Cook for Syria

By Georgina Oatts 

Katherine Zoepf writes of lambs intestine stuffed with rice and pistachios – gleaming, translucent and still surprisingly meaty. Her host in Aleppo told her, ‘you have to be fearless!’. Ten years later, these light-hearted words about the exotic nature of Syrian cuisine rings even more true as Syria is ripped at its core. According to Unicef, it is the “largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, with the lives of more than 8 million children in danger”. Syria’s people are showing inspirational bravery in withstanding the traumas. With no choice at all, they are fleeing their home and making life-endangering journeys in search of safety.

Here in Britain though, there is little fear in embracing Syrian cuisine. As magpies of the culinary world, we Brits are ever enthusiastic to widen our repertoire of unusual foods. The ♯CookForSyria campaign is taking advantage of the greed of British foodies to raise awareness and vital funds for the Syrian plight.

The campaign is the brainchild of top food Instagrammer, Clerkenwell Boy, and Suitcase magazine founder, Serena Guen. It is the ‘supper-club movement that became a global campaign’. The basic concept is to raise awareness through sharing pictures of Syrian cuisine on social media. This developed into hosting Syrian themed supper clubs with all proceeds going to Unicef UK’s Children of Syria Fund and NEXTGen London, Unicef UK’s young professional movement. This evolved into a campaign that took London and the rest of the UK by storm. November, in particular, saw hundred of restaurants across London put Syrian-inspired dishes on their menus with the profits all being donated to the cause. They also held a star-studded banquet with names like Angela Harnett, Yotam Ottolenghi and Jose Pizarro each cooking a course. Highly sought after tickets were priced at £180 a head.

The movement has seen London be taken over by Fetteh, Kibbeh, Zataa’r and pomegranate jewelled feasts. It continues today and will do as long as Syria needs our help. The crisis in Syria is continuing, despite our media having seemingly forgotten it. Thousands are dying or fleeing their country, every day. The ♯CookForSyria campaign defines this as a risk of ‘losing a generation’. A risk that may be more comprehensible to us is the very real risk of losing a culture. In the rush away from Syria and the need to find homes elsewhere, Syrians are forced to leave behind their pasts. Syrian culture is exciting though and the food delicious. Juicy lemons, pink pomegranates and creamy feta scatter their plates. We, too, are now embracing earthy sumac, vibrant Za’atar, sweet, oozing figs and tahini in our brownies (don’t knock it till you try it). If we can do nothing else to help these people with little in their life to be thankful for, we can eat their food, celebrate their culture and in doing so raise awareness of their plight.

But with the main campaign having passed and the missed opportunities to try Symmetry Breakfast’s Syrian Brunch at the Good Egg ringing in our ears, what can we do to get involved?  To inject your own kitchen with some Syrian vibrancy, head to their recipe archive online. You can host a supper-club or just share your creations online. Or you can purchase the recipe book and contribute yourself to the still increasing total of funds raised.  (Just inside Syria, more that 7.9 million people were provided with access to safe water, two rounds of polio vaccination campaigns reached over 2.9 million children, and nearly 841,000 children received psychological support, all from the proceeds from ♯CookForSyria.)

Here in Durham, too, you can also embrace a medjool date or two at our very own Taste of Syria event being held at John’s on February 9th. In collaboration with Durham-based charity, Live to Remain, the event will see fellow students, refugee families and Durham locals taste Syrian cuisine and perhaps even indulge in some traditional dance. Tickets are available in advance (£5) and on the door (£6) through the Facebook event with all proceeds heading straight to war-torn Syria.

Just like the family style tradition of eating in Syria, what the campaign is really searching for is sharing. Being Instagram based the scope is extensive for spreading awareness of not only the plight of Syria but the positives of their culture. We are bombarded with reasons why social media is the spawn of the devil. How it is increasing our depression rates tenfold. How we waste half our lives staring at a screen. Not enough is made of the incredible successes social media allows for. Or the large, supportive communities it can create. ♯CookForSyria is demonstrating this for us. The campaign is a celebration. It is hopeful and inclusive. The Syrian culture is not lost and will not be if we continue sharing and supporting.

Photograph: Hussien Alazaat

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