Last weekend I helped organise a local benefit dinner hosted by Bath Welcomes Refugees (BWR). Run entirely by volunteers, BWR provides practical and social support to refugee families who have settled here, and is working to enable more families from war-torn countries to come to Bath.
I first heard of BWR in the summer when I attended a fundraiser and listened to new Syrian resident Foutoun talk of her experiences. Foutoun fled her hometown of Aleppo with her family when life became too dangerous there. After a tough time in Lebanon and when her baby son became sick, they were relocated to the UK under a UN scheme. Thanks to BWR’s support and to life-saving surgery over a period of months, her son Mahmoud has now made a good recovery and the family is settling well into UK life.
For Taste of Syria in Bath, Foutoun and four other local Syrians took on the challenge of cooking their favourite dishes for 70 paying guests.
There were challenges - not least that none of our kitchens were big enough to cope with the volumes of food we would be cooking. Demuths Vegetarian Cookery School came gallantly to the rescue, lending us their beautiful kitchen and also donating all the vegetarian food ingredients.
First off, Sawsan and Mediya made two incredible puddings at my house: basbousa and kanafeh.
Basbousa is a fragrant semolina syrup cake – a classic Middle Eastern sweet treat. Kanafeh is a warm, oozing dessert of layered shredded filo pastry, cheese and cream, soaked in syrup. Utterly addictive! If the puddings sound off the scale in the sugar department, they were. As the chefs worked away in my kitchen I was sent out for another 3kg of sugar and another large tub of clotted cream. No messing.
When morning arrived we decamped to Demuths for the vegetarian dishes to be prepared. Joined by our chefs Asmaa and Foutoun plus their children, we chopped and helped while the ladies made some seriously mouthwatering food. Batool, a Jordanian Chef joined us help with cooking and interpreting.
Muttabal, as featured in Taste of Freedom, is similar to baba ghanoush - a mix of mashed aubergine, yoghurt, garlic and lemon. The big difference here is that, whereas Mum’s recipe calls for oven-roasting the aubergines, the Syrian ladies went hell for leather and chucked them straight on to the highest flame on the hob. This made for a rich smoky flavour that I’m still dreaming about now.
M’jedderah, a classic Middle Eastern dish, is a mix of lentils and bulgur wheat or, as in my mum’s version, lentils and rice. Simply cooked with olive oil, salt and pepper and topped with crispy onions, it’s a light and healthy dish that makes a tasty supper or side dish. Mum would usually serve it with a salad or pickles.
Fattoush is a zesty chopped salad with cucumbers, tomatoes and plenty of herbs. What sets this salad apart is the addition of crunchy deep-fried pitta croutons.
Finally, the shakriyyeh with rice was cooked by Rawia and was new to me. The chicken is boiled, which ensures it is very tender (this is a common cooking technique in Syria) and it is served in a gorgeous light yoghurt sauce. The rice was cooked with sunflower oil (it would usually be ghee but we wanted to keep it vegan), and plenty of spices including star anise, cardamom pods and cinnamon.
The surprise of the day were the huge mounds of stuffed vine leaves and kibbee that the women had worked overnight to make. Stuffed vine leaves are a classic Syrian appetizer that work well either as a vegetarian or meat option. In this case they were filled with rice and cooked on a bed of chicken, herbs and garlic. Simply gorgeous, and the sight of this steaming pan of goodness reminded me to make use of the jar of vine leaves that’s been sitting in my cupboard for months. The ladies’ kibbee-making skills are far superior to mine – each meatball perfectly shaped to a consistent size and stuffed with the most delicate pine nut stuffing.
The event was a huge success with positive feedback from the guests and the Syrian families, who were encouraged by the interest in the cuisine of which their nation is so rightly proud.
To donate to Bath Welcomes Refugees click here.