Amicis restaurant, tucked away in the maze of cobblestone streets near Plaza Mayor in the center of Madrid, was a welcoming refuge from the hot sun yesterday afternoon. Amicis is described as a place “to share food and drinks in a great environment with good friends,” and after spending only a few short minutes in its dining room I found this to be undoubtedly true. From the owner Maria who greeted me with a smile and a Spanish kiss on both cheeks, to the waiters and the guests who were already enjoying their meals, everyone in this restaurant was having a good time.
With a philosophy that includes offering “a variety of different flavors and cultures” in the dishes that they serve and embracing diversity “en todos los sentidos” (in every possible way), Amicis was an ideal host for the third day of Madrid’s Refugee Food Festival. This amicable space and lively atmosphere became the perfect temporary home for the creations of Syrian chefugee, Noor, who had taken over the kitchen for this mid-day meal.
I met Noor briefly in the dining room, just long enough to ask: “What time did you start preparing the meals for today?” She told me she had started the day before, that she’d been working for almost two full days on this meal. “Mucho trabajo!” (that’s a lot of work!) I exclaimed, and she laughed in agreement before hurrying back into the kitchen to keep working.
Noor didn’t mention that she was also balancing two jobs in addition to the preparation that went into this event, or that she was cooking for twice as many guests as she had initially anticipated. Since arriving in Spain four years ago, Noor has been active in IEEF, an educational institute in Madrid where she works with young children, while also holding various restaurant jobs (including her current position at Banibanoo, another host restaurant for this year’s festival). In her new home, Noor has been able to combine her many passions: children and education, learning new languages, and gastronomy. Today, she speaks Arabic, Spanish, a little English, and “the universal language of delicious food.”
But while it’s apparent that, through her hard work, Noor has turned Spain into a comfortable adopted home for herself and her family, this was not always the case. When a guest asked her if she enjoyed living in Spain, Noor paused for a beat before answering honestly. “In the beginning, it was really difficult,” she said. She struggled with the new customs, the foreign language, and trying to learn the lay of the land here. Luckily, though, she had a lot of support. She thanked the two social workers who helped her acclimate and God for helping her through her journey to where she is today.
I soon found myself seated outside in Amicis’ spacious terrace with a couple of good friends, eagerly waiting to taste Noor’s cooking for the first time. The first course offered a wide variety of flavors, including a creamy hummus, muttabal made from eggplant and topped with dainty pomegranate seeds, crunchy and aromatic falafel, and Noor’s famous kibbeh filled with satisfying spiced meat. However, my favorite bite of the meal was the stuffed zucchini with yogurt sauce, a cherished Syrian dish called Sheikh El Mehshi.
This dish, much like its creator, was delicate only in appearance. The zucchini was packed with exquisitely seasoned meat, almonds, and caramelized onions. It was both richly flavorful and nourishing, showcasing not only the complexity of Syrian culinary traditions but also the refined skills and artistry of the diligent chef who created it. Throughout the entire meal, from the first bite of falafel to the last bite of baklava, Noor’s culinary gift offered us a small but intimate glimpse into her country’s extraordinary cuisine. It’s difficult to overstate how grateful I am for the opportunity to enjoy the fruit of Noor’s passionate work.
Written by Danielle Jacques
Translated by Anna Krainc
Photography by Jane Mitchell