Syria has become overshadowed by the clutches of conflict and war, leaving millions scattered across the world. Yet amidst the destruction, Syrian culinary culture has endured, because wherever they go, Syrians endeavour to recreate dishes that remind them of home; that is the essence of Dina Mousawi and Itab Azzam's cookbook "Syria: Recipes from Home".
The cookbook is not your standard recipe book. Every dish has a story, a scene delicately painted by Dina and Itab to ensure Syrian cuisine does not fall as another casualty of war.
The idea of the book started when the two friends and passionate cooks who met in London in 2014 travelled to Lebanon to take part in a theatre project with Syrian refugee women. The generosity and culinary talent of the women they met inspired them to write the book and share the women's stories and recipes.
In their own words, the authors compiled the book "…to bring to the world the glories of Syrian food and in the process honour these brave women who are fighting back against the destruction of their home with the only weapons they have: pots and pans."
Flavours from home
The cookbook features a selection of everything gastronomically Syrian; from vegetable dips accented with garlic and olive oil to rosewater-doused pastries and pistachio-garnished sweets. Not to mention the multitude of soups, fatteh dishes and vegetables filled with all manner of stuffings. An entire chapter is, unsurprisingly, devoted to mezze dishes, the "bedrock" of Syrian cuisine which go beyond mere starters, and another to Syrian pickles and jams, another staple.
Adorned with vibrant images throughout, the book encompasses recipes to suit all, including vegetarian and meat dishes as well as some vegan options. It also covers the different regions in Syria, from the coastal cuisine of Latakia to Aleppo's sophisticated delicacies.
You will also come across some bizarre names the people of Damascus are known for giving their dishes, such as "burnt fingers" and "old man's ears". The most bizarre name I encountered in the book, however, was "The Wandering Jew" which is also known as "The Fleeing Muslim"; "perhaps not the most politically correct dish on earth".
You do not always get to meet the author of the book you are reviewing, but on this occasion, the authors invited MEMO over and cooked cherry kebab, a recipe included in the book. It is a dish they described as the epitome of luxury: "The kind of dish you can imagine a rich Venetian merchant feasting on during a visit to ancient Aleppo. It is not a kebab in the Turkish sense, but in the Syrian sense."
Having always been a cultural cross-road, Syria's cuisine is influenced by neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine, so you will find Middle Eastern staples such as falafel, hummus, shawarma and stuffed vegetables; from vine leaves and cabbage to aubergine and courgettes.
Of course there is also kibbeh, which is, as the book describes, perhaps the signature dish of the Levant: "If you want to show your guests that you care, you give them kibbeh". There are many different varieties of the dish across the Middle East, in all sorts of shapes and flavours. Pumpkin kibbeh and red lentil kibbeh were the two varieties featured in the book that I have never come across before.
Food for thought
Beyond the list of great Syrian recipes was an evocative set of lovingly told stories of Syrian refugee women that the authors met all over the Middle East and Europe; from Lebanon to Syria, to Britain, to Germany and Greece.
The personal tales behind the recipes give us a glimpse into the life of Syrian refugees today. From heart-warming stories of resilience and generosity, to other heart-breaking tragedies, the authors mirror the hardship of displacement as well as living in a war zone and under siege.
One of the women we are introduced to is Hala, a Syrian artist and poet who currently lives in England. The authors first met Hala in Damascus in 2010 along with her father Morris Georges. In April 2013, while Hala was in Kent working on her PhD, her dad was killed by a missile while at an ATM.
Although it was Hala's mum – nicknamed the Queen of Kibbeh – that was known for her cooking, she chose to share her father's Halloumi wrap recipe. "For me, this is a simple but sacred flavour as it reminds me of my dad and family times back in Damascus," Hala explains.
'This one is for you, Morris Georges, in loving memory,' the authors noted.
Other stories, though tragic, will make you giggle. You can picture Israa wearing her four-inch high heels that she loves so much as she walks for hours fleeing the Yarmouk refugee camp towards the Lebanese border. The authors cooked musakhan, a signature Palestinian dish that "has made its way to Syria via the Palestinian refugees who fled their home country after the creation of Israel in 1948", with Israa and her mother, who are now refugees twice over and still carrying their traditions wherever they go.
The authors, too, had some interesting encounters of their own, such as when a man from Hezbollah came knocking as he saw them enter a house in a southern suburb of Beirut with their cameras, thinking they were spies. "Once he saw seven women preparing food, he left us to it, and the gossiping and cooking continued."
Syrian food is certainly packed with flavour, but more than that, it is a way for the displaced to create a sense of home when far away. As Itab put it: "This is my Noah's Ark: a capsule containing the intoxicating taste of home."
Whether you are from the Middle East or not, you will be inspired by this book – the stories, the recipes and everything in between. Even if you are Syrian, you will want to read about the experiences of the resilient Syrian women featured in the book and learn about the cuisine of certain regions in Syria you may not have visited before.