FOOD: #CookforSyria Experiments

Middle Eastern food has got to be my favourite cuisine. Subtle spices and sweet fruits, doughy breads and falafel, halva and labneh and moutabal…the flavours dance right off the tongue. Since visiting Jordan last year I’ve fallen in love with this style of cooking. I ate so well in the Hashemite Kingdom that I got tahini withdrawal on my return; hummus is now a permanent fixture of my fridge. I even asked for a food processor this Christmas for the sole purpose of making my own hummus. The addiction has gotten so deep that I just can’t sustain paying supermarkets prices anymore.

  Imagine my joy when I discovered that Clerkenwell Boy and SUITCASE magazine were producing a recipe book entirely dedicated to Syrian cuisine! The #CookforSyria campaign is all about spreading the love for Syrian food, whilst raising money for UNICEF’s Syria Relief Fund. To me this is a simple but brilliant idea. I think I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed by what’s going on in Syria, and feeling pretty powerless to stop the suffering. This campaign obviously isn’t going to stop the war – but it will help ease the pain of many, and might just do something here, at home. Food is such an effective mode of transcending boundaries, of meeting on a shared plane where politics can fall away and all that matters is the taste. In a country so divided over immigration, refugees, and Islam, where hate crimes are on the rise and widespread Islamophobia puts Muslim Brits particularly at risk, bridge-building is desperately needed. With cooking so central to most cultures, experiencing Syrian food might just help change attitudes towards people who are “different” by showing that we are not so distant after all.

  So, I pre-ordered the #CookforSyria recipe book. One month later, I came home to find it waiting for me on the doormat. I squealed with joy and proceeded to show my mother almost every single recipe: ooh look at this, OOH but look at THAT, mmm I love tahini…and PANCAKES! She gracefully agreed to let me cook for the family. This was a bold move, since I’m the kind of cook who whimsically skims a recipe and liberally substitutes key ingredients until fajitas become kebabs. To control potential damage, we agreed on a recipe in advance. I threw on my apron, armed myself with a spatula, and set to work.

  Fatti dajaj. This sounds a bit rude but let me explain. Dajaj means chicken; fatti means something like “a piece of bread”. Fatti dajaj, therefore, is poached chicken served with toasted pitta bread, spiced rice and a hot yoghurt sauce. Like every good Syrian dish it is served with a liberal sprinkling of pomegranate seeds and toasted nuts. Thanks to all the spices involved, Gizzi Erskine’s #CookforSyria recipe has an ingredients list that spans the entire length of the page. The recipe also involves multiple stages of poaching and frying and soaking. So not necessarily one for beginners, but absolutely one for Abi’s overambitious and whimsical mind.

  Enter Abi’s first adaptation: forget poaching a whole chicken. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Instead, I bought chicken breasts, diced them up, and browned the pieces nicely in the wok (because in my family everything is cooked in a wok, even Syrian food). Then I set it aside in a bowl of chicken stock (pre-bought because who makes their own these days) and turned to the rice.

   Now for Abi’s second interjection. Ms Erskine recommends toasting the rice first, but I’m a lazy chef. In went the rice with a second batch of shop-bought chicken stock, a cinnamon stick and a few cloves. The recipe suggested eight minutes of cooking and fifteen minutes of steaming. I cooked the rice for fifteen minutes and steamed it for approximately thirty, partly because I forgot to time it and partly because I got distracted by the next stages.

  Melt the butter or ghee…sweat the onions and garlic for fifteen minutes…add the spices…pour in the stock and simmer for twenty five minutes. Simple instructions. But not simple enough pour moi. I dolloped some olive oil into the wok (lactose intolerance disagrees with butter or ghee) and tossed the bulbs in after. Five minutes later, I added the spices (sans cumin because for the first time in twenty years we’d actually run out), tossed them about a bit, then spooned in the chicken and stock. I left the wok to simmer whilst I turned to the next task…

  The fatti part of fatti dajaj is supplied, as noted, by toasted pitta bread. Gizzi recommends soaking the pitta bread in chicken stock before toasting – but alas, she doesn’t specify how long to do so. I’d put the pitta breads in the stock before I’d even fried the onions, and now they resembled brown mush. The attempt to fry them “until crisp and golden” thus utterly failed. However, I like to think I was somewhat redeemed because stuffing-like result was bloody tasty, if I do say so myself.

  And now for the pièce de résistance: the yoghurt. I took the chicken off the heat and stirred in a full pot of Yeo Valley’s finest Greek yoghurt (well, almost full – you can’t trust my dad not to eat something if it’s in the fridge). It smelled fantastic. This was quite some comfort after my toasted pitta bread disaster. When I served it all onto plates and applied the aforementioned liberal sprinkling of pine nuts, almonds and pomegranate seeds, I was pretty pleased with myself. I conjured my family with the frazzled yell of a woman been through the hell and back, and waited patiently for the critique.

  The following impartial reviews were supplied:

“The rice was um, was um…fragrant and delicately and pleasantly flavoured. And the…mixture of pomegranate and nuts with the chicken added texture and a variety of flavours to the dish” – Emma Steadman (me mam)

“It was fantastic…the rice was fragrant and tasty, and the chicken was kind of crumbly and moist…it just disintegrated deliciously in one’s mouth” – Peter Steadman (my dad)

“It was nice” – Ben Steadman (my brother)

  So, all in all, not a bad first try! I would have posted a picture but unfortunately in all the excitement/exhaustion I completely forgot to take one. Instead, here’s a picture of the recipe, adorned unceremoniously in splatters of pomegranate juice because I’m a numpty who can’t de-seed a pomegranate properly. Pinky swear I’ll post a proper one for my next adventure in Syrian cuisine: barazek shortbread, a kind of pistachio cookie with a sesame seed topping. Wish me luck!

If you want to buy a #CookforSyria recipe book, you can order them from the campaign website. The book contains over one hundred recipes inspired by Syrian cuisine, and all proceeds go directly towards UNICEF’s work in Syria. It also contains advice on fundraising through food – a fantastic way to connect with others whilst raising money for a good cause.

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