Ramadan never fails to bring the smells and tastes of Syria to my home
After living far away for many years, I now want to represent the diversity and beauty of the country on my dining table
I have spent most of my adult life away from Syria. Although I carry pieces of my country in my heart, food is what really keeps me connected to my roots in Damascus. During the month of Ramadan, where Muslims observe a strict regime of fasting from sunrise to sunset, the Syria that I long for comes to life in my kitchen. A whiff of spices erases my heartache in a second, and I fly back in time, on wafts of fragrant rice, to a place I have not visited in eight years.
From the sunset adhan of the Umayyad Mosque to the buzz in the kitchen just before the meal is ready, from the smiles and chatter of friends to the display of dishes on the table, Ramadan never fails to bring Syria to my doorstep. Then again, perhaps this is now just an idea of a place, born of longing and distance.
Muslims are frequently reminded that Ramadan should be more about fasting than festivities, a time for reflection and spirituality, but the long tables and colourful dishes are what stay with me, year after year.
The iftar table is subject to rules that must not be broken. For many, soup is mandatory. People from Damascus, however, often swap it for fatteh, a succulent dish of layered, crisp pitta, yoghurt and stew that the natives of Homs also claim as theirs. Fattoush, a glorious Levantine salad flavoured with sumac and pomegranate molasses is another must-have. A great cook once described it to me as “a party in a bowl”.
A savoury pastry, such as a cheese pie or meat-filled sambousek moves diners from the beginning of the meal to its culmination – the plat de resistance. This should be meat with a side of rice. It must also be slow-cooked, preferably in a stew, as many Syrians prefer something simmered in a sauce after several hours of fasting.
Then comes the grand finale: dessert. The culinary crescendo should end on the happiest of notes – clotted cream, pistachios and sugary orange blossom syrup.
One sometimes wonders how to reconcile Ramadan’s spiritual requirements with the very earthly nature of its celebrations. It is a month of abstinence before anything else, religious leaders strive to remind us. However, in many households, these two things are not mutually exclusive, as time for reflection and prayer follows meals with family and friends.
My own versions of Ramadan meals started when I was a student overseas, and developed as my career took me around the world. Kathmandu, Khartoum, New York, Cairo. The holy month became a festive period, during which I proudly assessed my culinary progress. As years went by, the meals became more elaborate, and I moved up the ladder of Syrian cuisine, spending more and more time researching recipes and the best places to find ingredients.
The longer I spent away from Syria, the more I found myself searching for Syrian friends to invite to my iftars, and asking them about dishes typical of their cities and villages. It took me a while to realise that in designing my dinners, I wanted to see the whole of Syria at the centre of my house.
I wanted dishes that spoke of the diversity and richness of my country, rather than of its war and chaos. I caught myself describing a scrumptious vegetarian dish as “the minorities’ kibbeh”, in reference to the Christian, Alawite and Ismaili Syrians, who excel at making these dumplings simmered in olive oil and lemon juice.
I have also always included in every meal at least one dish from Aleppo, the city my father grew up in. Cherry kebab, for instance, is a peerless concoction of meat cooked in a compote-like mix of sour cherries. The fruits come from Idlib, now synonymous with misery, destruction and ongoing humanitarian tragedy.
To the Armenians – many of whom came to Syria more than 100 years ago, in the aftermath of the Ottoman government’s genocide against them – we owe a number of outstanding flavours, such as those found in the delicate lahm b'ajeen. These soft, round beauties are often my savoury fillers, their pastry covered with a mix of minced meat and pomegranate molasses. As my father lovingly explains, the dough should be so thin that "if you hold it against the light, you can see through it".
Today I dip my pie in yoghurt and think of strolls in old Aleppo, buying food off carts on the street, and of how little Levantine cuisine has changed over the generations: no quinoa tabbouleh in my house, no vegetarian lahm b'ajeen, no agave syrup.
“This is an iftar of national unity,” I think as I take a last look at the dishes I have laid on my dining table, ready for my guests on the first day of Ramadan. If only it were that easy. I and many friends around the world would be willing to spend countless hours in the kitchen, if only we could cook that one meal with the power to bring back loved ones and magically quiet the screams of the millions still suffering.
In this festive season, images of destroyed cities and those who have disappeared cast a sad shadow over Syrian tables. As I arrange the plates, in my Cairo dining room, I send one wish out into the universe: to, one day, stand in front of a similar meal in Damascus, at my parents’ house, the call to prayer from the nearby mosques echoing across the neighbourhood.
Tamara Alrifai is a Syrian columnist and human rights advocate living in Cairo
Updated: May 28, 2019 03:38 AM