From war-ravaged Syria, a heartening tale of food, memories and recipes

Credit: Yvonne Zusel

Credit: Yvonne Zusel

Read this cookbook: “Our Syria: Recipes from Home” by Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi (Running Press, $30)

By Wendell Brock

Tahani fled Damascus after living under siege with her baby boy for 36 months -- but not before nursing the newborn of a woman “so malnourished (or perhaps traumatized)” by war that her body could not produce milk.

At the end of Tahani’s bus journey, finally out of harm’s way, her mother greeted her with bowls of her favorite dishes: jute-leaf stew and okra stew. She was so famished she “ate like a wolf.”

Tahani’s gut-wrenching tale is one of eight that dot this essential new collection of stories and recipe from war-torn Syria, assembled by collaborators Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi.

Syria-born Azzam and Iraqi native Mousawi are theater artists, friends and passionate cooks who got the idea for their book while working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Even in the direst of circumstances, the displaced people were comforted by thoughts of tabbouleh, smoked rice, milk pudding and other foods of their homeland.

“This is possibly the country’s darkest hour,” they write, “but even now in tiny flats in Beirut, Berlin, and Bradford, Syrian families are searching out the best tomatoes and lemons, pomegranates and parsley, to recreate the dishes that remind them of home.”

Poignant yet clear-eyed, their book is a labor of love that never loses sight of its original vision: to celebrate the bright and delicious cuisine of this Middle Eastern nation, from mezze to sweets.

You don’t need to be a kitchen wizard to slice and fry zucchini slices and drizzle them with tahini sauce, or thread slender tarragon leaves through dates.

Though this volume has plenty of dishes for meat lovers (baba ganoush topped with ground lamb, chicken in turmeric yogurt), Syrian cuisine is so laden with fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and rice that it is easy to eat well and keep vegan, too.

You’ll find plenty of recipes for salads, appetizers, soups, lunches on the go (I count four kinds of wraps), hearty mains, jams, pickles, drinks and sweets.

My, how Syrians love their sweets!

I’m intrigued by carrot and coconut balls, a simple but elegant milk pudding sprinkled with pistachios and rose petals, and sweet fried pies stuff with walnuts and curd.

In the end, “Our Syria” is laced with glorious food to nourish the body and bittersweet memories to salve the soul. The ancient splendors of Syrian culture may have been decimated, but thanks to these two culinary documentarians, its foodways are being preserved.

Wendell Brock is an Atlanta food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock) .

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