Syrian ‘Big Brother’ finalist Kaysar Dadour becomes unlikely hero in Brazil

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Aleppo-born Kaysar Dadour sought refuge in Brazil in June 2014. (Supplied)
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The city of Belo Horizonte was hosting its first Festival of Syrian and Lebanese Food and Culture and the Brazilians were embracing it wholeheartedly. (Supplied)
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The city of Belo Horizonte was hosting its first Festival of Syrian and Lebanese Food and Culture and the Brazilians were embracing it wholeheartedly. (Supplied)
Updated 26 April 2018
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Syrian ‘Big Brother’ finalist Kaysar Dadour becomes unlikely hero in Brazil

  • Aleppo-born Kaysar Dadour sought refuge in Brazil in June 2014
  • In early April, he became the first foreigner to reach the final of the country’s hit reality TV show “Big Brother Brasil”

BELO HORIZONTE: On an otherwise quiet Saturday morning in April, a shaded street in southeastern Brazil hummed to the sound of Middle Eastern music. The city of Belo Horizonte was hosting its first Festival of Syrian and Lebanese Food and Culture and the Brazilians were embracing it wholeheartedly — much like they have embraced a 28 year-old Syrian refugee for the past three months.

Aleppo-born Kaysar Dadour sought refuge in Brazil in June 2014. In early April, he became the first foreigner to reach the final of the country’s hit reality TV show “Big Brother Brasil.” He eventually finished in second place, racked up more than 2.5 million followers on Instagram, and walked away with US$44,000. He said he plans to use the prize money to extract his parents from the ongoing war in his native country.

A loud, smiley extrovert who changed his hairstyle on a near-weekly basis and charmed viewers with his occasional mispronunciation of Portuguese words, Kaysar worked as a waiter before entering the Big Brother house. He was accused of being disingenuous by some of the other 19 housemates, who insisted nobody could be so happy and energetic all of the time — especially someone who claimed he had lost a girlfriend and an uncle to war and was forced to sleep on the streets in Ukraine after fleeing Aleppo in 2011.

Yet to those fans enjoying shwarmaskibe and esfihas at the food festival, Kaysar proved a positive force, providing a different perspective of a situation they knew only from watching and reading the news.

“I voted for him to win,” said Brigitte Bacha, a dance instructor wearing a white t-shirt with “Peace in Syria” emblazoned across the front. “It is so important that he was on the show, because he showed the reality of the situation there. It was obvious he has a good character. He works hard and has integrated himself into our country. He showed that refugees are just like you and me, but they find themselves in a bad place just now.”

Lili Resende, a Brazilian attending with a Romanian friend, said she had not watched much of the show, but had been supporting Kaysar so that he could afford to save his family from war. “The perception of refugees here is already very good, but I was supporting him and wanting him to win because he and his family have suffered a lot,” said Resende, who shares an apartment building with various Syrians and helps them sell native food products at the local market. 

Brazil has long welcomed refugees from the Middle East. An influx of Lebanese in the late 19th Century resulted in Brazil being home to more Lebanese than any country outside Lebanon. More than 3,000 Syrians have reportedly arrived in recent years. Organizers of Saturday’s festival said they had expected around 3,000 visitors throughout the day, but the final headcount came in at 7,040. Entry was free, but each guest had to donate one kilogram of non-perishable food to a local charity. 

“Arab families gather together to eat, so we thought why not bring together the Brazilian people to eat Arab food together,” said the Consul of Syria for Minas Gerais state, Emir Cadar. As the smell of koftas and shish barak wafted through the air, flyers for Arabic lessons were distributed, vendors sold handmade chessboards, dresses and shisha pipes, and belly dancers swayed and jolted to live Middle Eastern music. 

“We dream of an end to war,” said Cadar — a statement in contrast to the official line that his government broadcast earlier in the day in which it was claimed “the Syrian people are happy” and that the country “is a victim of lies and fake news.”


Ramadan recipes: My Egyptian grandmother’s old school kunafa

Updated 27 May 2018
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Ramadan recipes: My Egyptian grandmother’s old school kunafa

CAIRO: Believed to have originated in the Levant, kunafa is said to have been introduced to what is now known as Egypt during the era of the Fatimids.

However, if you spent any time at all in my grandmother’s household, you would think that she herself invented the deliciously crunchy dessert, she is such an expert.

She often tells me of how, when growing up in Cairo, she would purchase the dough from a street-side man swirling the batter round and round on a drum-like furnace made of clay.

My generation has revamped the age-old favorite and a range of outlandish fillings — from mangoes, to Nutella and avocados — are now available across Egypt and the wider Middle East.

Ramadan is the perfect time to try this popular dessert and while it is easy as pie to pop to your local bakery, there is nothing quite like making it at home.

The original gangster of the kunafa world will always reign supreme, in my humble, well-fed opinion. So read on and give it a go for iftar today.

Ingredients:

• Katafi (shredded phyllo dough).
• One-and-a-half cups of granulated sugar.
• One cup of water.
• One juiced lemon.
• One teaspoon of rose water.
• 1/3 cup of finely chopped pistachios.
• Ghee as needed.

Method:

Grease an oven dish with melted ghee then place the shredded katafi pastry in a bowl and mix it with ghee. You can cut the already shredded pastry further if needed.

Take the mixture and layer it into the greased pan by pressing lightly with your hand.

Bake for 30 minutes at 350F.

On the side, prepare the sugary syrup by adding one cup of water, the granulated sugar and lemon juice to a pan. Stir and bring the mixture to a boil. Let the liquid simmer until it reaches a syrupy consistency. Remove from the heat, let it cool and add the rosewater (or even a few drops of vanilla essence).

Let the shredded pastry cool and drizzle over with the syrup, before you add a sprinkling of the finely chopped pistachios.

If you're looking for something a little different, bear in mind that Ramadan is kunafa season in Egypt and every year, the shredded wheat dessert gets tens of creative makeovers as bakers across the country — and indeed across the Middle East —buck tradition with their innovative fillings.

Why not try one of these delicious variants of the kunafa?

Mango 

When Ramadan began coinciding with the summer season, mango kunafa emerged as a tradition-breaker. The sweet fruit became a popular filling, replacing longtime favorites, such as nuts, cheese and cream. It combines spun-shredded wheat with whipped cream in a dish that is topped with chopped mangoes. 

Chocolate  

This recipe proved irresistible to many when it first caused a storm on social media. The kunafa is filled with hazelnut chocolate filling and is served in various forms, such as chocolate kunafa cones or the molten volcano kunafa. Some bakers even add a layer of peanut butter on top to seal the deal.

Red velvet

This type of kunafa emerged during the recent red velvet craze that swept Egypt.  The creation combines a layer of red velvet cake with shredded wheat and whipped cream.   

Avocado

This one’s sure to please avocado-loving millennials. Last year, a small bakery in Egypt became the talk of the town when it began using avocado as a kunafa filling. It may not be as popular as various other fillings, but it definitely got tongues wagging.

Biscuits 

Oreo cookies are being used to update the humble kunafa this year. Delectably crunchy Lotus biscuits are also being used to create achingly sweet kunafa treats.

Watermelon 

Yes, you read that right! Another seasonal fruit has just joined the club. It remains unclear if the trend will endure, however, as the idea of combining watermelon with shredded wheat is quite unusual. It is ideal for the soaring temperatures this summer, but will it win over dessert lovers? Only time, and empty plates, will tell.