Syrian pioneer’s recipe for worldly views and authentic food

By Liz Campbell

It’s become almost commonplace to speak of someone as a Renaissance man, but in the true sense of the term – someone with intellectual curiosity, with a wide range of talents and abilities, with a thirst for new experiences and the erudition to document all of this – Habeeb Salloum is one of that rare breed.

I’m sitting in Salloum’s living room with a cup of coffee and his latest recipe in development – rhubarb cake. It’s sweet and tangy and delicious. While I nibble, Salloum tells me about growing up in Saskatchewan in the 1920s.

In the midst of the 1920s Depression, his parents brought their baby Habeeb to Canada, joining a large community of Syrian immigrants struggling to make a living from farming. “My father was illiterate but he was courageous. He started planting the foods of his homeland,” says Salloum. “No one was growing lentils and chickpeas back then. Today, Saskatchewan is the largest exporter of lentils in the world.”

During World War II, Salloum joined the RCAF. It was after the war, living alone in a small apartment in Toronto, that he began to learn to cook. “It took only a couple of weeks of baloney and sardine sandwiches,” he smiles. “After that, I tried to recreate the food my mother cooked.”

Salloum worked with Canada Revenue but his evenings were consumed with classes – Spanish, history, French, philosophy. “I enjoyed learning,” he says. “I did it for pleasure.” Holidays for his family (a son and twin daughters) involved trips all over the world.  In them, he excited the same passion for travel and food.

It wasn’t until after retirement that Salloum really began to write about these two subjects, publishing more than 5,000 articles and 13 books. He has written eloquently about the history of Middle Eastern cuisine, adapting historic recipes to modern kitchens without losing their authenticity.

But he hasn’t forgotten his Saskatchewan roots. One of his early books, “Arab Cooking on a Prairie Homestead”, is subtitled, “Recipes and Recollections from a Syrian Pioneer.” And in “Bison Delights: Middle Eastern Cuisine Western Style”, Syria and Canada come together in a unique cookbook.

His twin daughters, Leila Salloum Elias and Muna Salloum, help him to re-create and test recipes. At age 93, the trio’s latest cookbook, published by Arsenal Pulp and Press, is called “The Scent of Pomegranates and Rose Water” (available on Amazon). It offers a window on the wealth of fragrant and fascinating dishes prepared in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Syria, a time when the region was influenced by the Ottoman Empire’s reach into Persia and the Arab world.

Recently, Habeeb Salloum’s years of contribution to multiculturalism were recognized. He was awarded the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Award for “outstanding accomplishments in the history and sociology of Canada that set an example for others to follow and bring benefit to our country.”

“I have no idea who nominated me, but it’s a great honour,” he says modestly. He will travel to Ottawa to receive the award. I asked him to tell me what motivates him. “Travel,” he said firmly. “There’s a world out there that needs discovering and once you discover it, you’ll modify your ideas and see that all of us are equal. I would like people to know that.”

And his advice – after all, he’s nearly 94 – is the only advice a true foodie could possibly give, “Eat well! It will help you survive into a healthy old age.” He should know.