In 'Our Syria' Cookbook, Women Share Stories, Safeguard A Scattered Cuisine
As millions of people have fled Syria, they haven't been able to take much with them on their journey. Families often had to abandon the things that reminded them of home. So the recipes that bring them back to the places they left behind are precious.
Dina Mousawi and Itab Azzam are the authors of a new cookbook, Our Syria: Recipes From Home. For the book they interviewed Syrian refugees scattered around Europe and the Middle East. The book gathers their stories, along with the recipes that remind them of home.
Azzam grew grew up in southwestern Syria, near Jordan, and moved to the U.K. six years ago. She's mostly a filmmaker and theater producer, not a professional chef, but food is what occupies her when she's not working.
"I didn't come to the U.K. as a refugee — I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to do my masters degree here in London," Azzam says. "So I came here in September 2011, just a few months after the uprising started ... and then I stayed."
In Our Syria, Azzam writes, "As the last of my family contemplate leaving behind our little village, this is my Noah's Ark — a capsule containing the intoxicating taste of home."
This highlights below have been edited for length and clarity.
On how food can feel like home
I think my love for food got bigger when I moved to the U.K. because I felt like cooking Syrian food was the only thing that kept me connected. You have this kind of feeling of loss, and then it's only when you cook your own — the food that you grew up eating, that you feel this kind of relief that you've almost transported back for that moment of time that you're eating.
On what she makes when she feels homesick
There's this dish called mleheyya which is a dish from my hometown in Sweida — which is just an hour south of Damascus — which my mum cooks all the time. It's a hot yogurt sauce with turmeric, carmelized onions, potatoes and chicken. And whenever I cook it, it's just like I'm almost with my mother back in Syria.
On how you can talk about food and Syria's war
People are resilient, and life carries on, and actually it's the hope that keeps us going. And if that's gone, then everything's gone. What we noticed with Syrian refugees — they all are really, really resilient. They have hope, and it's hope and celebrating what's positive about Syria is the only way that we can come out of this darkness.
On what Syrian food is
It is very similar to Middle Eastern food, but obviously Syria is really big and has influences from different countries that border it. So we have influences from Iraq and Iran, influences from Turkey — but also Syria was on the Silk Road, so Aleppo has a lot of influences from the Far East, from Asia, from China. So we have many dishes, that uses fruit, like sweet and sour — that doesn't exist in any other Middle Eastern countries.
On if Syrian food will endure as people leave the country
I don't think that's going to go away. We saw with other countries — Lebanon is an example, where they had a civil war for a long period of time and people had to flee. And Lebanese food is pretty much alive and thriving, and when you say Middle Eastern food, people think about Lebanese food. So I don't think Syrian food is going to disappear, especially that Syrians are — wherever they go, they keep cooking it, they keep talking about it. Syrians are opening restaurants all around the world and that's how we're going to preserve it.
Kat Lonsdorf produced the audio for this story. Wynne Davis adapted it for web.