Articles by Author
Travel throughout southeastern Turkey in the height of summer and you’re likely to see rooftops, courtyards and gardens blanketed with color — row after row of peppers, eggplant and other vegetables drying in the sun.
Later rehydrated to be stuffed or stewed, dried vegetables are an essential ingredient in the traditional Turkish kitchen, but one that can be difficult to replicate for urban dwellers without a balcony or even a sunny window to call their own.
How to reconnect residents of Turkey’s large cities with the rich culinary culture of their rural roots is just one of the questions being posed by a new Istanbul-based group seeking to re-envision and rebrand Turkish cuisine, in much the same way as the New Nordic culinary movement has both celebrated and changed Scandinavian cooking.
“There are great raw materials in Anatolia and we’re eager to bring them to Istanbul and use them,” says Engin Önder, a cofounder of Gastronomika. (“Anatolia” refers to the westernmost part of Asia that comprises the majority of the land within Turkey’s borders.) This loose collective of young chefs, designers, historians and other interested parties has come together over the past year to operate an experimental kitchen and carry out various culinary research and design projects.
Önder describes one of these projects, “Hacking the Modern Kitchen,” as an effort to “find solutions for applying traditional techniques in small urban kitchens.” Its first “hack,” currently being exhibited as part of the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial, is an ingeniously simple, space-saving system for drying herbs: paper cones hung with string from an ordinary household curtain or radiator. The cones shield the herbs from direct sunlight to best preserve their color and scent while they soak up the heat needed to dry them, explains a broadsheet printed with instructions and lines for folding the pamphlet itself into one of these paper “herbsacks.”
Confronting an urban revolution
The challenge of reacquainting young, urban people with skills like drying, canning, pickling and even growing their own food is not unique to Istanbul, of course. But it is perhaps particularly difficult, and important, in a country that has seen its urban population swell from 25% of the total in 1950 to 75% today. During that time, Istanbul alone has grown from 1 million residents to about 15 million, squeezing out urban gardens and other green space.
More from Zester Daily:
Gastronomika’s team faces the additional hurdle of getting people to rethink a food culture that, although rich with centuries of history and intermingled influences, has often been taken for granted by young Turks and misperceived internationally as amounting to little more than kebabs and baklava.
Istanbul is experiencing something of a renaissance of interest in Anatolian culinary heritage, with chefs like Musa Dağdeviren of the popular Çiya and Mehmet Gürs of the top-ranked Mikla scouring the countryside for local ingredients and traditional tastes to be incorporated into their menus. Though Gastronomika is in many ways part of this trend, it stands apart as a noncommercial, collaborative endeavor.
“Our kitchen is an experimental one and a community one,” Önder says. “It’s not about opening restaurants or creating menus, and no money changes hands.”
Members of the all-volunteer team keep busy with research trips around Anatolia (to “meet producers, learn techniques, talk to grandmothers,” Önder says). Talks and cooking events focus on the distinctive cuisines of Turkey’s Black Sea, southeast and other regions, and include in-depth, weeks-long explorations of single topics such as the vast array of ways to cook pilav (rice). They visit farmers markets in Istanbul and track what’s in season, and tend a gardening plot and organize mushroom-hunting expeditions on the edges of the city, where bits of open space can still be found amid the concrete.
Though the initiative is deeply rooted in Turkish terroir, its founders take a global approach to their mission. Turkish food needs ambassadors like those in Spain, says chef Semi Hakim, another Gastronomika cofounder, describing a program in which “Spanish chefs are sent abroad by their government to promote Spanish food, so tapas bars can become as ubiquitous as pizza places.”
Other international influences on the team members’ work include the investigative approach of the Nordic Food Lab, to which they’ve reached out for mentorship and advice; and star chef Ferran Adrià’s ambitious Bullipedia project, a Wikipedia-style culinary encyclopedia. Gastronomika’s own take on this concept is its online “karatahta” (blackboard), a digital archive of recipes gathered, techniques tried and ingredients sourced.
Like everything else Gastronomika does, the archive is participatory and open source, Önder explains.
“We share our notes, our presentations, our photos, our sources — all the knowledge we have,” he says. “The main thing is for everything to be public, even our failures. Experimentation always involves failures.”
The project’s members are “shamelessly energetic and fast learners,” says Vasıf Kortun, director of research and programs at SALT, a cultural institution in central Istanbul that hosts Gastronomika’s experimental kitchen in lieu of a traditional, profit-making museum cafe.
“The needs of Turkey’s research and food culture can’t be solved by one group, but if Gastronomika can tie into the bigger picture, they can be a big part of the conversation that’s beginning now,” Kortun says.
Main photo: Strings of dried peppers, eggplant, okra and other vegetables for sale in a market in Gaziantep, Turkey. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t unusual for fishermen plying the waters off Istanbul to land tuna weighing hundreds of pounds, or to have one of the massive fish leap out of the sea and over the prow of their boat. Dolphins cavorted alongside fishing vessels that hauled in lobster, oysters, razor clams, four kinds of crab and eight varieties of mussels.
More from Zester Daily:
Lüfer Bayramı celebrates the bluefish
Celebrated each October with fishing competitions, film screenings, children’s art activities, talks, and special meals, the holiday is named after one of Istanbul’s favorite fish, the fatty, flavorful — but now endangered — lüfer (bluefish). This Lüfer Bayramı grew out of a campaign the group launched in 2010 to get restaurants, fishmongers and consumers to stop buying, selling and eating juvenile lüfer that aren’t large enough to reproduce. (“Bayram” means “holiday” in Turkish.)
“I grew up in a fish-loving family. My father would grill lüfer on Saturdays, and we’d eat it with fish soup, pilaki [a bean dish], and vegetables cooked in olive oil,” Şenol says. “We weren’t rich, but fish was so cheap then that my father could buy lüfer in big batches at the early-morning fish auctions and give the extra to our neighbors.”
Prices of fish have gone up as stocks have diminished; data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations indicate that the amount of bluefish caught in Turkey has plummeted over the past decade, from 25,000 tons in 2002 to just over 3,000 tons in 2011. Other research suggests that dozens of species have already disappeared from the Bosphorus Strait and Marmara Sea, two of the bodies of water on which Istanbul lies.
Both waterways are part of the lüfer’s annual migration route, a more than 1,000-mile-long journey that gives the fish its strong, distinctive taste, according to chef Şenol. “Bluefish in the United States, where I studied [at the French Culinary Institute in New York], is not the same,” she says. “Our lüfer travels from the Mediterranean up the Aegean to the Black Sea and back. It’s a route with different climates and salinities, and all that really affects its flavor.”
Lüfer season in Istanbul begins in the early fall, when the fish start their trip back down to more southern climes after spawning in the nutrient-rich waters of the Black Sea over the summer. Too many, though, are caught while still too small to breed and are sold, depending on their size, under the name çinekop or sarıkanat.
“People didn’t even realize these were all the same fish, but it’s really just like the difference between a sheep and a lamb,” says Koryürek. “Catching this fish so young eliminates the possibility of having more of them in the future.”
Campaign nets converts to the cause
A lobbying campaign led by Slow Food Istanbul along with Greenpeace Mediterranean has resulted in the raising of the minimum legal catch size for commercially fished lüfer from 14 centimeters to 20 centimeters (roughly 5.5 inches to almost 8 inches) — a good step, according to Koryürek, but an insufficient one. More than 100 restaurateurs like Şenol have agreed to not buy lüfer smaller than 24 centimeters (9 inches), the size activists say would be a more sustainable limit.
“We only have lüfer on the menu at Lokanta Maya for a very short period each year, when it is most plentiful,” says Şenol. She was one of a dozen top chefs in Istanbul who participated in this year’s Lüfer Bayramı by serving a special bluefish-based dish for a limited period of time.
“Since lüfer is a very fatty fish, it works best when grilled so it stays juicy inside as the skin gets crispy,” she explains. “It goes well with stronger flavors, so I paired small portions of the grilled fish with a salad of radishes, arugula, and red onions pickled with vinegar and just a little bit of sugar.”
Şenol and her staff also went out with fishermen to catch lüfer on the Bosphorus, an experience she says gave her a new appreciation for how hard the work is and how difficult it can be to keep from inadvertently landing some undersized fish even when using correctly sized nets.
Slow Food Istanbul has likewise been careful not to demonize local fishermen in its campaign, instead working to recruit them as allies.
“These waters have survived for hundreds of centuries with small-scale fishing,” says Koryürek. “But since the 1980s, the boats and nets have been getting bigger, the technology has changed, and the number of fishermen has gone up dramatically.” She estimates that large commercial boats are now catching 90% of Istanbul’s lüfer, and too often take advantage of lax enforcement of regulations by fishing too close to shore, in illegal amounts, or with methods that are environmentally damaging.
Istanbul’s soaring population over the past few decades — from less than 3 million in 1980 to more than 14 million today — poses a threefold threat to the city’s formerly robust fish stocks. The unchecked growth means increased competition among fishermen, greater consumer demand, and more heavily polluted water and highly urbanized coasts.
“Lüfer is a symbol of all we’ve lost and all we may lose,” says Koryürek. “These fish are a natural resource that is diminishing; protecting them needs to become a joint effort.”
Main photo: A fish market in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
The purple skin of the Kavak fig is so thin that the fruit can be eaten whole, without peeling — and so fragile that it cannot be transported long distances. One of the few places this Istanbul delicacy is grown is a small market garden (known as a bostan in Turkish) in Rümeli Kavağı, a windswept waterfront settlement near where the Bosphorus Strait opens into the Black Sea.
More from Zester Daily:
“It’s probably the last historical bostan along the Bosphorus, just 100 meters from the water. It’s registered as green space, but threatened with development because of the third Bosphorus bridge being built nearby,” explains Aleksandar Sopov, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate in history and Middle Eastern studies who is researching Istanbul’s Ottoman-era agriculture.
Fruits and vegetables were once widely grown within city limits, with many neighborhoods becoming well known for their specialty produce. Istanbul old-timers still wax poetic about the flavorful romaine lettuce of Yedikule, near the Byzantine city walls; the fragrant strawberries grown in the Bosphorus village of Arnavutköy; and the cucumbers from Çengelköy, along the Asian side of the strait, and from Langa, now part of the gritty central-city Aksaray neighborhood.
As recently as 1900, historical sources indicate, Istanbul was home to more than 1,200 market gardens covering as many as 12 square kilometers. Today, most have been plowed under and paved over — and most of those that remain face the threat of a similar fate. But the wheels of urbanization and development that began churning vigorously in the 1970s and 1980s have more recently also spurred a grass-roots resurgence in urban food growing.
The Tarlataban garden in the Rümeli Hisarı neighborhood was among the first in this new wave.
“When a Starbucks was opened at Boğazici University, there was a protest against the increasing food prices and commercialization on campus and some of us said, ‘Let’s see if we can grow our own food instead,’ ” garden volunteer Pınar Ercan recalls as she sits on a tarp picking chard seeds from a stack of dried stalks and gathering them in a jar. “We didn’t know if we could do it or not.”
Three years later, the small plot of land on a woody, remote corner of the university campus supplies produce to a student-run collective kitchen and serves as a laboratory for seed saving, composting and other sustainability initiatives. From a distance, the growing area looks like a wild tangle of plants, but move in closer and bright purple eggplants, red tomatoes and green peppers emerge from their vines, while robust melon and squash flourish in the undergrowth. (Crop diversity and rotation are notable characteristics of traditional bostan, which typically yield 15 to 20 different types of produce a year.)
A small group of volunteers tends the Tarlataban garden each week using techniques derived from the environmentally friendly practice of permaculture. Learning as they go, they have recently been sharing the knowledge they have acquired with students from other local universities who want to start similar projects on their campuses.
Demonstrations spur urban gardening projects
Istanbul’s new urban-gardening movement got a dramatic boost last year, when mass protests broke out in response to the threatened destruction of a centrally located green space to make way for a shopping mall. During the week or so that demonstrators occupied Gezi Park, some of them planted a small vegetable garden along its northern edge. After the park was cleared by police, similar gardens began to pop up around the city.
“Many places were cultivated after Gezi — empty plots of land owned by city municipalities and often threatened by development,” Sopov says.
In the Cihangir neighborhood, a short walk from Gezi Park, the Roma Bostan sits on a vacant hillside with a million-dollar view of the city, next to a staircase often crowded with young beer drinkers and littered with the broken bottles they leave behind. A sign on the fence surrounding its cornstalks and cabbage heads reads: “In the summer of 2013, this area was cleared of garbage for the first time. The soil was treated, planting beds created, and vegetables and healing herbs planted from local seeds. … It is kept alive by the collective effort of neighborhood residents. We await your support to keep it clean and protected. …”
Across the water, on the Asian side of the city, residents of the Kadıköy district have rallied, so far successfully, to keep their postage-stamp-sized Moda Gezi Bostan from being covered with asphalt for a parking lot.
“It’s all totally free — people plant and take whatever they want,” says a local who ambles up to chat with a visitor.
Small in scale and tended by hobbyists, these community plots can’t make up for the destruction of the historical bostan whose gardeners passed down a lifetime of knowledge from one generation to the next and fed the city for so many years with the produce they grew to sell at local markets. But the Tarlataban garden’s Ercan and others hope they might just be able to point Istanbul in a new direction.
“We understood after Gezi that we can be an example,” she says. “We’re trying to make what we need for ourselves, and the garden is a way to show people a more sustainable model for living.”
Main photo: Piyale Paşa Bostan in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
With the world’s largest collection of living plants, and its scientists working around the globe to preserve biodiversity, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London is internationally renowned for its conservation work. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that its 300-acre grounds harbor the ingredients for some darn good cocktails.
“Sweet cicely, or garden myrrh, is very fragrant, but it also has a natural sweetness so it’s good to pair with rhubarb,” says Jo Farish, founder of the Gin Garden, as she hands over a Strawberry Cup. The beguiling early summer concoction of strawberry-infused gin, homemade rhubarb-and-sweet-cicely cordial, and lemon juice is garnished with fresh strawberries, cucumber and edible flowers.
Summertime gin garden
More from Zester Daily:
The Gin Garden’s summer residence at Kew Gardens, where Farish and her team have turned a small greenhouse into a jungle-like bar serving up gin cocktails and tonics on weekends (Friday through Sunday) and British bank holidays, offers plenty of inspiration for mixologists.
“We’re taste-testing new ingredients as they come into season — we’ve been infusing cherry gin, with more fruits and berries coming up, and the lavender and Roman chamomile growing over there will be used in drinks when they’re ready,” Farish says.
The cocktail menu, which changes weekly, “uses bits and pieces from the Kew Gardens, but we can’t use too much,” she says. “The ingredients are all things that are grown here, but these plants have to be preserved.”
Serving drinks based on what’s growing nearby is the focus of the Gin Garden, which Farish started in fall 2012 after a successful trial run making apple martinis for an event at a historic house and garden run by the U.K.’s National Trust from the apples, lavender and honey on the property’s grounds.
Her company, which has taken its traveling botanical bar to museums, flower shows, design fairs and other locations in and around London, melds Farish’s background in event planning and garden design — and, she says, some very British sensibilities.
“British people are real gardeners and lots of people make their own gin. The two go hand in hand,” Farish says. “People are used to preserving (food) and having something to get through the winter.” She assures urban dwellers with more limited space that plenty of cocktail ingredients are easy to cultivate in a window box.
In addition to its pop-up bars, the Gin Garden also offers workshops on growing botanical ingredients at home and making infusions and syrups.
To make the infused gin that forms the base of its refreshing Kew-cumber cocktail, for example, Farish recommends slicing up cucumbers like you would for a sandwich, filling up a Mason jar halfway with the vegetables and topping it off with gin.
“Sip it the next morning and see how it tastes,” Farish says. “If the flavor isn’t strong enough, just close the jar up and try it again the next morning.”
A Gooseberry & Fennel cocktail is made from gin infused with the fennel that grows wild along the coast of Norfolk, in the east of England. The drink has a subtly acidic bite — and plenty of health benefits. “Gooseberries have vitamins A, B, C and antioxidants; they were actually used to ward off scurvy before citrus fruit was available in the U.K.,” Farish says.
The temporary Gin & Tonics Garden at Kew is part of the botanic garden’s summertime “Plantasia” festival, which includes a variety of activities, from a healing plants tour to a barefoot walk. The activities are aimed at introducing visitors to plants’ benefits “for body, mind, and soul.”
Benefit of plants
The passiflora tincture in the Rose Garden cocktail, for example, is said to be good for anxiety, while the namesake ingredient in the Elderflower Fizz is said to improve resistance to allergens. Angelica root, one of the six botanicals in the No. 3 London Dry Gin used to make the Kew cocktails, has long been employed in traditional medicine as a treatment for digestive issues.
“Nearly all plants have some kind of health benefit,” says Farish, who prefers to use a masticating or cold-press juicer for serious cocktail-making because it preserves more of the nutrients in fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Some of the Gin Garden’s drinks get an extra boost from a spritz of aromatic water before serving. The water is applied over the top of the glass with an old-fashioned perfume atomizer. Made by the London-based company The Herball, these aromatic waters are distilled using the same method as gin itself, retaining the complete essence of herbs and flowers like the chamomile spritzed over the Strawberry Cup or the geranium, rose and lavender that add a floral twist to the otherwise classic G&T.
“There are so many botanicals you can use with gin. It’s pretty limitless,” Farish says, mentioning her recent discovery of a small distillery in Cornwall that makes a violet leaf gin. “You really have free reign with ingredients compared to other drinks.”
Though gin is often thought of as a summertime tipple, Farish is already thinking ahead to the chillier seasons to come after the Kew pop-up bar closes its doors Sept. 7. “I’d like to do a winter gin garden,” she says. “Gin makes a great hot toddy with warming winter herbs and spices like ginger, sage and thyme.”
- 7 parts (35 milliliters) cucumber-infused No. 3 London Dry Gin (infuse your gin with sliced cucumbers for 48 hours)
- 1 part (5 milliliters) lime juice
- 1 part (5 milliliters) basil and mint syrup (simmer water and sugar to form a simple syrup then add herbs, keep on heat for 5 minutes, strain and bottle)
- Top with freshly pressed (juiced) cumber juice that has been diluted with sparkling water -- 1 part cucumber juice to 10 parts sparkling water
- Fill a highball glass with ice and add the ingredients above, stir, garnish with a slice of cucumber and a sprig of mint.
* Recipe courtesy Jo Farish. Find more recipes at The Gin Garden.
Main photo: The pop-up Gin & Tonics Garden at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
Inside a weathered storefront surrounded by hardware shops, colorful gems gleam in the dim light — large jars full of hard candies flavored with sesame, cinnamon, rose, orange, bergamot and lemon.
Proprietor Hakan Altanoğlu and his forefathers have been making and selling the Turkish candy called akide şekeri at this shop in Istanbul’s Fatih district since 1865, but the bite-size treat’s history goes back to the glory days of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries.
More from Zester Daily:
The empire’s elite Janissary soldiers “presented the grand vizier, other dignitaries and their own officers with gifts of akide sweets as a symbol of their loyalty to sultan and state,” a tradition deriving from an alternate meaning of the candy’s name, writes Mary Işın in her book “Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts.” Akide then became, as it remains today for many,”the sweet of choice” at circumcisions, weddings and the Şeker Bayram (literally, “Sugar Holiday”), the three-day festival that will mark the end of Ramadan this year from July 28 to 30.
In the early Ottoman days, the candy, whose name derived from the Syrian Arabic word (akîda) for “to knot” or “to thicken,” was made from grape juice, boiled down into a thick, malleable molasses. Today, the typical sweetener is refined sugar, and much akide is machine-manufactured, but a few traditional şekerci (Turkish candy-makers) continue to make it the same laborious way it’s been done for centuries.
Showing off a burn scar on his arm that he says dates back to the 1970s, longtime şekerci Hüseyin Aksoy stirs a wooden spoon through a copper pot of boiling water and sugar — with just a pinch of cream of tartar —in the kitchen of the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center (YESAM), occasionally sweeping the inside of the pot with a wooden brush to prevent burning. (This is also a good technique to use when making stews, notes YESAM coordinator Banu Özden.)
When the sugar mixture has reduced to his satisfaction, Aksoy carries the copper pot over to a spotless marble slab and pours its contents out onto the smooth surface to cool, periodically poking at the sticky edges and flipping them over with a spatula. With the candy still as hot as 70 degrees Celsius, he winces slightly as he folds in a small bowlful of flavoring — some lemon salt and lemon oil, ground to paste with a mortar and pestle; or perhaps some mastic resin.
Made from the gum of the mastic (mastiha) tree, the resin’s piney flavor is an acquired taste but one important to many Turkish desserts. Another traditional flavor that has, thankfully, gone out of fashion is musk, a secretion of the musk deer imported from Nepal and Tibet. One of the most popular varieties of akide in Ottoman times, musk, Işın writes, was “appreciated as much as a mark of wealth and power as for its fragrance.”
Back at YESAM, the real show starts. Aksoy takes the multicolored lump that has resulted from his folding and kneading, drapes it over a rounded metal bar, and then begins to pull the ends like taffy, tossing them back over the bar repeatedly until the candy gets thicker and its color transforms from glistening caramel speckled with white into a glorious opaque blonde hue.
“The more you do it, the more your hands and fingers get calloused to the heat,” he explains, laughing a bit as he admits that when he was learning the trade 45 years ago, he once dropped the hot candy during the pulling process. “The master şekerci‘s wife hit me with a broomstick for ruining the batch.”
Next, Aksoy presses out a sheet of the newly blended mix, adds a layer of unflavored candy he’s kept in reserve, and rolls the two into a thick cylinder. Tugging at one end of the tube, he pulls out thin ropes, cuts them off with scissors and passes them to an assistant to roll into smooth dowels. The whole process must be done quickly, or the candy’s consistency becomes too hard to be useable. Taking a handful of the now-firm candy sticks, Aksoy taps them level on top of a square metal bar set above a bowl, then strikes them rapid-fire with one edge of his scissors to produce tiny cylinders of the finished akide, each with a golden roll of color inside.
Though each of the four to five 10-kilogram batches of akide that Aksoy makes every day yields more than 1,000 candies, a machine can turn out 2,500 kilos daily. He insists the taste and consistency of machine-made akide just isn’t the same as handmade, but şekerci like Aksoy and the Altanoğlu family are part of a dying breed.
“Young people aren’t learning this trade anymore; they don’t like the work, and there are other options for them now,” Aksoy says. “After us, there won’t be any more şekerci.”
Main photo: Hüseyin Aksoy makes akide at the Istanbul Culinary Arts Center. Credit: Jennifer Hattam
When faced with almost 1 million needy people, a bowl of soup — even a large vat — doesn’t go a very long way.
But Barbara Massaad refuses to let the daunting scale of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon deter her from doing her small part to help — one bowl of soup at a time.
“If I were a barber, I would go and cut [refugees’] hair for free. But I write cookbooks, so that’s what I hope to use to better their lives,” Massaad says.
More from Zester Daily:
The longtime Beirut resident, founding member of Slow Food Beirut and author of the award-winning cookbooks “Man’oushé,” “Mouneh,” and “Mezze” recently embarked on a new venture: Soup for Syria. The project’s goal is to create a crowd-sourced cookbook of soup recipes and use the proceeds to build and stock a communal pop-up kitchen in the Bekaa Valley, a part of Lebanon that has become home to more than 300,000 Syrian refugees.
“Entire families — of up to 25 people — live in tents where the cold, water and mud seep through,” says Massaad, who visits a Bekaa refugee camp weekly, bringing donated clothing and vats of soup. “Some families have grains and pulses [beans], but people eat lots of potato chips and bread. Meat, vegetables and fruit are scarce. I would like to give parents [in the camp] a tool to feed their children healthy meals.”
According to a World Food Program report last year, 73% of refugees surveyed in Lebanon said they did not have enough money to buy food; about half of the displaced Syrian families residing in the country have cut down their daily number of meals from three to two. UNICEF estimates that 5.9% of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and 4% of those in Jordan are malnourished.
Massaad says she hopes to inspire other people to help Syrian refugees as the conflict in their country enters its fourth year. Indeed, hers is not the only initiative trying to tap culinary know-how and skills to make a difference.
Elsewhere in Beirut, a group of refugee women have established a catering company dedicated to regional Syrian cooking, with the help of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, the Lebanese branch of the Caritas charity, and the acclaimed local restaurant Tawlet – Souk al-Tayeb. Trained in professional cooking skills, food safety, and presentation, the women now serve up their culinary history at the Souk al-Tayeb farmer’s market, food fairs and other events.
“I am trying to prepare and sell … traditional dishes to generate an income that my family and I can live on, instead of waiting for the aid that is given to us,” one participant, Samira Ismail, told the regional news portal Al-Shorfa.com.
Before the conflict broke out in spring 2011, Syria — particularly its ancient cities of Aleppo and Damascus — was being touted as the next hot culinary tourism destination. Its fertile soil yielded flavorful ingredients and spices for a cuisine incorporating influences from around the greater Middle East, the historic Silk Road trading caravans and the diverse communities of Ottoman times. In 2005, the International Academy of Gastronomy in France awarded Aleppo its Grand Prix de la Culture Gastronomique for “having achieved distinction in the field of gastronomic culture.” Today, though, even staple food products are difficult to find and hard to afford in Syria.
As displaced Syrians in Lebanon and around the region struggle to survive, cooking dishes from home provides additional sustenance and a way to stay connected to their beleaguered country. It also helps to keep alive a once-thriving food culture — one that is at risk in their devastated homeland.
Addas bi Hosrom
A Syrian man from Aleppo named Omar Abdulaziz Hallaj shared this lentil soup recipe with “Soup for Syria” founder Barbara Massaad. “Hosrom,” also known as “verjuice,” is a concentrated sour liquid made from unripe grapes. Fresh lemon juice in season can be substituted for the verjuice.
Serves 4 to 6
2 cups red lentils
10 cloves garlic
1 cup vegetable oil
1½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon ground Lebanese seven-spice mix*
2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
½ to 1 cup verjuice (depending on how sour it is)
1. Boil the lentils in a large pot with 6 cups water until the lentils dissolve into a homogeneous soup. Remove foam from top of liquid as it emerges. Cook the lentils for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until tender.
2. During the last 10 minutes of cooking, add the spices and verjuice to the soup.
3. In a skillet, fry the garlic in the oil until it is browned, but not blackened. Add the oil-and-garlic mixture to the soup while still hot. Mix well, then boil on low heat for a few minutes.
4. Serve hot with toasted-bread croutons. Garnish with a sprinkle of hot red paprika.
* Lebanese seven-spice mix is a blend of equal parts powdered nutmeg, ginger, allspice, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper.
Main photo: Barbara Massaad with Syrian children at a Bekaa Valley refugee camp. Credit: Courtesy of Barbara Massaad