We speak to Dalia Dogmoch Soubra who is in the UAE this weekend for the event
Charity culinary movement #CookForSyria comes to the Dubai Food Festival
Starvation has routinely been used as a weapon of war in Syria – but a group of individuals is now trying to use food as a way to raise awareness of the atrocities being committed, and as a way of reclaiming and highlighting the country’s cultural identity.
The non-profit movement #CookForSyria aims to counter, in a small but real way, “the horrific implications that this war continues to have on children”, according to food writer and presenter Dalia Dogmoch Soubra. Thanks to Soubra, who has brought the movement from London to the UAE for the first time in conjunction with Dubai Food Festival, residents will get the chance to eat for this good cause Friday and Saturday.
#CookForSyria is a supper club co-founded by popular social-media foodie Clerkenwell Boy, and philanthropist and publishing mogul Serena Guen, in partnership with Unicef Next Generation London. Guen explains that, after seeing so many thoughts and prayers being offered for Syrian civilians on social-media accounts in the West, with “no outlet for actually acting”, the pair decided to try to do something to help.
What started out as a single Syrian-themed banquet organised on October 31 last year by a group of foodie friends, who came together to celebrate the war-shattered country’s cuisine and raise money for the United Nations Children’s Fund, has since transformed into a global campaign and was awarded The Guardian’s Observer Food Monthly’s Best Ethical Food Project in 2017.
The numbers are heartening. Close to 200 supper clubs and bake sales have been organised to date. The dishes served are courtesy of Syrian expats and refugees, as well as in-the-know chefs, who have donated close to 100 recipes.
These have also been collated in an eponymous cookbook, which will be available to buy during DFF. The foundation has raised and donated a total of £350,000 (almost Dh2 million) in the past four months, with more than 50 restaurants and cafes welcoming diners, at no profit to themselves.
Inked Dubai is one such space. The food collective, which puts together innovative dining concepts at its Al Serkal venue, will open its doors to foodies who want to contribute funds towards #CookForSyria on March 2. The sold-out four-course dinner costs Dh495 per person and includes muhammara frittas, makloube, duck shawarma and the playfully named my mother-in-law’s baklawa. “The chefs at Inked will base the meal on the recipes in the #CookForSyria recipe book, but have added some of their signature touches to the dishes,” says Soubra.
The Syrian-German, who is currently based in Dubai, has also shared a handful of her family’s traditional recipes in the book, including foul moukalla (sautéed broad beans), fattet makdous (an eggplant and meat dish), barazek (sesame pistachio cookies) and muhalabia (milk pudding).
On Saturday, #CookForSyria will host demonstrations at the Etisalat Beach Canteen from 2pm to 3.30pm, on the stretch of Jumeirah Beach behind Sunset Mall. Visitors can also pick up the cookbook at the event, and proceeds will go towards the Children of Syria fund, through the UAE wing of Unicef. The book, which has contributions by big-name chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver and Angela Hartnett, includes dishes such as lamb and sour cherry meatballs; harak osbao (lentils and pasta with tamarind, sumac and pomegranate); and olive oil and pistachio cake. The illustrated 232-page book also comes with instructions on how readers can host their own #CookForSyria charity meal or bake sale.
“Everyone loves food. Here is a concept that has the ability to break all borders. People enjoy discovering foreign cuisines, so sharing a meal to do this in the name of charity is simply amazing,” says Soubra, who adds that her go-to for Syrian food is Sah El Nom in Business Bay, because it reminds her of home. “The movement highlights Syrian culture and its rich cuisine, which is famous among the Arab world, but not necessarily among other nationalities. Let’s change that, and maybe change a child’s life in the process.”
Even as this piece is being written, the United Nations has released yet another report stating that Syrian refugee children in Jordan are deprived of even the most basic needs. A few days ago, Unicef simply issued a blank statement, on the back of the increasing death toll in Eastern Ghouta, saying it no longer has any words to describe the atrocities, and started the #ChildrenUnderAttack hashtag. Foundations such as CookForSyria are admirable in their efforts to help out, if only one plate at a time.
As Soubra puts it: “With the movement now at your doorstep in Dubai, there could not be an easier way or better reason to take part.”
Recipes to try:
Foul moukalla beans with garlic and coriander
“Foul moukalla, meaning sautéed beans in Arabic, is particularly Syrian when the broad beans used in the dish are young and small in size, making them tender, as their skin is not chewy. When the smaller kind cannot be found, the beans must be podded, removing the skin, which makes for a more flavoursome dish. It is served as a cold mezze starter with yoghurt, lemon and bread on the side ,” says Soubra.
1kg broad beans
70ml olive oil
6-8 garlic cloves, minced
100g fresh coriander, finely chopped
1/4 tsp salt
Juice of 1 lemon
Arabic pita bread
In a large pot, bring enough water to the boil to cover the broad beans. Drop them gently into the water and simmer for about 5 minutes.
Drain the beans and drop them into ice water. Pierce the skin with a small sharp knife or using your finger, and push the bean out. Discard the skin.
In a pan, warm the olive oil on low heat, being careful not to burn it.
Add the garlic and coriander and cook for a minute, just to release the flavour. Do not brown them.
Drop the podded beans into the pan, remove from the heat and stir to gently combine everything.
Add the lemon juice, stir and serve at room temperature or cold, with bread and yoghurt.
Shakriye (lamb shanks and hot yoghurt stew)
“Whenever there was a festive occasion, the women in my family would make this flavoursome dish. In this case, the yoghurt is hot, and the most important part of the recipe is that it does not split. My mother insists that the yoghurt needs to be newly opened and that you have to stir it in one direction only,” says Soubra.
6 lamb shanks
3l hot water
2 onions, peeled and quartered
3 bay leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
6g cardamom seeds
2tsp white pepper
375g short-grain rice, rinsed
50g pine nuts
Cracked black pepper
5 spring onions
Place the shanks in a pot filled with boiling water. Add the onions, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, cardamom, cloves, half the salt and half the pepper.
Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for about two hours, or until the lamb is tender. Skim the fat that surfaces to the top, to leave a clear broth.
Make the rice by adding a little butter and vegetable oil to a pot. Add and fry the vermicelli until golden brown. Add the rice, stir to combine, then fill with water and cook for about 20 minutes, covered, on low heat. Keep the rice warm once cooked.
Heat another pan over medium heat, add a little oil and butter, and then fry the pine nuts until golden brown.
Once the lamb is ready, remove the shanks from the pot and keep them warm. You can take the meat off the bones or serve them whole.
Pour the cooking broth through a sieve and discard the onions and aromatics.
In a large pot, whisk the yoghurt with the egg, cornflour, remaining salt and pepper, and 250ml of the cooking liquid.
Turn on the heat and, stirring constantly, cook the yoghurt over a low heat until it comes to a simmer. Once it has come to a boil, cook for another 2 minutes. Place the lamb shanks in a large and deep serving dish, cover with the hot yoghurt, pine nuts, and finish with some freshly cracked black pepper. Serve with rice, fresh spring onions and radishes on the side.
Muhalabia (milk and orange blossom pudding)
“Muhalabia is a classic and simple Middle Eastern pudding, similar to blancmange in France or the Italian panna cotta. My grandmother used to make this for us, especially when we were not feeling well. She believed it was soothing, and that the milk, sugar and orange blossom gave us a boost of energy. It certainly did, and it still makes me feel better and nostalgic when I have it today,” says Soubra.
100g white sugar
Pinch of salt
50g corn flour
2tbsp orange blossom
In a saucepan, bring the milk, sugar and salt to a boil.
Add a little milk to the corn flour and mix it into a smooth paste. Add to the rest of the milk.
Add the orange blossom, whisk vigorously and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring constantly until the milk thickens and coats the back of a spoon.
Pour the thickened milk into ramekins and place in the fridge for at least 2½ hours to set.
Top with crushed pistachios, a little orange zest and serve.