In 'Our Syria' Cookbook, Women Share Stories, Safeguard A Scattered Cuisine

Nov 20, 2017
Originally published on November 21, 2017 12:26 am

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.


Interview Highlights

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.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As millions of people flee Syria, they can't take much on their journey. Families often have to abandon the things that remind them of home, so the recipes that bring them back to the places they left behind are precious. Itab Azzam is the author of a new cookbook called "Our Syria: Recipes From Home." She grew up in southwestern Syria and moved to the U.K. six years ago.

ITAB AZZAM: I didn't come to the U.K. as a refugee. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to do my master's degree here in London. So I came here in September 2011 just, like, few months after the uprising started. And then I stayed.

SHAPIRO: Azzam and her co-author, Dina Mousawi, interviewed Syrian refugees scattered around Europe and the Middle East. The book gathers their stories along with the recipes that remind them of home. Itab Azzam is not a professional chef. She's mostly a filmmaker and theater producer. Food is what occupies her when she's not working.

AZZAM: 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 kind of kept me connected. You have this kind of feeling of loss, and then it's only when you kind of cook your own - the food that you grew up eating that you feel this kind of relief that you're almost transported back for, you know, that moment of time when you're eating.

SHAPIRO: Was there one dish in particular that when you were feeling especially homesick you would reach for?

AZZAM: There's this dish called lahaie (ph) which is a dish from my hometown in Suwayda, which is just an hour south of Damascus, which my mom cooks all the time. It's a hot yogurt sauce with turmeric, caramelized onions, potatoes and chicken. And whenever I cook it, it's just like - it's almost I'm with my mother back in Syria.

SHAPIRO: You write in this book, 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.

AZZAM: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Is it really possible to carry those tastes with you?

AZZAM: I mean, absolutely. And, you know, that's why we called it "Recipes From Home," because it's the home that we carry with us wherever we go. We carry it through, I mean, mainly food, basically.

SHAPIRO: I know Syria is a place where from one village to another recipes differ. You can travel one hour and somebody will say that you're making a dish the wrong way.

AZZAM: Yes, absolutely.

SHAPIRO: And so when people are spread out across continents and millions of people have left the country, what happens to those little, tiny differences that identify you and signify where you're from?

AZZAM: They stay there, I think. You know, when we were in Beirut we were, you know, visiting a lot of Syrian refugees and cooking with them. And like, each family or woman that we meet, she'll tell us, you know, I'm going to tell you my secret for this recipe. And they all have secrets. And they still have these secrets.

SHAPIRO: Tell us one of those secrets, and tell us about the woman you learned it from.

AZZAM: You know yolingi (ph), which is like the rolled vine leaves?

SHAPIRO: Oh, like grape leaves. Yeah.

AZZAM: Yeah, grape leaves. So the secret is to add one teaspoon of coffee...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

AZZAM: ...To the mix, to the rice.

SHAPIRO: Who taught you that?

AZZAM: And - I think it's Mona (ph).

SHAPIRO: Tell us about Mona.

AZZAM: She has this incredible story that she - just before she left Syria her son was suffering from leukemia.

SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah.

AZZAM: And she had to - there was, like, bombardment and shelling in the area that she was in. And he was really, really ill. And she had to carry him and walk through this, you know, sniper shots and shelling to take him to the hospital. And, you know, just as she arrived at the hospital, you know, he just - he didn't survive and he died. But she still carries this pain that she couldn't give him a, you know, proper funeral. And, you know, when we met her she told us this story and then she said, you know what? He loved stuffed courgette. And she said, I'm going to cook you this recipe. And...

SHAPIRO: Stuffed zucchinis, yeah.

AZZAM: Yeah, stuffed zucchinis. And this recipe in the book, actually.

SHAPIRO: When you're talking with people who are bearing such awful tragedy, does it feel at all inappropriate to ask them about food and cooking and recipes?

AZZAM: Not really. You know, people - you know, people are, you know, resilient. And, you know, life carries on. And actually, it's the hope that keep us going. And if that's gone, then everything's gone. And, you know, what we noticed with Syrian refugees is they're all really, really resilient. They have hope. And it's - you know, hope and celebrating what's positive about Syria is the only way that we can come out of this darkness.

SHAPIRO: I think many Americans have a concept of, quote, unquote, "Middle Eastern" food.

AZZAM: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: But they may not know what constitutes Syrian food. How would you describe what Syrian food is?

AZZAM: I mean, 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 we have - so Aleppo has a lot of influences from the Far East - you know, from Asia, from China. So we have many dishes that are - like, uses fruit like sweet and sour. That doesn't exist in any other Middle Eastern countries.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, that was one of the things that really surprised me as I read this cookbook. You have a recipe that involves cherries and sugar and lamb.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: And it's meat, and it's also sweet, and it's...

AZZAM: Yeah, it's incredibly delicious. You should try it.

SHAPIRO: I will. I've never seen anything like it before. It seems to me that the history of Syrian cuisine is a reflection of all of these different cultures that pass through Syria. And now you have almost the same process happening in reverse where people are taking that Syrian cuisine to every corner of the world, where it's undergoing yet another change.

AZZAM: Yeah. I mean, I hope so. I - you know, I hope that Syrian food is spreading around. And I think that's the purpose of this book that we wrote.

SHAPIRO: Some of Syria's ancient archaeological treasures can never be restored. They have been destroyed forever.

AZZAM: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: What about the intangible parts of a culture?

AZZAM: I mean, I don't think that's going to go away. We saw with other countries - I mean, Lebanon is, you know, an example where they had a civil war for long periods of time and people had to flee. And, you know, Lebanese food is pretty much alive and thriving. And, you know, when you say Middle Eastern food, people think about Lebanese food. So I don't think Syrian food's going to disappear, especially that Syrians are - you know, 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.

SHAPIRO: Itab Azzam's new cookbook is called "Our Syria: Recipes From Home." Thank you so much for talking with us.

AZZAM: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow morning, a different kind of food conversation - thanksgiving tips from the editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit magazine. He joins our colleague, David Greene, to take listener questions. Listen for that and more tomorrow on Morning Edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.