April 23, 2020. As I write this, we are in full COVID-19 lockdown. There is a woman towards the end of this story that sets an incredible example to all of us during this.
As my son so eloquently put it earlier this week, “I feel you about missing eating in restaurants. I’m sick of my own food…”
He verbalized more vehemently my own euphemized statement, “I’m completely at peace, but I so miss eating at restaurants and I’m really tired of my own food all the time.”
I feel like going out and I feel like off the beaten track food travel, preferably in a dangerous location. All of which is of course impossible right now. So, I’ve decided I’m going to bring Syria to our table. It is a country at war, and they make do with limited ingredients, and I will use those limited ingredients to show there is beauty in limitations.
I’m cooking from Syria as a tribute to my son who fought the war there as part of the Israeli army. Through the food I will celebrate his scars as symbols of victory. It is personal to both of us. We can’t travel there, but we can bring the ravaged beauty of its food into our kitchens.
My food today was inspired by a book called Our Syria by Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi. Eight women tell their story in this book. Strong Syrian women who thrive and survive in their kitchens despite great adversity. They set an incredible example for me, especially when I just think about complaining. When I read their stories of suffering, I suddenly realize how many things we can be thankful for.
One woman grabbed my attention. Her name is Tahani. Thirty-six months under siege had brought her close to starvation. She had a brand-new baby. When news got out, women begged her to breast feed their babies. She got both her babies, and herself through months of starvation. I bet that puts the fight over toilet paper in new perspective, and that the depth of the recipes that follow will sweep you away to those inaccessible, dangerous shores and that you will be filled with gratefulness for the abundance of what we have.
About my Syrian menu:
Mutabal Shwandar (Beet dip). This has been around in Lebanon for many years and has since traveled into the Damascus restaurants. The rich color brightens up any table. The recipe calls for roasting the beets, but I prefer to steam them as this captures the fresh earthy taste beautifully. If you prefer to steam, steam them in an electric food steamer according to the steamer instructions for 45 minutes. Let them cool slightly before peeling. If they are still warm, they will peel easier.
Zahra wa Kamoon (Roasted cauliflower with cumin). Cauliflower is used a lot in Syrian home cooking. It can be bland on its own, but the way Syrians combine spice, it turns into a delicacy. This dish is great for vegans and anybody on a low carb diet.
Shorbet Addas (Red lentil soup). If you are eating out for Iftar during Ramadan in Syria, any restaurant will give you this soup without you having to order it. It is an essential step in breaking your fast. It is the ultimate comfort food.
Mendi (Smoked rice) This recipe originated in Yemen. It is cooked underground using charcoal, which gives it its smokiness. It is usually served with a hot salsa.
Bamia (Lamb stew). This is a much-loved dish in the Euphrates area, where okra is cultivated. The lamb is usually part of an okra stew, but since I couldn’t find okra this time (our shelves are bare), I just used the lamb. It is no less delicious and perhaps I even prefer it without the okra. I will write the full recipe with the okra, but if you prefer it without the okra, you may just omit it. I serve it with the smoked rice on the side.
Samaka Harra (Spiced Fish). Despite the civil war that broke out in 2011, the beautiful coastal city of Latakia kept its coastal cuisine. It has been a site of protest activities and military restrictions limiting movement in and out of the city, but fish remained a common addition to the dinner table in these parts of the country. This oven baked whole fish is packed with juicy, luscious flavors.
Recipes will follow in my book under construction, Rustic.
Syrian cuisine is a diffusion of the cultures of civilizations that settled in Syria over time, particularly during and after the Islamic era beginning with the Arab Umayyad conquest, then the eventual Persian-influenced Abbasids and ending with the strong influences of Turkish cuisine, resulting from the coming of the Ottoman Turks. It is in many ways similar to other Levantine cuisines, mainly Lebanese, Palestinian, Jordanian and Iraqi.
Many Syrians alive today was born under French rule and they are masters of adversity. Despite the turmoil, they are fighting to keep their culture alive via food. They will let loose with sugar, caffeine, herbs and spices. A Syrian mother with barely a cent to rub together will miraculously produce six or seven dishes bursting with flavor. It consists of rolling vine leaves, frying huge batches of eggplant, finely chopping parsley. Away from the world economy, Syrians have always made their own yogurt, grown their own olives for oil and roses for rose water.
The food culture of Syria is vibrant. They don’t stint on flavor. When it is sweet, it is very sweet. When it is spicy, it is very spicy. They ladle the pomegranate and lemon molasses and they like their garlic raw.
They may all cook the same dish, but they all cook it in a different way, each with her own special ingredient or method. Each with her own special way of making a traditional dish.
Syrian food is glorious. It honors the brave women who fight back against the destruction of their homes with the only weapons they have: Pots and pans.
Dips and mezze dishes are the bedrock of Syrian food. No matter where you eat there, you cannot skip the mezze on your way to the main course. They’re not merely starters, but they’re just as much the focus as is what comes later. Cooking a single main course is pretty much unheard of. A proper meal consists of loads of dishes and you will always be armed with pieces of freshly baked bread.
Forget about what you think or feel when someone mentions Syria. Celebrate what this country does best. Cook and eat. The power of food connects Syrians to their past at a time where their culture is most at threat.