The flavours that unite Syrians

ISTANBUL • I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and spent most of my life in Virginia but, growing up, when people asked where I was from, I'd always say Syria.

My Syrian experience was in the kitchen and at the dining table, scooping up garlic and cilantro-fried broad beans with handfuls of pita bread and sneaking mouthfuls of fresh cream sweetened with orange blossom syrup. Before dinner parties, I'd taste-test every dish that came out of our kitchen - a lick of yogurt sauce to assess the level of garlic, a dollop of hummus tested for too little tahini, a bite of spiced ground beef.

When I visited Syria for the last time, in 2010 before the civil war, food was the universal language between myself and the people I met, whether they were relatives I hadn't seen since I was three or strangers demanding I join them for at least a cup of cardamom-spiced coffee. In the years since, I've been reporting on the war in Syria and on the people it has displaced. The refugees I've interviewed always insist on feeding me, even if they live in decrepit buildings without roofs or in damp apartments crammed with extended families. "There must be bread and salt between us," a woman in Istanbul told me.

For Syrians, to cook is to be at home, to commune over a meal and seal a bond of friendship. While most people will associate Syria with the death and destruction that is in the news - neighbourhoods reduced to rubble by government air strikes; terrorist fighters in black balaclavas; babies bobbing lifeless in the sea - Syrians are so much more than this war.

Food tells Syria's history better than the volumes that chronicle rulers and wars. Syria's land was part of the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture was born. It was fought over by the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians and Babylonians (authors of what are among the world's oldest written recipes); it was ruled by Persians, Byzantines and Ottomans - and we can taste their influence.

Aleppo, once Syria's largest city and now the site of some of the war's fiercest fighting, is situated along what used to be the Silk Road. Merchants and traders from as far away as China brought recipes and spices, which made their way into Aleppo's cuisine in dishes like lahmeh bi karaz (meatballs swimming in sour-cherry sauce) and kibbeh saffarjaliyya (a stew of quince and ground lamb stuffed into shells of bulgur). Sultans in the Ottoman Empire's capital would supposedly send their chefs to spy on the city's latest cooking trends.

For most women, making lunch or dinner is a full-time job. "In Syria, we'd all get together in the afternoons to sort out what we'd make for dinner," said Ms Ibtissam Masto, 36, a Syrian refugee and mother of six I met in Beirut.

I talked to her as she moulded cylinders of spiced ground beef for kebab hindi. It was her shift at the small kitchenette with a dozen tables where she prepared lunch for UN Refugee Agency staff. "I've always been told I'm a great cook," she said. "I just didn't think I'd be doing it for a living."

Neither did Ms Rana Jebran before she founded a catering company, HoneyDoe, with her mother and son in Chicago. She moved there last year from Damascus to join her kids. "We used to always have people coming and going in Damascus - they'd just show up and ring the doorbell," she told me. Entertaining friends and family was a part of everyday life.

As she pulled out a box of intricately decorated cookies she and her mother had prepared the day before, she said: "When I have these cookies in the oven, I think, 'This is the smell of Easter.' "

Walk through Damascus streets on Easter, and it becomes clear where the city's Christians have gathered, she said. "People take trays of these spice biscuits to bake at communal ovens," she said, remembering how the scent would fill whole neighbourhoods.

The smell of garlic and cilantro likewise reminds her of her Muslim neighbours' Ramadan celebrations. "I think of the rush of my neighbours as they make the last preparations for their iftar - the fast-breaking meals. It is such a great smell," she said.

Garlic and cilantro are used to flavour many Syrian dishes, from okra stew to the nationally treasured harra bi isbaou, which translates as "burnt finger". This dish of stewed lentils and small pieces of pasta-like dough bursts with flavour from tamarind syrup combined with fried garlic, cilantro and crispy fried onions. "They say it's called harra bi isbaou because the peasants who invented it couldn't wait for it to cool down to eat it, so they burnt their fingers," said Ms Umm Ali, a masterly home cook from the Aleppo suburbs who fled to Beirut with her family in 2013.

Mr Obay al-Shihabi, a Syrian-Palestinian friend who now lives in Germany, noted how much celebrating Ramadan had changed since the war began. "In Syria, you never ate alone for iftar," he said.

Families would have a rotating schedule, he recalled. Everyone gathered at the grandparents' homes on the first night, then at the eldest siblings' homes and so on until the youngest sibling hosted dinner, after which people dined with neighbours and friends. "Everyone always brought something - dessert, fruit, drinks," he said. "And if we didn't fit around a table, we'd sit on the floor."

He grew up in Yarmouk, the unofficial refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus that has housed Palestinians for nearly six decades. In recent years, Yarmouk has been the scene of intense fighting between rebels and forces loyal to the Syrian government. As in other contested regions, in Yarmouk, food has been used as a weapon of war - government forces prevent deliveries of food supplies to the camp to break the opposition's will.

Hunger has also been used as a tool by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and other militant groups. According to the United Nations, nearly 600,000 Syrians are under siege, and nearly nine million are "food insecure".

Even for those not under siege, everything has become more expensive: flour, cooking oil, meat. Electricity is unreliable, water is often cut off.

Yet, many refugees still yearn for home. "At least we were all together," said Mr al-Shihabi. In Germany, he and his sister are alone.

These stories, told through food, offer a far more intimate insight into Syria and its people than most news reports. By understanding the acts of everyday life - of cooking and eating - or the inability to do these things, we understand all that has been lost in Syria's war.

And just as dishes are a relic of Syria's past, as the Syrian diaspora spreads throughout the world, the story of Syria's present and future will be told in recipes and the way people cook and eat. NYTIMES

•The writer is a journalist and the creator of the website Savoring Syria. Reporting for this essay was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation, the Hollings Centre and the GroundTruth Project.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2016, with the headline 'The flavours that unite Syrians'. Print Edition | Subscribe