What Arva Ahmed learned when she made a meal from the #CookforSYRIA book

Friday - - Contents -

#COOKFORSYRIA, says Arva Ahmed, is not just a cook­book but a way to save lives.

When I con­ceived the idea of con­duct­ing food tours back in 2012, it was as sim­ple as tak­ing peo­ple to the restaurants I loved. It was not long be­fore lengthy leg­is­la­tion con­torted the dreamy gaze on my soon-to-be en­trepreneur’s face into yawn­ing at gov­ern­ment of­fices. Every form I had to fill helped me up­date my go-get­ter motto to what it re­ally needed to be: yalla, come back tomorrow.

But there was a bless­ing in this. As I waited around for the li­cences to come through, I started to read about food in­dis­crim­i­nately – not on blogs, but in books. The lifechang­ing one was Day of Honey by An­nia Ciezadlo, a US jour­nal­ist who found her­self on honeymoon in Iraq af­ter her hus­band was posted as a re­porter in Bagh­dad in 2003. Con­trary to the typ­i­cal war novel, An­nia un­rav­els sto­ries of food in a way that pro­vides cul­tural rich­ness to the peo­ple stranded in po­lit­i­cally charged con­texts. It opened my eyes to what my tours re­ally needed to be – not just about eat­ing, but about us­ing food to ex­plore cul­tures, of­ten cul­tures in con­flict, that have made Dubai their home through the decades. The book gave my misty-eyed food tour dream a re­newed pur­pose, be­cause, as An­nia writes, ‘even the most or­di­nary din­ner tells man­i­fold sto­ries of his­tory, eco­nomics, and cul­ture. You can ex­pe­ri­ence a coun­try and a peo­ple through its food in a way that you can’t through, say, its news broad­casts’.

This is why I felt an in­stant con­nec­tion with #CookforSYRIA, an in­ter­na­tional fundrais­ing pro­gramme for the Syr­ian hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis that was launched in Oc­to­ber 2016 with 100 Syr­ian-in­spired recipes do­nated by chefs from around the world, in­clud­ing Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Jamie Oliver, Ella Mills and Dubai-based Dalia Dog­moch Soubra (be­low).

The recipes Dalia con­trib­uted to #CookforSYRIA have been passed down from her Syr­ian grand­mother to her mother to her; she now recre­ates them for her chil­dren. Dalia de­scribes the ini­tia­tive as one that aims to give peo­ple a way of tak­ing part, be­cause the world needs to ‘not just pray for those in need, but ac­tu­ally do some­thing to help them.’ Every dol­lar, pound or dirham raised by sell­ing the cook­book is di­rectly chan­nelled to Unicef’s Syr­ian Chil­dren’s Aid Fund. ‘Ev­ery­body – ev­ery­body – can help Syr­ian chil­dren through the #cookforSYRIA ini­tia­tive,’ says Dalia.

Why food? Why not just give money to Unicef di­rectly?

‘I am bi­ased,’ ad­mit­ted Dalia. ‘I think peo­ple who know Ara­bic food and who know Mid­dle Eastern food know that Syr­i­ans are ex­tremely well known for a very rich, di­verse and very old cui­sine… and it’s al­ways been such a big part of their cul­ture. With what’s hap­pen­ing in Syria, this is get­ting lost be­tween the lines. I think food and Syria go hand in hand.’

Syr­i­ans have his­tor­i­cally set their ta­bles within their own coun­try rather than abroad. Un­like the Le­banese, their cui­sine still falls in the realm of the home kitchen. It is whole­some, hearty and rus­tic, but lesser-known glob­ally and un­ac­cus­tomed to com­mer­cial kitchens. Dubai of­fers proof of this culi­nary statis­tic, with a mere hand­ful of ded­i­cated Syr­ian restaurants, boast­ing clas­sic dishes like fat­tet, which crum­bles crispy pita bread into pools of yo­gurt, tomato broth, pine nuts, and of­ten egg­plant or chicken; ravi­oli-like shish barak cooked in warm yo­gurt; and a va­ri­ety of bul­gur wheat kibbeh, stuffed with chard and pome­gran­ate seeds or lamb and pine nuts. With­out more Syr­ian restaurants and cook­books to pre­serve its dishes, the deep-rooted food cul­ture is at great risk of be­ing de­voured by the beast of war. Books like #CookforSYRIA play a small but key role in safe­guard­ing some of the tra­di­tional flavours of the Syr­ian kitchen, born out of in­gre­di­ents like fra­grant and mild Aleppo chilli pep­pers, bul­gur wheat, orange blos­som wa­ter and the thyme-based za’atar blend.

Be­yond culi­nary preser­va­tion, ini­tia­tives like #CookforSYRIA shift the nar­ra­tive of con­flict be­yond the stereo­typ­i­cal view of vic­tims to that of hu­mans – with tra­di­tions, with his­tory, and with deep dig­nity. They help us ac­cept a cul­ture in its rich en­tirety, not only sym­pa­thise with its bro­ken face dur­ing the con­flict. Cook­ing is one of the most pow­er­ful ways to un­der­stand that ev­ery­day life. By rekin­dling the flavours of a cul­ture in your kitchen, you are re­mem­ber­ing them in a way that re­stores iden­tity and pride to its peo­ple. As Dalia aptly frames it: ‘There are two things that Syr­i­ans are known for: their food, and their pride.’

I’ve never been knowl­edge­able or elo­quent when it comes to pol­i­tics, and fail to

‘You can EX­PE­RI­ENCE a coun­try and a PEO­PLE through its FOOD in a way that you can’t through, say, its news BROAD­CASTS’

form an opin­ion for fear of miss­ing a crit­i­cal side of the story, for sound­ing mis­in­formed, or for invit­ing back­lash. Pol­i­tics is com­pli­cated, but the kitchen is a place I un­der­stand and re­turn to every day.

And so even though recre­at­ing Dalia’s fat­tet mak­dous in my own kitchen feels like a very small, guiltily self-in­dul­gent way of con­tribut­ing to the chil­dren of the con­flict, I take as­sur­ance in An­nia’s words: ‘There are many ways to save a civil­i­sa­tion. One of the sim­plest is with food.’

#CookforSYRIA is sold on Ama­zon and The Book De­pos­i­tory, which of­fers free de­liv­ery world­wide.

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