Story and Photography by Giselle Kennedy Lord
Aida Ajaka smiles easily. She dyes her hair dark red and her shoulders have a downward slope that does not at all soften her strength. She navigates the world around her with a conviction and confidence born of 86 years of life. Aida’s soft, wrinkled, caramel-colored hands move effortlessly between the ground beef, a tiny food processor, a pyramid of soaked bulgur. “Ya está,” she says, when satisfied with the feel of the small morsel of kibbi pressed between her thumb and middle finger.
Aida is Argentine and fiercely proud of her Lebanese heritage. For her, food is as hybridized as her identity. Her parents emigrated from Lebanon to Argentina in 1927, during the first of two significant waves of migration from the Middle East to Latin America. Her oldest sister was just four years old when the family arrived, and Aida was born shortly thereafter. We are in the house her father built, making her mother’s recipe for kibbi, a dish of beef, grated onions, soaked bulgur wheat and spices formed into diamond-shaped patties. The recipe has never been written, nor has it ever been forgotten.
I met Aida at a gathering held in the Buenos Aires Maronite Lebanese church, while doing field research for a graduate thesis on Lebanese home-cooking in Argentina. The church was built some 117 years ago in the middle of what is now downtown Buenos Aires. When Aida wandered into the dated church hall for the day’s celebration, she found far fewer seats than guests, and about as many tables as dishes that would soon emerge from the humid, stainless-steel-clad kitchen where I’d spent the previous two days. Soon, the tables would be covered with hundreds of mini mana’eesh bil za’atar flatbread, tiny diamonds of kibbi and equally tiny pita rounds topped with labneh and za’atar.
Aida seemed as determined as she seemed lost, looking for a place to sit while the hall filled with the sounds of Arabic music and Argentine Spanish. I offered her my seat. She invited me to her house to cook.
And so we’re cooking, but only after she fed me koosa mehsi stuffed squash alongside lechón asado. She delights in my eager acceptance of her invitation to share a mate, the ritualistic and ubiquitous beverage of Argentina, and my affinity for the kibbi, fattoush, hummus and labneh we prepare together. I know well the smells, flavors and warmth of a Lebanese kitchen, particularly one that exists a great distance from the motherland of kibbi and za’atar, because my own Lebanese mother immigrated to the United States with her family in 1962. We listened to Fairuz while she told me tales of her mother reinventing recipes for which she could not find all the same ingredients her own mother had used in Lebanon.
The significant Lebanese diaspora in Argentina is often left out of the country’s history of immigration, though their Levantine food traditions live on in the land of asado and mate. Lebanese and like Middle Eastern food has recently and very notably gained in popularity in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, but home cooks undoubtedly deserve the credit for holding on to their own gastronomy through an era that did not embrace the cultural differences of the then-newcomers.
I stood next to Aida at her small kitchen counter in her home just outside the autonomous city of Buenos Aires. She is well-practiced at making the most of the two feet of counter space her kitchen offers. Her primary cooking tools are her hands, and she intermittently dips them in a bowl of ice water while she mixes the kibbi, to keep it from emulsifying. She tastes the kibbi as she mixes to be certain that the proportions and spices are just right.
Home cooking offers much to learn of a family and its trajectory. Culinary traditions so often subsist not in spite of diversity and differences, but because of them. For many, food has long been the link to both the heritage from a home left behind and a sense of place where one has landed. “Fusion” food is not a new concept, it is the inevitable and necessary product of the movement of people across land and ocean, who carry with them their traditions, their ancestors and their appetites. New traditions and culinary diversity are constantly born of the marriage of cultures and cuisines, and the changing of available ingredients. Allspice was not widely available when Aida’s mother cooked for her family, and beef was significantly more economical than the traditional lamb. And so their recipe is different than the generations ahead of them, but it offers no less potent a sense of self, kinship and remembrance.
Aida scores the kibbi in precisely the same way the women in my own family do—beginning from a corner and moving diagonally to the other side of the dish with a simple steak knife. She continues this way until she’s cut through it all, then begins again on the other side to create small diamonds before dropping quarter-sized pads of butter on top. The scoring allows the meat to cook through and the butter to thoroughly and deliciously soak each piece, creating a divine crispness along the edges of each diamond. Aida put the dish in her small oven and set a timer, which she then ignores in favor of a very particular aroma to alert her to the kibbi’s readiness. The kibbi’s still baking when her family arrives. They speak to me kindly and quickly in their distinctive Spanish to ask about how I had ended up spending the day cooking with their beloved matriarch.
In these kitchens, the idea of authenticity is only as relevant as the tastes, smells and gestures of a meal and its preparation can connect one to their loved and lost kin. Time after time, Aida accesses memories of her beloved mother in the way the kibbi feels in her hand and the smell of eggplant roasting. She recalls her own experience of motherhood in weekday milanesa and empanadas alongside tabbouleh.
Every smell, every gesture, every taste provokes unfiltered tales of Aida’s family members and their lives in Argentina. Aida raised her children on the very same dishes that her mother made for her and her siblings when they were children, but milanesa, empanadas and locro have found equal places in her culinary repertoire. There was always labneh in the fridge for her family to add to everything — it was as strong a contender for the morning’s pita bread as it was for the evening’s asado.
Aida is not of a singular identity —Lebanese or Argentine— she is Aida, a woman profoundly connected to her heritage and deeply rooted in her home country. She is whole and magnificent in her bricolage. Aida is kibbi and milanesa at the same time, standing firm at the intersection of the Middle East and Latin America, a crossroads most tenaciously represented in the kitchens of immigrant families and their descendants. And the kibbi is exquisite. According to Aida, “casi perfecto,” almost (but never) as good as mama’s kibbi.
Editors' note: This article has been updated to include Aida Ajaka's last name.
About Giselle Kennedy Lord
Giselle is wild about chickpeas. She holds an MLA in gastronomy from Boston University and was named James Beard National Scholar Northwest in 2018. Giselle first pointed her camera at food and its people over a decade ago, she tells culinary stories about the Lebanese diaspora in the Americas, and works for Slow Food USA.
You can find her online at gisellekennedy.com and on Instagram @quinchoso