An unforeseen encounter

Mechoui and Le SoukA touch of North Africa in the heart of Groningen

Picture by Toetenzo

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a shopping trip in Groningen’s centre takes an unexpected turn. In the popular Folkingestraat with its small colourful shops, we buy some couscous salad in the North African store Le Souk where the smells of spices, dates, olives, fresh fruit and vegetables mingle.

Quite hungry, we decide to enjoy it immediately on a bench outside, next to the entrance. Next to us sits Ali, a friendly older man who turns out to be the brother of Le Souk’s owner. Ali comes from Algeria and has some interesting stories to tell, about how he came here more than thirty years ago.He moved to the Netherlands in contrast to most other Algerian migrants who opted for France after Algeria’s independence in 1962.

A great conversation evolves. We talk in Dutch, though our mother tongues are French and German and sometimes, it takes a while to understand each other. Still, it is probably the best conversation in Dutch that I ever had, maybe because it is the first one I have with a non-native. Long after the salad is finished, we stay with Ali on the bench and learn that his family also owns a restaurant in the Folkingestraat. Just a few houses down the street, the Mechoui awaits with mysterious lights and Arabic cushions that become visible when pressing your eyes to the glass. Ali tells us to eat there. “It is very nice”, he says. “Tell them that you’re a friend of Ali when you go there!”

We say goodbye to him and move on with our shopping trip, still with a smile on our faces because of the unforeseen encounter. At home, we google the restaurant, just for fun actually. The prices seem alright, so why not actually? Just follow the experience, the lead that life gives you! We call and reserve.

Unfortunately, no better picture. This is from the Mechoui website.

The restaurant looks just perfect with its dim lights, comfortable pillows and authentic design. It feels like we are beamed to North Africa and the food smells fit the concept. We meet Petra, our waitress this evening. She looks pretty and a little exotic, I assume that she belongs to the Algerian family. She works at Mechoui since 2008, serves us delicious mint tea and shows us the food: there is an open buffet tonight.

It is simply amazing. Soft couscous with nuts and fruits is accompanied by different sorts of meat in sauces with exotic flavours. For example.

I simply love it. Eating as much as we possibly can, we enjoy the place, our pillows and the decision to follow where life leads you. After our meal, I ask Petra some questions. It turns out that she isn’t Algerian at all but has an Indonesian father and a Dutch mother. Asked about how she came to work at Mechoui, she tells her story.

“When I was younger I lived in Israel for two years with a friend. There, I worked in a restaurant that resembled the one here. I liked it very much so Mechoui was the perfect place for me. When the boss of this restaurant had a position open, I said yes! And ever since, I work here, I play music, I dance.” She shows us the instruments in the restaurants of which she plays one during the live music nights on Friday or Saturday. She started with playing Rai music two years ago. Petra was born in Groningen and settled here again, as she is a mother of two now. Before, she travelled around the world, for example to Mexico, Brazil, and Portugal.

Inspired by our questions, she rummages around and comes back with a book about Groningen; in it an article about Folkingestraat and its North African touch. We learn that this street was the home of many Jews before WWII which the synagogue at the end of the street still reminds of. All the more interesting that a Muslim family has found its home here, in the heart of Groningen.

Petra talks of a harmonious coexistence and the restaurant as a meeting place for people from different backgrounds. “This restaurant exists for almost 30 years”, she explains. “Customers come from everywhere. Sometimes, there is a table with someone from Palestine and next to him is someone from Israel and they are friends! It is very nice.”

She tells us that people even come from far away to eat here, enjoying the close distance to the train station. Most customers are Dutch, apart from the Ramadan month when special meals are offered to the fasting breakers. “Our customers come here for dancing, singing, eating, enjoying. When they leave, they always say ‘See you next time, we will come again’.”

This is something that we also tell her after this great evening that turned out to be like a mini trip to North Africa. We definitely learned that day that the best things in life happen by coincidence.

The featured image is by marthastewart.


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