived here.
”Liyah started to learn cooking “to survive in Switzerland”. Now, the hallway that used to smell like curry has also taken on the aromas of Chinese food and rice.
Amala, across the hall, has fallen in love with her Taiwanese neighbour’s cooking; ramen is her favourite.
Olten’s sushi chef
It’s not just neighbours and friends who enjoy Liyah’s food. Five years ago, she got a part-time job at an Asian take-out restaurant near the local cinema where she cooked several dozen helpings of Chow Mein (stir-fried noodles) and fried rice at noon every day. After that, she realized she could cook for more people.
She also took on a new dish: sushi. After watching videos online to be able to make it for her children, she started making it for the restaurant where she was working, since they were expanding their menu. There’s no secret to it, she says.
“You just need to cook the sushi rice well and the fish needs to be fresh.”
Sushi is still considered exotic in Switzerland. Liyah makes it even more unique by cutting the seaweed into the shape of eyes, noses and mouths, and sticking them to salmon fillets. A sushi ball becomes a Halloween pumpkin, or a snowman by piling two rice balls together and decorating them with scarves and faces.
Liyah’s sushi soon expanded its market from her fast-food restaurant to seafood shops in the old town. Both the owners of the bakery and the cafeteria in the alley nearby love it, and Liyah also frequently delivers to other stores and restaurants.
She dreams of selling specialties from her native Taiwan to the Swiss people, but feels she needs a business partner with the same ideas and interests to make it a success.
“I may come across one someday,” she says.
Business, fame and friendship
Business, fame and friendship
Culinary skills are a vital part of social networks in Asian culture, an idea that Liyah has brought to Switzerland. Although she has not yet started her own business, the food delivery service she has been providing for years has made her well-known around town – even famous, as one of her customers puts it.
“Once I invited friends over to my place, and one of my friends recognized Liyah’s sushi straight away.”
“I ordered ramen for this year’s party. The price at three Swiss Francs per portion can be found nowhere else in Switzerland. Liyah always says something like ‘I’m glad I could help’, which makes me think that she was not doing business at all.”
In response, Liyah smiles and says she just cooks for fun.
“We are friends, and if they like my food, then I just cook! Normally I only charge for ingredients and a little labour.”
Search for identity
In the past year, Liyah has taken her sushi expertise to the classroom as a culinary instructor at the Migros Club School. Apart from teaching, each session includes one hour for tasting and chatting, which has helped her better understand her students and the local culture.
“I really enjoy it. I feel that the bond between me and the students is getting deeper, and I know what Swiss people are thinking and interested in,” Liyah says. “I can even understand Swiss German if I concentrate.
”Liyah herself acquired Swiss citizenship long ago, having lived in the country for a decade with a Swiss spouse.
“But once, my daughter said to me, ‘You are not Swiss. You are Chinese!’ I think she’s right. I can never be a Swiss woman through and through. I am a Chinese-Taiwanese woman.”
Her understanding of family and friendship is more Chinese, but her habits, she says – like punctuality and politeness on the telephone – are more Swiss.
She thinks about it a bit more, then concludes, “my home, my family and my roots are here, in Switzerland.”
“More specifically, I think I am a Chinese-Swiss woman.”
RecipeThree cup chicken
- 4 chicken legs without bone
- 1 cup of soy sauce (237 ml)
- 1 cup of rice wine (237 ml)
- 1 cup of sesame oil (237 ml)
- Basil (preferably Thai basil)
- Spring onion
- Garlic cloves
- 1 tsp of brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp of salt
- Heat up a wok with sesame oil.
- Fry the chicken in oil until the meat turns gold in color.
- During this time, cut the ginger, the garlic and the chili into thin slices.
- Replace golden chicken on cut board and put the ginger in wok.
- Fry the ginger until they are crispy.
- During this time, cut each piece of chicken into 6 pieces.
- Put the chicken, mushroom, soy sauce, rice wine, garlic, sugar and salt into wok.
- Add one cup of water and cook the whole during 10-15 minutes, until the sauce has dried out.
- Add the basil, spring onion and chili, cook for 20 seconds.
- Remove from heat and serve with rice.
04 Calgary to the Emmental
Calgary to the EmmentalTrading grilled cheese for Gruyère
Andie Pilot Canada
Andie Pilot Canada
Pilot, now 34, was a child living near Calgary when she first tasted a grilled cheese sandwich at a friend’s house. In true North American fashion, it was a slice of processed cheddar cheese between two pieces of white “Wonder” bread. When she got home, she asked her mother to make her one.
“My mom got out her rye bread, dipped it in white wine and put some gruyère cheese on it,” Pilot remembers.
Instead of turning up her nose at this Swiss-inspired version of the sandwich, Pilot says she became aware of a “whole other world of food”.
As she grew up, exploring more European recipes helped her decide to train as a pastry chef, after which she decided to take advantage of her Swiss citizenship to move to the country and try to find work in a bakery.
In the country of her ancestors, she began to discover all kinds of interesting recipes. She found she needed a place to keep track of them all and share them with friends back in Canada who kept asking her how to make things like fondue or Christmas cookies. So her blog, Helvetic Kitchen, was born.
Today, it contains dozens of recipes illustrated with attractive photos, from the very traditional Swiss “Birchermüesli” to Pilot’s own twists on Swiss ingredients, such as Toblerone mousse or Ovomaltine ice cream sandwiches.
Working as a pastry chef proved too difficult because Swiss bakeries were only prepared to offer her an apprenticeship or internship at first – not enough to make a living. So Pilot began teaching English and sharing her love of food with her students by making it a discussion point in class.
“Food was such a great topic to talk about because people have such strong opinions about it and everyone wants to share their family's recipes,” she says. Looking back, she thinks having that common conversation point helped her feel at home in Switzerland, even as she struggled with learning German and getting up the confidence to speak it.
“If someone had told me at the time not to worry about being shy or making mistakes, that would have been good advice,” she says.
Pilot originally moved to Switzerland intending to stay a year. Today, she is settled in long-term with her Swiss husband and one-year-old daughter, living across the street from a field of cows among the rolling hills of the Emmental region. Her mother, who left Switzerland for Canada in the 1960s, has also just moved in nearby and is going through the process of re-integrating in her homeland.
Pilot continues to learn about her now-home country through its food, taking regular culinary-inspired trips to different regions of Switzerland to try several versions of a recipe before perfecting it for her blog. Her next project involves a series of drink recipes. Pilot also draws inspiration from old, regional cookbooks and more contemporary favourites like Betti Bossi (Switzerland’s Betty Crocker).
“Sometimes my family gets sick of having the same meal or dessert over and over,” she says of the many times she re-creates a dish before deciding which recipe to publish.
Just as important as perfecting each recipe is telling the story behind it. Some are contemporary, like how Pilot got ahold of a Swiss ski legend’s mother’s recipe for cholera, a pot pie-like specialty from canton Valais. Others come from history, such as the story of canton Glarus’s “schabziger” cheese, which dates back to a ninth-century monastery.
When prompted, Pilot struggles a bit to think of a typically Canadian dish (poutine? maple syrup?). The food of the country where she grew up comes from, as she puts it, “a great mix of people who have immigrated to Canada and opened restaurants”.
Switzerland, on the other hand, has countless deep-seated culinary traditions that also go hand-in-hand with the many cultures to be found within its borders.
“There are all these little pockets of different traditions and language in such a compact place,” Pilot says of her chosen home. “The idea that all of these places manage to exist together harmoniously in such a small area is really wonderful.”
RecipeZigerhörali (macaroni and cheese from Glarus)
- 4 cups (400 g) macaroni
- Big knob of butter
- 1 tbsp flour
- 2 cups (500 ml) milk
- 3.5 oz (100 g) Schabziger cheese, grated
- 2 cups (250g) Gruyère or other hard cheese, grated
- Nutmeg, salt, pepper
- 3 tbsp breadcrumbs
- More butter for topping
- Preheat oven to 200°C / 400 Fahrenheit.
- Butter a large 2.5-litre (10 cup) baking dish.
- Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil, and once it’s boiling add the pasta. Once the pasta is cooked, strain into a colander.
- Put the empty pot back on the stove over medium heat. Add the butter and as soon as it is bubbling, add the cheeses. Stir until everything is creamy and uniform. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.
- Add the pasta back to the pot and give everything a good stir.
- Pour the pasta into the buttered baking dish. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and stud with bits of butter.
- Bake for about 10-15 minutes, or until the breadcrumbs are crisp and lightly browned.
Serve with applesauce and fried onions
Serves about 4 people.
05 Damascus to Geneva
Damascus to GenevaCooking is a door to integrating into society
Nadeem Khadem al-Jamie Syria
Nadeem Khadem al-Jamie Syria
Nadeem hopes his cooking skills will help speed up the process and pave the way for a better future for his family.
“Cooking is a bridge to integrate into Swiss culture,” says Nadeem, who aspires in the coming years to learn enough about Swiss cuisine to merge it with the richest flavours of his homeland.
Arrival in Switzerland
Nadeem reached Geneva on August 8, 2015.
Cheerful crowds celebrating a summer festival on the streets of the lakeside city hinted at the start of a brighter chapter. The journey had been rough – including a near-drowning when a dinghy over-packed with fellow migrants capsized between the Turkish coastal city of Izmir and the Greek island of Chios.
Joined by his two brothers, Nadeem traversed on foot the border areas connecting Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. They used limited public transportation to move within national borders.
The Syrian siblings were part of an unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants to reach Europe that summer, most of them fleeing war.
Memories and mentors
Memories and mentors
Family reunification was his top priority, a goal he achieved on February 17, 2017 after successfully completing his own asylum process. It was fast by Swiss standards. Nadeem knows many other asylum seekers who arrived before him and are still waiting for a decision. While he feels lucky for the relative speed of their case, those 19 months without seeing Faizeh and the girls felt like forever.“
Relative to others it was fast but, for me, it was like time had stopped,” he said, recalling the struggle to find words and stop his body from shaking the moment they finally landed in Switzerland.
Memories and mentors
The Jamie family at first lived in the Foyer du Grand Saconnex, a home for asylum-seekers and refugees near Geneva Airport, before settling into a small apartment in the Petit-Lancy area earlier this year.
Their reunion and new beginning in Switzerland caps a series of traumatic events largely outside of their control. But those same events pushed Nadeem into a restaurant kitchen in the first place and set him on the path to becoming a chef.
The unrest that erupted in Syria in 2011 and later gave way to armed conflict cut short his university studies focused on business and economics. The son of a retired tailor and a housewife, Nadeem earned a modest income by pickling vegetables at the street market of Bab Srije, one of the seven gates piercing the defensive walls of ancient Damascus.
Calls for reform gave way to demands for the ouster of the Assad regime. The stage was set for a brutal military crackdown that crushed the nation’s protest hubs one by one. Nadeem was also wanted by the security forces because he had skipped military service.
“These two reasons were the cause of my escape from Syria to Switzerland,” he says.
Raids and searches initially focused on his family home soon zeroed in on his workplace. The neon hues of the pickle stand - packed nose-high with carrots, cauliflower, cucumber and peppers - were no longer enough cover. It became too dangerous to commute to work even when taking the back streets to avoid regime checkpoints.
As a man on the run, Nadeem joined the kitchen staff at the Abu Jedi restaurant in Damascus. He began as a cook’s assistant and gradually worked his way up to the rank of chef. In the kitchen, he thrived under the guidance of his father-in-law, learning how to make a wide variety of Damascene dishes and sweets.
Syrian security services detained his cooking mentor for approximately one month over his participation in the Damascus protests. The experience was so grueling that the man only survived a week after his release. It is one of many losses the chef and his wife experienced over the course of Syria’s conflict.
“I learned so many things from him I couldn’t possibly list them all,” Nadeem says of his teacher in the kitchen.
Cooking, he adds, can bring back a flood of memories but at the same time helps keep them at bay. It forces his mind to focus on the task at hand. Syrians say cooking is “nefs” – a concept akin to soul. His brown locks tucked under a wool winter hat, Nadeem puts all his energy into every task in the kitchen, whether chopping, mixing, seasoning or washing up.
Feeding the Swiss
Feeding the Swiss
Kitchen flair has already earned Nadeem some notoriety if not the opportunity of a stable job here in Switzerland. He was one of five chefs spotlighted in the 2017 Geneva Refugee Food Festival. The event, a citizen-inspired initiative created by Food Sweet Food and supported by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), that has also been held in other European cities, aims to change attitudes towards refugees by highlighting their talents and facilitating their professional integration.
The Syrian chef walked away from the experience with high hopes and a white chef coat, his name elegantly embroidered over the chest pocket. It was a gift from the chef at the luxury Hotel D’Angleterre, which opened up its kitchen for him to use during the festival.
Nadeem treasures the memory of this special opportunity to cook for more than a hundred people. It gave him fresh insights into the Swiss, who, he was stunned to discover, seem to like their vegetables with no fanfare - in other words, boiled and seasoned with a pinch of pepper and salt.
“Cooking is a door to finding work and stability and integrating into society,” Nadeem insists while preparing a feast that is slow in the making but quickly fills the apartment with perfumes evocative of the courtyard restaurants of Old City Damascus.
It takes more than four hours to prepare the piece de resistance on the day’s menu: fetteh makdous. The word fetteh, colloquial Arabic for torn bread, points to the Levantine origin of the dish and a cooking method that requires the layering of different ingredients over a base of shredded pita.
Makdous, meanwhile, is a nod to the central element at the heart of this variation: eggplants stuffed with minced meat and toasted pine nuts. A delicate yoghurt-based white sauce crowns this crunchy and fragrant delicacy.
“This is a typical dish of Damascene origin, from Damascus,” he says. “There is no house, no neighborhood in Damascus, where this isn't a main meal. It is considered a starter.”
A place to cook
A place to cook
Nadeem prepares the food at the home of Samia Hamdan, a native of Lebanon who arrived in Switzerland in 1980. She is now a Swiss citizen and heads a charitable association helping refugees integrate into Swiss society through culinary and cultural activities (Association Rencontres et Cultures du Monde Arabe RCMA). Hamdan is delighted to have secured a suitable venue for such cooking exchanges that always end in a shared meal.
It would have been impossible for the Syrian chef to pull together the same culinary feat where he lived on arrival in Switzerland. The family of four had two rooms to itself but other areas, including the kitchen and toilets, were shared with more than two hundred asylum seekers and refugees.
Now, in their own apartment, he is grateful to have a separate kitchen but questions the merits of it being open-space and directly connected to the living room. Arabic cuisine is not only labour intensive but also highly aromatic.
When it comes to Swiss food, the Syrian chef has only sampled a few local staples so far, among them fondue and the traditional potato-cheese punch known as raclette. Nadeem says he’s not exactly a cheese fanatic.
“We have at the most ten types of cheese [in Syria],” he says with humor. “When I go into a shopping centre here, I see cheeses that I never saw in my life there.”
Seeking a culinary link
Although he’s been searching, Nadeem has yet to find a common element between Syrian and Swiss cuisine. The differences, on the other hand, seem to be plenty. The Swiss prefer quick, ready-made food, small dishes and may eat alone. Syrians, on the other hand, tend make a feast out of every meal, sending the leftovers to their friends and neighbors.
While the Swiss favour fresh and cold yoghurt, Syrians often serve it hot, using vast quantities and mixing it with meat in many of their signature dishes.
And some ingredients and spices prominent in Syrian cuisine are difficult or impossible to find here. Nadeem stocks up and searches for substitutes among the shelves of a Pakistani vendor near Geneva’s Cornavin train station or across the border in France where he found a Moroccan shop stocking Arabic goods.
“If I open a restaurant I want to call it Damascus,” says Nadeem. “I want to feel like I am in Damascus.”
But the menu, he hopes, would reflect a beautiful pairing of ingredients drawn from both Levantine and Western cuisine. It is too early to know what exactly that could look like, he admits, noting that he has yet to see how the Swiss cook in their own homes.
During his time in the country, he has enjoyed a growing number of opportunities to give Geneva’s Swiss and global residents a taste of Syria. But what he really wants now is to dive in and decode the tastes of Switzerland, to create new dishes “that are welcomed by both sides... to be a link between the West and the Levant.”
- 1 lb (500g) of minced meat
- 2.2 lbs (1kg) eggplant (small)
- 1 large onion, fried for the sauce
- 1 cup of sesame paste (tahini)
- 3 tbsp tomato paste1 tsp of chopped garlic for the sauce
- 1 tsp salt1 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tsp spicy broth for the sauce
- 2 1/2 cups of milk yoghurt
- 1/4 cup of lemon juice
- Pita bread to fry
- Parsley for decoration
- Pine and almonds for decoration as desired
How to prepare the filling:
Cook the minced meat with onion, toasted pine nuts, salt and pepper to taste.
How to prepare the eggplants:
Carve out the flesh of the eggplant, then stuff with the meat filling.
How to prepare tomato sauce:
Put the tomato paste and pomegranate dip in a pot of hot water. Stir in salt, pepper and onion. Allow to boil. Immerse the stuffed eggplants in the sauce and leave to boil for 5 minutes. Remove the eggplants.
How to prepare the white sauce:
Combine and mix the yoghurt, lemon juice, garlic, salt and tahini.
How to prepare the bread:
In a pan, fry shredded pita bread with butter then place in a bowl.
Put a base layer of bread, followed by the tomato sauce, the eggplants and finally the white sauce.