From Cookout to Pop-Up: Kaftas with a Story
By Emily Grumbling
On July 4th, 2011 Syma Qatanani found herself in a common summer conundrum: invited to a holiday cookout, searching for something to bring for the grill. She already had kafta— a seasoned ground meat traditionally prepared as meatballs, with variations throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, South Asia, and the Middle East. She thoughtfully pulled in a few other choice ingredients, fashioning patties around a garlicky cream cheese core, and her legendary Kafta Burger was born.
A smash hit, Kafta burgers became Syma’s signature dish at cookouts and gatherings with friends, garnering compliments and even requests that she sell them in stores.
Now, she’s turning her good idea into a full-time passion, developing her vision of an outdoor restaurant serving Kafta Burgers and other Middle-Eastern-inspired treats.
For her, the beauty is in the whole experience: the atmosphere of friendship— old and new— and the quality of a freshly prepared burger, served in person, right off the grill.
But the story behind the dish goes back even further.
The only child of Palestinian refugees, Syma was born and raised in Kuwait. Her extended family, also refugees, had settled throughout the region, including in Jordan and Lebanon. She went on to live in various countries, including Canada, before moving to Jordan to study cinema. Upon completion of her studies, Syma moved to Dubai to serve as the Director of Live Television for BBC, later moving to Voice of America, the Official U.S. Broadcast network.
She has seen and covered much of the diaspora, and became fascinated by spices, their origins, and the unique traditions of different regions. Work took her to London, where a local halal butcher’s kafta taught her to appreciate a bit of heat— not typically found in kaftas of the Levant— which she has come to include in her own recipe.
In 2011, she moved to Washington, D.C. Now, well into what has already been an accomplished career, she’s chosen to invest all of her efforts into her culinary aspirations in the diverse and cosmopolitan U.S. Capital—a place, Syma says, where everyone wants to share. The realization that she could start a business on her own, with no prior experience, was exhilarating. “The American Dream is real,” she said, and “it’s contagious!”
While applying for her catering license, she learned of DC’s Kitchen Incubators, who connected her with Katy Chang, proprietor of Eats Place, a venue for pop-up-eateries in Washington’s Petworth neighborhood. After tasting her dishes, Katy offered her the space for a month to test-run her business idea: an outdoor, chic restaurant, where you can relax with friends. “It’s about the ambiance,” says Syma. “I want it to feel like … hanging out in someone’s garden.”
Her vision for Kafta Burger has an unexpected resonance with her experience in cinema and broadcast journalism. In her Kafta burgers, Syma aims to translate tastes of the Middle East for an American audience. She wants her diners to “feel like they are having an American burger, and a conversation with Middle Eastern flavor.” With her dishes, she tells a cultural story.
“My culture is all about hospitality,” she explained. Respect, love, and honor for one’s guests are central; people will gladly give the best of what they have to a friend, with full and open hearts.
At EatsPlace, the grill is set up outside, with aromas attracting the attention of neighborhood residents and passers-by. Customers order inside from the menu of beef or chicken kafta burger, grilled halloumi, and home-made falafel, and bring their order-slip back out to Syma and her helper where they prepare the meals and chat up visitors.
“All of my spices are from the Middle East,” Syma says. The stories— and the guests— come from all over.
Kafta Burger will be at EatsPlace throughout July. For more information about the pop-up, visit eatsplace.com. You can follow Kafta Burger on Facebook.
Emily Grumbling is a scientist, writer, and food enthusiast living and working in Washington, DC. With a PhD in chemistry and a liberal arts background, she enjoys thinking about the science of cooking and learning the stories behind culinary traditions.