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New Zealand

A taste of Syria in Otago

Five years ago, Abdal Moneem Kyassah arrived in New Zealand as a refugee from the Syrian Civil War who speaks limited English. He had many skills and plans.

Since then, the hard-working chef has established a Middle Eastern gourmet catering business and now owns two food trucks selling Syrian street food and condiments.

Dunedin residents make a medium-heat traditional Syrian harissa called shatta, which customers put on pizzas, fried eggs, or mix with pasta, rice and seafood.

He also prepares za’tar, a mixture of thyme, sesame, sumac, mixed herbs, mixed spices, and salt.

Abdul says the key ingredient is Central Otago wild thyme, which has a stronger aroma and flavor than Syrian thyme. The mix can be used as a rub, dip, or seasoning.

“Za’tar is very famous in Syria and the Middle East in general,” he explains.

Abdal Moneem Kyassah sprinkles za’atar and nigella seeds on his popular homemade pizza saji flatbread.Photo: Attached

Other dishes he cooks from scratch include falafel and serge flatbreads, toasted in an upside-down pot-like serge dome. Flatbreads come with marinated lamb or chicken, shattah his sauce, za’atar, cheese, olives and mushrooms.

“It tastes different, just like Pizza Hut!”

Dune folks line up at The Exchange, Otago Polytechnic, and Abdul’s Food Truck at public and private events.

He recently signed a deal with the University of Otago to provide students with a variety of meals from the first semester of 2023.

He is a popular stall at the Otago Farmers Market (OFM) every Saturday morning.

OFM’s website notes that Abdal has established himself in the local food scene.

“His kindness and generosity are matched by the quality of the food he makes,” it says.

left homeland in 2011

Abdul was a qualified chef in Syria, but he and his family left their conflict-affected homeland in 2011 and lived in Malaysia for about five years.

In the meantime, my application to emigrate to New Zealand was approved.

Me [did] I don’t know where New Zealand is – I did so much research and found it a beautiful country,” he says.

While living in Kuala Lumpur, Abdal researched New Zealand and planned what he could do if he lived here.

He provided several options. Some had something to do with food, some didn’t.

When he arrived in New Zealand in 2017, he was surprised to learn that the government offered Jobseeker Support benefits to citizens and permanent residents, including former refugees, until they found work.

His family does not drink alcohol and cooks most of his meals at home. They were able to save a small profit just in case they needed it.

Abdal’s dream job was to design and build a house, but this proved too difficult to achieve when he first started living in New Zealand.

“Food is my passion.” So this is how he has been supporting his wife, five children, and the rest of his family in Syria.

In 2017-2018, Abdal was very busy studying English at a technical college, working a casual part-time job and researching Dunedin’s population and food scene.

His first catering event occurred when the Red Cross paid him a small sum to cook for about 30 people.

With that money, he bought ingredients and cooking utensils, and then looked for and rented a commercial kitchen.

“I asked and searched around for information on starting a business.”

He benefited greatly from a one-hour workshop held around 2018 by the Red Cross, Dunedin City Council (DCC) and Business Advisor Polson Higgs.

After the workshop, Abdal obtained his Kiwi Food Hygiene Certificate, DCC License, and other documents required for catering.

He also found a “wonderful” commercial kitchen at the Kaalai Rugby Football Club.

Some Red Cross event attendees needed event and party catering. His business started to develop without much publicity.

“This is how my business started. Word spreads.”

Customers line up for the Abdul’s Gourmet Food truck at the Otago Farmers Market in Dunedin Station.Photo: Attached

Birth of Gourmet Foods

Abdal’s Gourmet Foods was born and the Syrian chef gradually purchased equipment and developed the product.

The seasoning was popular among other Middle Easterners. Red Cross volunteers liked them and demanded more. A volunteer then told the Artisan Pantry about him and asked if the owner could sell his condiments.

Abdal no longer needs job seeker support and is willing to help others with their jobs.

A friend from Artisan Pantry helped him approach OFM and in 2019 he opened a stall there.

Sales were strong and enthusiastic customers encouraged him to start a cafe and restaurant, but in 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic put an end to the idea.

“We changed our plan to a food truck.” Abdal designed one to meet his specific requirements and will import the first food van in 2021.

He continues to introduce new products, such as dry falafel mixes, and is currently catering “very busy.”

His business philosophy is to provide fair prices and quality food.

I don’t set my prices too high. Give it a try and let everyone love it. ”

His wife and two others are currently working with him.

Family is important to Abdal, who two years ago saved his son Taha’s life after he stopped breathing in the middle of the night.

Abdul attended a Red Cross first aid course and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on an unconscious 2-year-old.

He called an ambulance again, and Taha was a little awake when the ambulance arrived.

Abdal says he would not have known what to do if he had not taken the course.

“So today I would encourage everyone to take a first aid course. This is very important because you never know what’s around the corner.”

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For more information:

Abdul’s Gourmet Foods Facebook and Otago Farmers Market Foreword

Syrian civil war

https://dailyencourager.co.nz/a-taste-of-syria-in-otago/ A taste of Syria in Otago

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