Be­sieged Syria town swaps meat for white mush­rooms

‘A good source of pro­teins and min­eral salts’

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

In a hu­mid room in the be­sieged Syr­ian town of Douma, Abu Na­bil in­spects the pearly white mush­rooms sprout­ing from white sacks hang­ing from a ceiling. The oys­ter mush­rooms pok­ing out from holes in the bags are now a sub­sti­tute for meat in the rebel strong­hold, where a gov­ern­ment block­ade has cre­ated food short­ages.

Abu Na­bil walks be­tween the sacks in­spect­ing the clus­ters of mush­rooms emerg­ing from the plas­tic and check­ing the in­ter­nal tem­per­a­ture to en­sure con­di­tions are op­ti­mal for the un­usual crop. Mush­rooms are not a com­mon crop in Syria, and rarely fea­ture in lo­cal cui­sine. But in the Eastern Ghouta re­gion, a key rebel bas­tion out­side the cap­i­tal Da­m­as­cus, years of gov­ern­ment siege have put tra­di­tional sta­ples like meat far be­yond the reach of or­di­nary peo­ple.

The Adala Foun­da­tion, a lo­cal NGO, be­gan think­ing about ways to help res­i­dents in need of nu­tri­tious al­ter­na­tives. “We turned to cul­ti­vat­ing mush­rooms be­cause they’re a food that has high nu­tri­tional value, sim­i­lar to meat, and can be grown in­side houses and base­ments,” said Abu Na­bil, an en­gi­neer who is project di­rec­tor. “We were look­ing for a good source of pro­teins and min­eral salts as an al­ter­na­tive to meat, which is very ex­pen­sive,” added Adala’s di­rec­tor Muayad Mo­hied­din. “We dis­cov­ered the idea of mush­rooms as a so­lu­tion.”

Eastern Ghouta has been un­der siege since 2013, leav­ing locals to rely on food pro­duced lo­cally or smug­gled in through tun­nels or across check­points. While the area was once an im­por­tant agri­cul­tural re­gion for Syria, mush­rooms were not a lo­cal crop. “This type of cul­ti­va­tion was to­tally un­known in Ghouta be­fore the war,” said Mo­hied­din. “We learned about it by search­ing on the in­ter­net for places in sim­i­lar (wartime) sit­u­a­tions to Eastern Ghouta,” he added.

A del­i­cate grow­ing process

The NGO dis­cov­ered mush­room farm­ing re­quired nei­ther large amounts of space, nor ma­jor fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment, mak­ing it a good fit for their needs. To cul­ti­vate the mush­rooms, the project’s work­ers be­gin by sand­wich­ing thin slices of high-qual­ity mush­room be­tween pieces of car­ton and plac­ing the sam­ples in ster­ile plas­tic con­tain­ers.

Over the course of 15-25 days, the mush­room sliv­ers be­gin to process fun­gus that is then re­moved and mixed with sterlised bar­ley grains to cre­ate “seeds”. Next, straw that has been boiled un­til ster­ile and then drained is placed on a ta­ble and sprayed with gyp­sum to pre­pare it for the “seeds.” Fi­nally, the straw is packed into the sacks, with the mush­room starters sprin­kled at in­ter­vals on top of the straw as it is lay­ered in.

The bags are trans­ferred to a room known as an in­cu­ba­tor where they are sus­pended from the ceiling for be­tween 25 to 45 days, and each pro­duces be­tween four and five mush­room har­vests be­fore be­ing re­placed. The project re­lies on gen­er­a­tors to keep con­di­tions steady at 25 de­grees centi­grade and 80 per­cent hu­mid­ity. But with fuel also in short sup­ply and ex­pen­sive, the gen­er­a­tors are fed with a lo­cally pro­duced fuel that is ex­tracted from plas­tic.

In the three months since the project be­gan, the NGO has dis­trib­uted mush­rooms across Douma and other parts of Eastern Ghouta free of charge. “We dis­trib­ute nearly 1,300 kilo­grams of mush­rooms a week to 600 peo­ple,” said Abu Na­bil. “The dis­tri­bu­tion is free for the poor­est fam­i­lies, and for those suf­fer­ing mal­nu­tri­tion or spinal cord in­juries that need lots of nu­tri­ents,” he added.

‘What’s that? A flower?’

It’s a ma­jor boon for peo­ple like Um Mo­hammed, a mother-of-four, who can only dream of af­ford­ing meat at prices of around $10 a kilo­gram. “If you’re able to get mush­rooms, it’s a huge bless­ing,” the 50-year-old said. “It’s as though you’re eat­ing a dish of fish or chicken or meat,” she added, pre­par­ing a dish in her sparsely fur­nished home, wear­ing a black robe and head­scarf. Abu Ad­nan Al-Si­dawi, 30, had never even tasted mush­rooms be­fore he re­ceived them through the project.

“I re­ceived a bowl of mush­rooms three or four weeks ago,” said Si­dawi, who suf­fered mul­ti­ple frac­tures in his leg and back in an air strike in April. “I didn’t know what they were and I’d never eaten them be­fore. I learnt how to cook them from the in­ter­net,” he said. “On the first day, I fried them up with some onions, and on the sec­ond day I cooked them in a yo­ghurt sauce,” he said, ly­ing on a bed in his house. “Mush­rooms are de­li­cious cooked and we liked them in the yo­ghurt sauce,” he said with a smile.

Like many adults in Douma, the city’s chil­dren were also un­fa­mil­iar with the in­gre­di­ent. At one psy­choso­cial centre, the chil­dren saw mush­rooms for the first time when they were dis­trib­uted dur­ing the fast­ing month of Ra­madan, an em­ployee said. “I or­ga­nized a small workshop to teach them about it and how it is cooked,” said the em­ployee, who asked to be iden­ti­fied as Rasha. “When I showed it to them, they said to me: ‘Miss, what is that? A flower?’” — AFP

DOUMA: In a hu­mid room in the be­sieged Syr­ian town of Douma, Abu Na­bil in­spects the pearly white mush­rooms sprout­ing from white sacks hang­ing from a ceiling. — AFP

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