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