Comfort food: Syrian women heal and unite
Back in Syria, before the war, cooking was all about creating an opportunity for family and friends to gather together and share a meal, Miriam explains.
Now, for many of those still living there, it’s more about surviving on whatever is on hand alongside whoever has yet to leave the country and escape the fighting.
In order to rekindle that sense of community around food for refugees in Lebanon, farmer’s market Souk el Tayeb, charity Caritas, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have created a cooking program at Beirut’s Tawlet restaurant.
Miriam, one of the participants, says before coming to Lebanon her husband and their two children would lock themselves in their house in Aleppo and eat only pasta, rice, oil, butter and lentils.
Once a week, her husband would run to try to find bread, leaving at 4 a.m. and returning around 9 p.m.
“We would live on our nerves all day long, not knowing if he was coming back or not, or if anyone was going to come in the house,” she says.
Before the war, she says, she would put painstaking work into presenting her food. She and her relatives carved tomatoes, lemons, cucumbers and even olives into beautiful shapes. Every bite of a dish had to taste the exactly same, she stressed; every bite had to be perfect.
“Syrians like to focus a lot on the display of food,” she says. “The details and everything.”
Scores of people benefited from her preparation: Every morning, every afternoon and every evening, 30 friends and family members came to the table. Food brought people together before the war, Miriam says.
“We used to cook in sadness and in happiness. For everything there was this gathering,” she says. “We gathered the food, we gathered ourselves, and we sat.”
But in Lebanon, even if Miriam had 30 guests to invite, she wouldn’t have enough food or space to host them. So her small family now eats alone in the small room that they share.
Having fled their country, where in many areas food has became scarce, cooking program Atayeb Zaman (the most delicious time) gives women such as Miriam a place to preserve their unique culinary traditions and earn a living in one of Beirut’s finest kitchens.
But perhaps more importantly, the woman are forming friendships over kibbeh and kafta, rebuilding Syria’s oldest culinary tradition that the civil war has torn asunder: the gathering.
One of the women cooking alongside Miriam is Rasha. She learned to cook in Hama by watching her mother, she explains. The first dish she ever prepared herself was grilled chicken marinated in yogurt, garlic, lemon and oil, and cooked with potatoes. She lowers her face to hide a smile as she says that she was a good cook from that very first time.
“It’s still my husband’s favorite dish,” Rasha says, smiling again.
“After I was married, every time my mother-in-law or husband would say, ‘Do this recipe for us,’ I wouldn’t know how. But I wouldn’t say I didn’t know, [instead] I would ask my mother.”
After her husband was held by Syrian government forces for several days, they decided to flee to Lebanon along with their children.
Later tonight she’ll go home to make him his favorite chicken, Rasha says through tears, but she still wishes her mother could be close by. Her mother is in Syria with the rest of her family.
“When everything else is changing, cooking is the only thing that has stayed the same,” she says.
Rasha isn’t alone in her loneliness.
Samira, a Syrian widow, was eating a watermelon in her living room when a gunman walked through the door. She dropped the watermelon, grabbed her kids, and after running from school to school and living off cafeteria food for five months, they came to Lebanon.
Back in Syria, Samira’s specialty was the kebab. It’s different from the Lebanese kebab, she explains. In Syria, the meat is mixed with finely chopped onions and parsley to infuse every piece with the same flavor; in Lebanon, the onions are cut into chunks or slices.
She was forced to learn to cook the dish at the young age of 11, when she was married.
When her husband died, she cooked for her three daughters in a house that she’d built with her own hands. Her kids love stuffed food: stuffed kousa, stuffed chicken, stuffed eggplants, stuffed vine leaves.
“Stuffed anything!” she laughs.
Stuffed food is central to Syrian cooking, Samira explains. One popular specialty is mahachi bil frikeh, delicious eggplant and zucchini that are filled with minced meat and the course grain before being cooked in tomato sauce.
But since arriving in Beirut, Samira hasn’t cooked a single meal for her family. She has nothing to cook with.
“No utensils, no gas, no nothing,” she says.
Samira and her daughters now live off cold cuts and canned foods. It makes the chance to cook at Tawlet with other Syrian women all the more enjoyable, and she says she would do anything for them.
“I found myself among all the ladies and the food,” Samira laughs.
Sitting on a bench outside the restaurant bench, fellow cooker Nahrain takes a picture on her phone of herself and her new friends.
One hour earlier, Nahrain was explaining how the civil war in her native Syria had destroyed relationships between the country’s Muslims and Christians. Now, she’s posing for pictures with Muslim women whom she calls her friends.
She shows off the photo to the other women. They miss gathering with their large families, but until they can be reunited with them, they’ll gather with each other.
The women will be cooking at Souk el Tayeb, located in Beirut Souks, every Saturday during December and January. For more information about when Atayeb Zaman will cook at Tawlet restaurant in Mar Mikhael, call 01-448-129.