Sometimes people ask me why I love to travel. By ‘people’ I mean my mother, and by ‘sometimes’ I mean while I’m in the process of stuffing my 65 litre backpack into the freezer so all the Burmese bedbugs it contains can shuffle off this mortal coil amidst tubs of ice cream and frozen peas, or while I’m approaching my eleventh hour sleeping under a foil blanket on the floor of Stansted Airport waiting to be allowed to leave because a kind gentleman on my flight home mentioned that he’d put a bomb in the hold of the aircraft and apparently the police have to look into things like this, and it takes rather a lot of time. Time that trickles onwards in slow, sluggish gulps as you try and make the gratification from a crustless white bread sandwich endure for the entire night, and become far better acquainted with the minutiae of a Ryanair boarding gate than you ever thought possible, or desirable.
To her, and anyone else who should care to ask (a word of advice: best not to bother unless you want to be regaled with multiple bedbug horror stories and a thrilling tale of a broken car radiator), I will say this. When I was young I used to spend hours completely absorbed in the computer game Age of Empires. If you aren’t familiar with this significant emblem of a noughties childhood, all I can say is that a tiny part of you is missing. You began by controlling a single loincloth-clad figure amidst a screen that is entirely black, save for a halo of around two inches around your moving avatar. As you explored the surrounding wilderness, never knowing what lay ahead, more of it began to be revealed, until eventually the entire map was available in all its marvellous technicolour detail: rivers, lakes, forests, warring tribes, berries for foraging, wild animals and all.
Every time I raze off with my thumbnail a new destination on my somewhat gimmicky ‘scratch map’, I think back to that single loinclothed figure (yes I keep bringing up the loincloth, no I don’t know what that says about me or my childhood) and his lonesome quest to fill in the map without being eaten, mobbed or starved. I also think of Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness famously toys with the notion of the ‘blank spaces’ of the imperial map, a pressing anxiety among Victorian romance writers, who feared that burgeoning imperial exploration and the growing enterprise of cartography would erase forever the possibility for daring adventures in brave new worlds. I, however, strive for the opposite: to fill in those blank spaces in my mind, to form a mental picture of places and regions that will render them more than just a name. To have some personal connection, however tentative, to the cultures and customs that colour in the skeletal outline of a country on a map. It's a strategy best accomplished through food; while I possess both a mental and a physical scratch map, I think I also carry around in my head a gigantic menu, a multicultural smorgasbord of delights from every part of the globe whose tantalising courses I cannot wait to tick off.
If I read a news story set in, for example, Tokyo, I like that I can picture the details and flesh out the prose from my own experience strolling that sprawling city through heady, matcha-fuelled summer nights. If, having travelled around Kerala last summer, I read Arundhati Roy’s bone-achingly beautiful novel The God of Small Things and its haunting description of the South Indian monsoons, I feel a frisson of recognition that wasn’t there before, which renders the words more powerful than they once were, accompanied by vivid memories of dosa breakfasts and sticky chai sipped atop misty tea plantations. If I hear about the endless maelstrom of misery and violence that is Syria, in my head it’s more than just another brick in the wall of chaos that is the generic ‘Middle East’, more than simply a place name that has become synonymous with carnage and despair.
I have two particularly vivid memories of travelling around Syria seven years ago. One sees me purchase a small charm for my silver bracelet from a tiny, white-haired man in a tiny, white-fronted shop somewhere in Damascus. As I move to leave the shop, he tentatively clears his throat. ‘Madam?’ he asks me in a husky French accent, holding out a small dish of paper-wrapped sweets with utmost care. ‘Caramel?’
The other sees me walking wide-eyed through a market in Aleppo, feasting my eyes upon the bounty of ripe figs, peaches, dates and pomegranates piled high in trays, boxes and even simply upon the pavement. I fill a basket with sun-swollen fruits and try to hand some money over to the young man working on the stall. He shakes his head, then motions for me to follow him down an alleyway to the back of the shop. Bemused, I oblige, and as we pass what is obviously the storage area for the stall, he selects a few choice figs from the stock and adds them to my basket. A group of his friends are standing around chatting, and it soon becomes clear that the only payment he demands for his fruit is that I should pose for photographs with the group, smiles and thumbs-up all around. I’m sure the figs were good, but it’s the unexpected photo shoot that I remember. My mouth hurt from smiling afterwards.
When I think too much about where that little old man, and those laughing boys, might be right now, I feel overwhelmed with the hideousness of this world we live in, with the way the trite phrase ‘civil war’ is bandied around as if such a bizarre juxtaposition could ever truly encompass the crisis of humanity that has been taking place for the last seven years while the world watches grimly on; with the endless onslaught of horror and death and the utter helplessness I can’t help but feel thinking of all the Syrians who were so unbelievably kind. There were others, too: the falafel seller who kept handing me his hot-from-the-fryer wares to taste, delighted by my murmurs of joy; the market stallholder who insisted on giving me a handful of fresh, rosy-skinned pistachios to nibble on while I browsed his shop, because it was Ramadan so nobody else was eating them anyway; the kind, kind café owner in Bosra who spoke seven languages and arranged a minibus to take us home when the tourist bus was full; the group of friends celebrating a birthday who couldn’t finish their gigantic chocolate cake at the restaurant so gave half of it to us via an elaborate system of miming.
These people may be long gone, I don’t know. They may have found peace somewhere. But there are others who haven’t, and that is why we cannot stop caring.
Cook for Syria is a London-based initiative that continues to spread worldwide, moving to Australia in the spring and the US this summer. Last winter it saw restaurants around the UK capital offering special dishes on their menus, the profits of which would go to the Unicef Relief Fund for Syria. There is a cookbook featuring Syrian-inspired recipes from top chefs and food writers (buy it; it's excellent), with money from sales also going towards the fund, and everyone is encouraged to host Cook for Syria supper clubs, where guests donate money in exchange for home-cooked Syrian fare. It’s a genius idea, evinced by the fact that it has already surpassed its fundraising target by 260%.
In April I held my own Cook for Syria supper club. I spent all weekend cooking a vast spread of Syrian dishes, many of which I remember eating in the country itself back in 2010. We devoured it all, washed down with a bottomless supply of sweet mint tea, raised £300 for the fund, and by the end of it I never wanted to see a pomegranate or bunch of mint ever again.
There was muhammara, a brick-red dip of pomegranate molasses, charred red peppers and walnuts that was a daily staple during my time in Syria all those years ago. Moutabal: a silky, smoky aubergine puree with tahini, lemon and garlic. Harak osbao: a very brown but very delicious braise of lentils, pasta and tamarind. Sesame, chilli and lemon labneh (a strained yoghurt cream cheese). Slow-cooked spiced lamb shoulder with tahini yoghurt and coriander. A giant bowl full of bulgur wheat salad with smoked almonds, pomegranate seeds, chickpeas and a garlic and lemon olive oil dressing. Za’atar flatbread to scoop it all up; they weren’t as good as the ones I remember eating hot for breakfast from a random street stall in Aleppo, but they were a fine substitute. Delicate baklava roses filled with sweet walnuts and doused in a rose petal syrup. A sticky, beautifully scented orange, pomegranate and pistachio cake. There’s a reason many Syrian dishes contain digestive-aiding mint: it’s almost impossible to stop yourself from devouring plate after plate of Syrian cuisine, and I was delighted that my guests, many of whom had never tasted food from that part of the world before, returned again and again for seconds and thirds. That, for me, is the whole point.
There are few things more joyous than sharing food with the people you love, but sending some of that love to a region in crisis is surely one of them. This post is about Cook For Syria, but I also consider its title to be an imperative. If you too want to do something to help the crisis, and you like to cook (and, since you’re reading this blog, I have a sneaky suspicion that this is you, reader), I can’t think of a better way than this. Cook. For Syria.