Yesterday was World Food Day and my plan was to share this then, but I was down with a migraine so I am sharing it now instead. I wanted to talk a bit about a project I have been involved in lately. It is different from Luise’s and my usual ramblings but we hope you will find this as meaningful as we do. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the European Commission asked if we would be interested in meeting Syrian refugees living in and outside of camps in Turkey to bring home some of their stories, learn how modern food aid is working and show why food is important on so many levels.
With the blessing of (a very pregnant) Luise, I went on this mission a few weeks ago. I got to visit a refugee camp, see how they work and talk to some of the people living there. But I was also invited home to a few Syrian families living outside of camps. Their situation is often a lot more difficult than inside the camps, as they have more costs and less support. The families were incredibly friendly and inviting. We talked, drank tea, cooked together and shared food. They had children in similar ages as us, so Elsa and I had packed some of their old toys that I brought with me.
If you follow me on instagram, you might already have read the stories of some of the people I met. I have included the story from one of the families in this post, and I have also recreated one of the dishes I got to cook with them. The recipe for this Yogurt Soup is at the bottom of this post but if you have time, please read through the story as well. These people need to be heard. They are in my heart now and I hope they will be in yours too.
It is very easy to look away from the horrible situation that is going on in Syria (just like I, quite honestly, have done previously). But I hope that by reading these stories which do have bright moments in the midst of all the darkness, you will get a better understanding and openness towards the millions of Syrian people that have been forced from their homes and don’t wish anything more than being able to return to them one day.
It was a very emotional trip and it affected me a lot deeper than I was prepared for. I am not sure how to transition back entirely. Obviously, we want to continue working with recipe development and food photography as it is something we love doing. But it’s my hope and intention that we also will continue working actively with humanitarian aid and support this cause any way we can in the future.
(1/5) “I had everything before the war. My husband and I were the owners of a supermarket in Aleppo. We lived in a large and beautiful two-story house in a rural area. All my furniture was new – nothing was second hand – and we had many rooms. There was a big courtyard outside our house where the children played and rode their bicycles.“
This is the story of Suad. She is Syrian and fled from her home together with her family when the conflict came to her town, 4 years ago. Suad is nine months pregnant and lives with her husband, their two sons Ahmed (10 years) and Muhammed (6 years) and their daughter Nurulhuda (12 years) in a small one-bedroom apartment in a rundown building in the old town of Antakya in Turkey, close to the Syrian border. Her parents and sisters live in an apartment one floor up. Her husband now works as a tailor so they can pay the rent. Even though they have lost everything, Suad is not broken. Her strength and pride really got to me. They can’t afford decorating their home but have instead made paper and textile decorations and drawings that are covering the walls inside, making it less a lodging and more of a home.
I had the honour to be welcomed into her home and I spent a day together with her and her family, listening to their story, drinking many cups of tea, going to the supermarket and preparing a dinner together.
(2/5) “Back in Aleppo, we renovated our kitchen entirely when we got married. It looked very nice. It was a big, bright kitchen with a large marble countertop. The kitchen was the colour of cappuccino and some of the cabinets had glass doors. I used to place some of my finest colourful vases and glasses there, so you could see them through the glass.”
I was invited into Suad’s kitchen to assist her in dinner preparations. There were no marble countertops. And no glass doors. But she still placed her best looking glasses and plates on the shelf above the sink, hiding the rest behind a curtain her husband had sewn. Due to the small space, we did all chopping and preparations while sitting on the living room rug. The family laughed at my difficulties sitting with my legs crossed on the floor doing the chopping and they kept telling me that the tomatoes needed to be more finely chopped for the tabbouleh. Her mother also pointed out that I had very thorough knife skills (meaning slow).
(3/5) “My mother-in-law taught me most of these recipes in Aleppo, as she was living in our house. And cooking this reminds me of our life there. Now, my mother lives in the same house as us, so I am actually passing these recipes on to her and my daughter as well. Food means sharing to me – with my neighbours, friends and family. Before the conflict, we were a couple of families that took turns inviting each other over. We baked sweets, cooked food, ate and sang together. Now, the most important thing is to make sure my children aren’t hungry, but we still share food with our neighbours, even if it just is a small plate or the smell of our cooking. When we first arrived, we didn’t have any money to buy ingredients and therefore we had to eat whatever food was provided for us. But after we were approved for the e-food card we were able to buy our own ingredients, so now I can cook food that reminds me of home.”
We prepared a Syrian version of Tabbouleh with cucumber, tomatoes, lemon, lettuce, fresh parsley, fresh and dried mint, pomegranate syrup, tomato paste and a finely textured bulgur. We also did a delicious yogurt, rice and mint soup called Lebeniyye, a fried eggplant dish with tomato sauce called Mutabbaqa and a vegetarian version of Kepse, which is a flavorful long-grain rice dish topped with toasted almonds and walnuts instead of meat.
(4/5) Me being a man, a stranger in their house and also a foreigner, I was aware that my visit would be an awkward situation and a difficult environment for everyone to be relaxed in. And the first hours of conversation were quite honestly very polite and trembling. But something happened when we started cooking. Once we gathered around the ingredients and Suad started explaining the dishes we were making, she suddenly began smiling. In the complete sadness of their situation, food definitely brings out a spark of joy. It connected us. In-between exchanging chopping boards and mincing vegetables, they suddenly started asking me questions about how we eat in my country, how my kitchen looks and how we take care of the elderly in our families in Europe (her father gave me a disapproving mutter, when hearing my response). We started sharing photos of our children and all of a sudden, we weren’t strangers anymore.
We finished preparing the last recipe just as it got dark outside. Nurulhuda placed all the food on a large tray on the rug in the living room. Suad invited her children, parents, all her sisters and even the driver of our car to join. And with one spoon each, we all shared from the same plates. It is a very intimate way of eating, sitting on the floor, dipping our spoons into the same bowls of soup. They also ended the meal with a traditional Arabic saying: “Now that we have shared bread and salt, we are like relatives”.
(5/5)“My story is the story of every Syrian”
The Syria conflict is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. There are currently over 2,7 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. Only about 10% are living in refugee camps and have guaranteed access to food, shelter and basic needs. The rest are living off-camps – in small apartments, basements, garages and even caves.
If you found this interesting, please also read Emira’s story. And the story of Semira, who works as a Field Monitor Assistant for WFP. I have also written about the E-cards that WFP have developed with help from the European Commission to support refugees and give them the ability to shop and choose food themselves. The trip was part of a initiative that WFP call More Than Food. Pauline and Rens will also be going on similar trips. Here is a short video that explains the project and the E-card a bit more.
Lebaniyye – Syrian Yogurt Soup
I was very intrigued by Suad’s Yogurt Soup in particular as I had never tried anything similar before. I have been cooking it a few times myself since I returned. Warm yogurt might not sound great but I found its tanginess really tasty, especially combined with the mint and rice. She served it more as a starter (or with meatballs) but I have taken the liberty to add a bit more topping to make it even more nourishing and flavourful. Suad actually cooked the rice and yogurt together from the start but I found that if you don’t stay attentive, the yogurt will curdle. So I cook the rice until it’s almost done before slowly stirring in the yogurt mixture. Also, double check the cooking time for the rice. Most rice have around 30-45 minutes, but some are pre-steamed which can half the cooking time. In that case, you should reduce the cooking time for the soup.
1 cup / 200 g wholegrain rice or brown rice
4 cups vegetable stock (or 4 cups water + vegetable bouillon)
1 garlic clove, grated or finely chopped
4 cups / 1 liter full fat yogurt (we use Turkish yogurt)
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp dried mint
Garlic & Chili Oil
1/4 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves
2 tsp chili flakes
1 cup / 250 ml cooked puy lentils
a large handful fresh spinach
a large handful fresh mint
a large handful fresh parsley
Rinse the rice and add it to a large, thick-bottomed sauce pan along with vegetable stock and garlic. Bring to a boil and then turn the heat down slightly until it simmers. Meanwhile, add yogurt, egg and cornstarch to a mixing bowl and whisk rapidly until combined and smooth. After the rice has cooked for about 20 minutes, use a soup spoon to ladle some of the warm stock into the yogurt mixture while using your other hand to stir (this is to slowly heat the yogurt and prevent it from curdle when mixed with the rest of the stock and rice). Then slowly stir in the yogurt mixture into the large saucepan with rice and stock. Keep the heat on low/medium, so it just barely simmers and you should stir slowly but frequently. When the rice is cooked through and the soup has thickened slightly, it is ready. Remove from the heat and prepare the Garlic & Chili Oil.
Heat oil in a small sauce pan on low/medium heat. When warm, add garlic and chili flakes, let sauté for about 30 seconds and then remove from the heat. Let steep while you ladle the soup into bowls and chop the spinach and herbs.
Top the soup with a generous scoop of lentils, chopped fresh spinach, mint, parsley and a drizzle of the Garlic & Chili Oil.