Remembrance of tastes past: Syrias disappearing food culture | Wendell Steavenson

The Long Read: For Syrians in refugee, meat is more than a means of sustenance. It is a reminder of the rich and diverse culture being destroyed by civil war

In February 2013, Ebtisam Masto fled Syria with her six infants. They crossed their own borders to Lebanon and headed for the capital city, Beirut, where Mastos husband, Mohammed, had been working to support his family since before the civil campaign began.

When they arrived, Masto registered their own families with the UN refugee agency in the city. There she heard about a cooking programme for women that was run by the Catholic charity Caritas. Masto, who was scared, insecure and on the verge of clinical depression, signed up. I wanted to do something with “peoples lives”, she told me.

On the first day, Masto acquired herself with more than 30 females mobbed into an unprepossessing room with a single stove and a sink. They gazed each other up and down. Almost all, except got a couple of Lebanese females, were Syrian refugees: sophisticates from Damascus and Aleppo, Kurds from the northern, homemakers from tiny villages in the northwest. Some were Christian and some were Muslim, some were veiled and some not, some were pro-regime and others had lost sons opposing it. An ambiance of wariness pervaded the room.

Designed with the help of Kamal Mouzawak, a suave entrepreneur who has done much to promote traditional Lebanese meat in the last decade, the course has the objective of teach females how to use their home-cooking knowledge which they took for awarded as a domestic chore to find jobs in catering. More importantly, Mouzawak told me, the course was a chance to get the women together, to give them a home to share their narratives and recipes, to empower them.

The first task was to stimulate kibbeh, parcels of bulgur wheat filled with minced lamb. Kibbeh is a bowl acquired in all areas of the Countries of the middle east and regional permutations, as well as several transliterations kibbeh, kubba, kubi bristle. The outer shell can be made with semolina or ground rice, the filling is also possible bulked out with pumpkin or potato, or flavoured with lemon, garlic, cinnamon, allspice, dried mint, parsley, sumac, cumin, chilli. Kibbeh can be fried or roasted or stewed, layered into sloppy casseroles or baked into large-scale meatloaves. In Lebanese eateries, they are small and pinched into an American football shape. In Iraq, a kubba is a giant hubcap of dough encasing a sprinkling of meat. In Israel, kubba is a Sephardic dish of dumplings in soup.

Everyone on the course had a different way of shaping kibbeh and everyone craved theirs to be the best. Among the classmates were two Assyrian Christians, Marlene and Nahren. They stirred their kibbeh into a large flattened disc stuffed with lamb. It was soft instead of crunchy and no one had ever seen kibbeh that was simmered like this before.

I was so curious to know how they were doing it, Masto told me earlier this year. But they deterred it trade secrets. They would prepare their dough at home and bring it in ready-made. This stirred me even more curious.

One morning in class, when the status of women were talking over coffee, Masto tried to engage Marlene in dialogue. I tried in my own style to be polite and kind and to counter their wariness and their horror of Muslims. Of course, my real motive was to discover the secret ingredient in their kibbeh dough. But there was this barricade between us, between Christian and Muslim, so I tried to remove the barrier. I tried to show them the peaceful message of Islam and be said that Mohammed was a peacemaker, just as Jesus was. This brought us together a bit and we began to develop a friendship.

Still, closer relations between classmates occasionally became strained. One period, Samira, a widow with grown-up infants, questioned Marlene if she could help her train kibbeh. Marlene rebuffed her, telling Samira not to interfere. Samira took umbrage and shouted back at her. The kitchen became tense and Mouzawak, who was helping supervising the class the working day, had to intervene, telling the women that they were all there to discover together, and that they should each teach the other a bowl we are able to cook together.

Samira and Marlene agreed, but Marlene was not so pleased to see you both. I am obliged to agree, she told Masto, but I am only going to give the real recipe to you. You are the only one who is a good enough cook and trustworthy, and I know you will make it in the correct way.

For Syrians, meat is an especially important part of national identity. Syrian cuisine has evolved over thousands of years of defeats, trading and immigration, shaped and mixed by dozens of peoples: Arab, Kurdish, Druze, Armenian, Circassian, Assyrian, Alawite, Turkish, Turkmen, Palestinian, Ismaili, Greek, Jewish, Yazidi. The Syrian table is an expression of a multicultural country and a style of living together that is being destroyed by civil war.

Six million Syrians have fled their homeland since 2011. Lebanon has more than thousands and thousands of registered Syrian refugees, although most people agree that the full amounts of the amount is much higher. Even in refugee, many Syrians talk about meat with the same dignity, ardor and obsession with terroir as the French do. Quite often, when I was talking to Syrians in Lebanon, they would grumble about the inferiority of Lebanese veggies, the blandness of the importation of the Australian lamb and the lack of various forms of the restaurant food.

The fat the fat of Syrian lamb! recollected Magdy Sharshafji, an Assyrian tycoon who left Aleppo after the campaign began. I met him one darknes in Loris, the fancy eatery he had opened in Beirut. He ordered a bowl of the famous Aleppan cherry kebab for me to try. I can tell you the difference where the sheep has lived, whether it is from Aleppo or Hama, just by the smell of the fat! He grinned, remembering, and then held up his empty palms as a gesture of nostalgia and sadness for a world, their own lives, a culture that may be lost to him for ever.

In Sharshafjis hometown of Aleppo, the cuisine is known for its pepperiness because it was an old Spice Road hub: a crossroads where elaborated Ottoman dishes mixed with sweet and sour recipes was put forward by Chinese caravans, and the combination of meat and fruit beloved by the Persians. A famous Aleppan dish is kibbeh stirred with quince, cooked with fresh pomegranate juice.

In Lebanon we have maybe six or eight all kinds of kibbeh. In Syria they have endless discrepancies, Anissa Helou, a Lebanese meat writer, told me. She laid out the different regions various forms of Syrian meat: In Damascus, the dishes are heartier, more straightforward; street meat. And, of course, Damascus is the kingdom of baklava. On the coast you have fish, and close to Jordan, in the desert you have mansaf[ a traditional Bedouin dish of meat cooked in fermented dried yoghurt ].

Kibbeh comes in many smorgasbords in countries throughout the Countries of the middle east. Photo: Karam Miri/ Getty Images/ Hemera

Dima Chaar, a young Syrian chef, brilliant and fairly with a gremlin haircut, told him that when she grew up in Damascus, cooking was a hour for talking and gossip. As we sat on a restaurant terrace late one evening after her alter, Chaar described a dish her grandmother used to induce: lamb cutlets seasoned with a whole heads of state of garlic and dried mint, cooked in lemon juice and sea. She used to threw ghee[ clarified butter] in is as well, to make it richer we used to cook it on Fridays when everyone would gather.

Chaar still trips back and forth between Beirut and Damascus. She visits her grandmother and writes down her old recipes. Nowadays, she announced, females are no longer cooking the complicated material. There arent huge families to feed any more. Their sons are killed or have left, they no longer celebrate.

Chaar attracted deep on a draw of apple-flavoured shisha. I remember most of us feel that we are lost. I wanted to stay in Lebanon rather than follow their own families to Montreal. Yes, I remember I hoped to go back to Syria. But after five years old, candidly , now I am just living day by day.

When Ebtisam Masto graduated as one of the starsof the Caritas programme, Kamal Mouzawak asked her to set up a kibbeh stalling at the Souk El Tayeb, his farmers marketplace in Beirut. This is where I firstly met her in April earlier this year, and I marvelled at her display of kibbeh, which were multicoloured and came in different shapes. I bought a lumpy potato one stuffed with spicy walnut muhammara, a semicircular potpourrus with meat and mushrooms, a rolled kibbeh with spinach and pistachios and another stirred with lamb and quince.

In Syria, we were able to always threw meat in them, Masto told me, but here in Lebanon they prefer lighter and vegetarian. Two eyebrows rose beneath her neatly pleated headscarf as if to signal delight at the flighty sophistication of Beiruti ladies.

Everything about Mastos outward look was neat and proper. She wore her long outer coating carefully buttoned up, her face was pale and clean of makeup. Her demeanor, however, was warm and voluble. She was wary of journalists the last one she spoke to had portrayed her as an adversary of the Assad regime, in order to spacecraft a heartwarming narrative about two Syrian women on either side of the campaign, who were nonetheless great friends, cooks and colleagues.

This had infuriated Masto, who had always retained a careful statu of neutrality. She lived in an area in Beirut that was mainly populated by pro-Assad Syrians, and after the clause “re coming out”, Masto was worried about possible recriminations. Worse, being perceived as anti-Assad signified it would be very difficult for her family restored to Syria, even if the fighting abated. In distress, she complained to the UN refugee agency and it asked if she is currently considering leaving Lebanon. Masto and Mohammed agreed that it was time to go.

When I met her, the familys asylum applications had been approved. They had been told they would be resettled in America. At first this news had caused consternation. Germany or Canada, they knew, were good countries for refugees. But, as Muslims, we assumed we would not be accepted in America, she said.

As she quizzed me on what kind of clause I intended to write, Masto made it clear that she did not is intended to be mentioned about politics in case it induced problemswith her asylum application. But she was willing to let me come to her home to discover how she makes kibbeh.

Masto lived with her familyoutside the centre of Beirut, high up on mountain gradients, in a wooded area that was lush with foliage and strewn with garbage. The period after she agreed to show me how to stimulate kibbeh, she greeted us into her home, a windowless cube, off a small courtyard of tiny, one-storey concrete structures more a shanty of interconnected chambers than a cluster of residences. The room glowed dark-green under a single fluorescent bulb. It had a rough concrete flooring, two or three thin pallets organized around the edges, a small television, a large refrigerator, a scuffed sofa and two plastic chairs. It was ruthlessly scrubbed and spotlessly clean.

Mastos husband Mohammed came forward to salute us. He had a handsome square face, framed with grey-headed whisker that was brushed into a back parting. He declined to shake my hand and touched his palm to his chest instead.

Welcome! Masto repeated.

Kibbeh! I announced, anticipating, clapping my hands together.

Yes, but coffee firstly. Khaled, Mastos 17 -year-old son, brought us two bowls of Nescaf, while his sister Sidra followed with a bowl of sugar.

Masto sat cross-legged next to me on a thin foam pallet. Formerly Khaled had lugged out a big, shiny, sausage-grinding machine and plugged it into a loop of expansion cord, Masto carefully drew on a pair of white-hot plastic gloves. A bowl of bulgur wheat was placed next to a plastic jug of sea. Masto was ready to stimulate kibbeh.

Ebtisam Masto was carry in 1980 in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, in the north Syrian state of Idlib. She left school when she was 12. When she was 15, she wedded her cousin Mohammed. She was considered one of the best cooks! said her husband proudly. They would all cook together, shaping kibbeh. There were always lots of daughters, pals, sisters, because in the village females were at home.

My sister had a garden-variety with rows of veggies, and we would have barbecues there and just pick the veggies and eat them just like that, recollected Masto.

Jisr al-Shughour is a Sunni town with a tradition of opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad and “his fathers” before him, Hafez al-Assad. In 2011, when Syria began its Arab Spring demoes, the people of Jisr al-Shughour are amongst of the first to take to the streets. That summer there was fighting one of a very early combats of the civil campaign and in the disarray and gunfire large volumes of the towns population fled. Masto and her children went to Lebanon to stay with Mohammed, but the children were not attending school there. After a couple of months, Mastos parents told her that government forces had re-established appease in the town, so she decided to take their own families home.

At firstly it was quiet, but soon the fighting started up again. My infants were traumatised listening to the musics of campaign all the time, announced Masto. Pickup trucks piled with bodies drove past. The sea was cut. There was no energy. They scavenged firewood. Furnishes could not get into the town from the countryside and food was scarce. Eventually, it got to the point where I couldnt find even flour to stimulate the eat or got anything to smolder as fuel, she said.

In early 2013, they began to kidnap girlfriends. Who were they? I questioned. Masto pursed her lips. Who knows who. They kidnapped the girls as a business and demanded immense summing-ups of fund. Mohammed had not been able to visit them for more than a year. When Masto called him in Lebanon, she told him she was frightened for their daughters. It is very clear they had to get away. They left Jisr al-Shughour at six in the morning, and after close calls at government checkpoints, they arrived in Damascus at 10 pm. From there, they took a bus to the Lebanese perimeter where Mohammed met them.

Safe in Beirut, I watched Masto sprinkle the grains of bulgur with sea and knead them together. Then she fed lumps of the crumbly mixture into the electric grinder. The grinder pushed the dough out as coils. She amassed these up, kneaded them together and then fed them into the grinder again. With each grind, the bulgur absorbed a bit more of the sea and the dough became a little softer and drier until it was aspliable as Play-Doh. Masto likes to add a little fine corn banquet to her kibbeh. This is her special touch.

Masto was fastidious. She kneaded the dough as she talked. Good-for-nothing spilled , no grain was wasted. You need to be delicate in the way you stimulate the dough, she announced as she worked it. You have to make it with adore so that people will adore it. If you do it without adore, you cannot touch people.

The World Food Programme, the emergency food assistance branch of the UN, currently substantiates more than 700,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Since springtime 2016 the programme of activities has dispensed a monthly allowance of $27 per head to the two-thirds of refugee families it evaluates as the most vulnerable. The fund is credited to an electronic card given to each family. They can then expend their allowance on meat at 490 grocery store registered with the strategy across Lebanon. Since 2012, $770 m has been transferred through this system. One period in early May, I inspected a family in the Bekaa Valley who rely on this scheme.

Abadi al-Eid had arrived in Lebanon with his wife, Khawla, and their three children, more than two years earlier, having escaped the Syrian metropolitan of Raqqa, which has been controlled under Isis since January 2014. They have since had another little boy. They live in one of the many tiny refugee camps that have ricochetted up on battlegrounds throughout the fertile plateau between Beirut and the Syrian border.

I went with Abadi and Khawla as they did their monthly shop at a small grocery store on the Damascus-Beirut road. They delivered with them their eight-year-old son Ibrahim, who had an undiagnosed neurological condition and whose growing was stunted. Everyone called him Hajji, an ironic epithet more commonly used to refer to an elder who has stirred the hajj pilgrimage.

The Al-Eid family devouring lunch in their tent. Photo: Wendell Steavenson for the Guardian

Hajji grinned and fastened out his arms to shake my hand. He chuckled, swaggered and paraded, he became abruptly aggressive and then teetered on the edge of a tantrum. He craved sweets, he craved biscuits. His father passed him a packet of biscuits and he hugged his them to his chest and spaded one after the other into his mouth.

He wants to eat everything! Khawla told me, sighing. He ate all the time, she announced, but still he was skinny and scabbed. The household had taken him to the UN clinic, but there was no fund for a blood exam. Before the campaign, he was not like this. They said he cannot go to the school because “hes been” disruptive. We have had to move camps 5 times because other people do not accept him.

As Abadi pushed the trolley all over the little shop, Hajji stomped and called, hot tears wet on his cheeks. He craved chocolate cereal. Khawla threw an expensive carton of chocolate cereal into the trolley.

At the checkout, the Al-Eids bought the following 😛 TAGEND

Two rounds of white-hot cheese

A bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice

A bag of zataar, dried thyme

Popping corn

Three huge cartons of dried molokhia, a kind of dark-green foliage vegetable

A huge container of yoghurt

Several kilos of different lentils, beans and bulgur wheat

A 16 -litre tin of cooking oil

A 4-litre tin of olive oil

Two huge cans of fresh peas

Two cans of meat

Four tins of sardines

A 2.5 kg kilo tin of tomato paste.

Chocolate cereal

They did not buy any eggs or veggies or fresh meat, which are expensive. There is a joke about a Syrian bowl called batata ou farouj potatoes and chicken cooked with lemon. These periods it is very rare to have chicken, so the refugees stimulate the bowl without any meat and call it hovering chicken because the chicken has winged away.

The Al-Eids live in a tent large enough to stand up in. The frame is made of wood, while the walls are a patchwork of corrugated iron, slats of thin plywood and tarpaulin stomped with the UN refugee agency logo. The roof is covered with old waterproof advertising banners and weighted with vehicle tyres.

Abadi did not work. He was friendly and inhaled cigarettes and when I asked him about the future, he opened his palms to the sky, resigned to Gods will.

Khawla hunker next to a blue-blooded gas canister on top of which was roosted a container of yellow-bellied lentil soup. Back in Syria, Khawla told me, she used to cook whatever she liked. Kibbeh, and stuffed veggies, these things that I used to stimulate, I dont make any more. I am stressed and worried all the time. Sometimes I cant even remember things. I have a bad remembrance because I cant remember properly. I am only living period to period. I miss their own families, we would all gather together to eat.

After Masto had made and shaped the dough, she showed me how to stimulate the filling. She chopped an onion without looking at it, in quick, even, long slices. The onion was placed in one bowl, smashed walnuts in another, finely chopped parsley in another.

In the kitchen, on a little stove balanced on a table, she aroused the walnut pieces in a hot pan, then ran in pomegranate molasses so that it frothed. She aroused in the onions, careful not to let them ignite. After a few minutes, she tipped the mixture onto a clean plate and scattered it with parsley.

As a child, Masto learned to cook kibbeh from her father, who came from Aleppo. This means that she inclines stimulates her dishes spicy. The subtle flame of Aleppo red pepper discovers its style into virtually every neighbourhood bowl, either powdered, like a paprika, or cooked, pulped and dried in the open air into a brick-red paste.

From her father, who had been a plumber, Masto learned her adore of the Quran and her adore of singing. When they were very little, she and her siblings would gather at their father-gods knees while he sang suras. If the latter are curious he would show them the words in the Quran and spell them out and explain their meaning. Masto became a little emotional when she talked about her father. He expired last year, in refugee, in Lebanon.

She put down her kibbeh parcels for a moment and questioned: Would you like me to sing the sura for you?

Ebtisam Masto and her signature kibbeh. Photo: Wendell Steavensom for the Guardian

She closed her eyes and concentrated all her struggle into the words, the cadence and the charm of the verses. She had a glorious voice, strong and pure and faithful. In that grim cement room it struck me that everything Masto did, she did with her whole ego. Nothing was given less attention than her very best. There were tears in my eyes. Without a word, Sidra, Mastos 11 -year-old daughter, handed me a tissue.

Not long after she had finished singing, Masto returned to her kibbeh. She spooned the filling into the prepared the circumstances and pinched the leading edge closed so that they are able to made a double-ended teardrop shape a classic kibbeh. Then she deep-fried them in oil.

Mastos signature kibbeh is called kibbeh al rayeg , which necessitates kibbeh of the monk. The recipe comes from a crossroads outside Jisr al-Shughour where a hermit lived. According to neighbourhood legend, the monk made this kibbeh and passed it out to people on Sunday. In the cooking seminar, Mastos monks kibbeh was voted the best.

She glowed with dignity as she told me this, while mingling the deep red muhammara paste with pomegranate molasses and cumin, then loosening it with olive oil to make a sauce. Then she placed the kibbeh on a small plate. I ate them with my fingers. Salt and sour, the soft disintegrate of bulgur and seeds crunched together, bittersweet.

Once, when talking to refugeesin one of the camps in the Bekaa Valley, I questioned a group of women if they stirred pickles and jam-packs. The young chef Dima Chaar had told me that devising mouneh ( pickles) was a communal activity, part of the social fabric of Syria. My father used to get together with her neighbours in Damascus, she announced. In artichoke season for example, my father would go to the market and buy kilos of artichokes and then all the women would gather and cleanse them and cook them and prepare them, shaping preserves or icing. Mounie is the tradition of preserving.

My favourite mouneh recipe is for lemon baladi preserved lemons. I would go with my mum to the market purchasing the lemons, the big ones. They had to have quite thick skin. Then you scoop the flesh out and leave them out at room temperature for three or four periods until the skin blooms with a little white-hot mould. Then you rub this off with a damp cloth and stuff the lemons with walnuts, blood-red chilli paste and smashed garlic mixed with a little olive oil. Then you put them in a container and fill the jar with olive oil. I used to keep the petroleum and use it to dress salads.

Twenty or more refugee women in the Bekaa Valley sat around me in a big circle. Almost each of them had a baby or a small child on their lap. Many of them had been living in tents for five years, since the beginning of the campaign. Mouneh ? They shrugged. No , not really. Establishing pickles is a statement of colonization, it represents the idea of a future of planning and looking forward: in six months, we will be here, in the same home. We just live period to period, one of the status of women announced. We buy what we need and we eat it.

A Syrian household eat a banquet outside their tent at a Syrian refugee camp in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon. Photo: Bilal Hussein/ AP

I threw the same question to a young Syrian chef from Damascus identified Sam, who had been living in Beirut for two years.( He did not want me to use his surname he has siblings still living in the Syrian port metropolitan of Latakia .) Sam was a tubby, jolly fellow, but he became reflective as he thought of the past. In Damascus when I was younger, I lived with a friend who had a coffee shop in the old metropolitan. We used to go world markets and buy all the veggies and stimulate pickles together. I love to cook, he adoration to cook.

We would gather together six or seven of us, after the coffee shop closed, and eat what we had stirred the working day. We would drink arak and listen to music one of my friends played the oud Sam stopped. His chest heaved. His smile went to a flat cable, his lips compressed with the endeavours of remembering. I have been here two years and I havent bought a single piece of furniture. I tell myself this is only temporary. I have not stirred pickles. Its a thing that you do at home, and here its not home.

When I visualized them in Beirut in late springtime, Masto and Mohammed did not know where in America they would be settled. They were nervous. Masto told me, she wanted to take a special kind of milled hard-grained wheat with her so that she would be able to stimulate the Assyrian kibbeh she had learned from Marlene and Nahren.

Its not just for Assyrians to preserve their tradition, she told me. Food is a way to preserve record and cultural activities, to pass traditions on to the next generation so that they can understand their sources and identity. In volumes and in schools, infants informed about record and different cultures and devastates and the remains of different civilisations, but they dont informed about the meat “whos also” a part of their history and cultural activities. If we dont retain it and teach it to them, it will disappear. It is our duty to keep it travelling. Kibbeh is everywhere, kibbeh maintains different cultures and region it comes from, it maintains its identity inside.

When I left Beirut I kept in touch with Masto on Facebook. In the summer she posted where she and her family would be settled: Cincinnati, Ohio.

At firstly, she admitted, when we talked this autumn via Skype, that it had was hard. For the first three weeks their own families had to live in a house infested with raccoons, but then the latter are settled in a good house in a good locality. Every morning she and her daughter Amal go to English class. The International Catholic Migration Commission that sponsored their asylum application under the auspices of the UN refugee agency, was helping Mohammed to instruct as a forklift truck driver. The infants were in academy and happy. People were very friendly, very useful. I am even complimented on my hijab, announced Masto, pleased with the heat and respect of the Midwestern reception.( Although during the early stages of December, Masto was more circumspect: since the election of the members of Donald Trump, she wrote to me that her family were scared and did not know, as Muslims, what the future would bring .)

Not long after Masto arrived in Cincinnati, I had asked her what she thought of American meat. She admitted she had not yet tried any because she was worried it would be not be halal, but added that some pals from the neighbourhood Syrian community had taken her family to a Chinese eatery and that she had liked the sesame chicken.

The first time she had stirred her signature monks kibbeh, she told me, had been a disaster. The red pepper paste she had bought at a neighbourhood Arab food shop was bitter and the whole thing was ruined. But she had heard of a wholesale home where she could buy a large quantity of red peppers and was going to stimulate some herself.

The climate of Cincinnati is too damp and rainy to dehydrate it outside like it is supposed to be, she told me, but I can do it in the oven.

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