A culinary memoir of horror and hope
After three years under siege and near starvation, Tahani escaped on a bus to Damascus, where her mother waited with bowls of mloukhia (jute leaf stew) and okra stew
As I made tahini sauce for a family lunch last week, I was acutely conscious of Tahani’s story, extracted from the misery of war-torn Syria and thrust into my calm life under the rain trees of Bengaluru.
I look at the photograph of Tahani, a young woman with manicured eyebrows and wide smile, framed by a hijab. I read of her fragile health and how she—despite a newborn of her own—breast-fed the baby girl of a malnourished neighbour who could produce no milk. After three years under siege and near starvation, Tahani escaped on a bus to Damascus, where her mother waited with bowls of mloukhia (jute leaf stew) and okra stew.
I read of Ahlam from Damascus and her mad dash through a mortar and rocket attack to retrieve a chicken from her fridge. “As I was running, I thought, if anything happens to me, they’ll say, ‘Ahlam died for that chicken.’ And that’s how they’ll remember me."
I read of Mona from Hameh, who struggled to get her leukaemia-stricken five-year-old son to a hospital during shelling, watched him bleed from his mouth and nose and die before her eyes when she finally reached a doctor. She could not give her son a proper wake and serve his favourite food, stuffed zucchini, the recipe which she now makes available to the world.
It is from stories like these that the recipe for mutabal kusa—zucchini in tahini sauce—reached me, contained in Our Syria: Recipes From Home, a culinary memoir of loss and hope, gifted by our friend Daisy Rockwell, an artist and Hindi translator who lives in Vermont, US.
The cookbook pulls together recipes from Syrians, almost all refugees, who have lost children, parents or livelihoods in a war tearing apart a country that once represented the confluence of West and East.
Food is a memoir of humanity, its joys, traditions and traumas. There are other memoirs, of course—among them language and religion—but what we eat is the most memorable record of where we have come from, where we have been, things we have witnessed and experienced.
Whether written down or passed on through generations, our culinary heritage is usually taken for granted, as intrinsic as, say, wearing clothes. In other words, we may simply not know that we have something that needs preserving.
Trauma can change that, especially collective, epochal trauma. It abruptly makes people aware that their food is a memoir, which must be preserved because it may be among the few things they can carry from old lives to new. To the refugee, the first comfort is always food.
There is a genre of cookbooks born from collective trauma. These books are not easy to read. They are memoirs of not just food, but lives and families torn apart, of pain and death but also hope and defiance. The Holocaust was a particularly fertile source for such memoirs, such as In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From The Women Of Terezín, a disquieting narrative of women who survived a World War II ghetto called Terezín in Czechoslovakia, where Czech, German and Austrian Jews were confined and gradually starved. Many recipes miss ingredients and steps, a reflection of Terezín’s traumas. Recipes were scrawled on propaganda leaflets, one across a photograph of Hitler, even as the elderly wasted away, rummaging for potato skins in garbage piles.
“Born out of the abyss, it is a document that can be comprehended only at the furthest reaches of the mind," writes the book’s editor Cara de Silva. “Did setting down recipes bring comfort amid chaos and brutality? Did it bring hope for a future in which someone might prepare a meal for them again? We cannot know. But certainly the creation of such a cookbook was an act of psychological resistance, forceful testimony to the power of food to sustain us, not just physically but spiritually."
This sense of spiritual sustenance through food is evident when people lose homelands. You will find the urge for culinary self-preservation manifest in the cookbooks of Sindhi and Kashmiri Pandit refugees. In The Essential Sindhi Cookbook, Aroona Reejhsinghani says she writes “in the hope of keeping the customs and traditions of Sindh alive…(to) provide a brief glimpse of a bygone era when the people of Sindh were in the land of their birth".
Such memoirs travel swiftly these days through the global village, their stories and recipes coming alive in homes that have never endured trauma. So, I cannot but be disturbed as I prepare the tahini sauce, knowing now of the collective trauma that led to my newfound knowledge. To read of death and displacement in your newspaper or Twitter feed is vastly different from trying to recreate the culinary memories of a traumatized people.
There is, to me, something of the macabre in such an exercise, but the survivors of Syria do not appear to see it that way. Mona, the woman who lost her son to leukaemia and the lack of a hospital, shares recipes for the food he loved so she can keep her memory of him alive. Who am I to argue with that?
(zucchini in tahini sauce)
1 large zucchini, sliced into slim discs
For the tahini sauce
3 tbsp tahini (available in many stores)
2 garlic pods
Juice of K large lime
1/2 tsp sea salt
2-3 tbsp yogurt
2-3 tsp olive oil
1 tsp za’atar spice powder
2 tsp fresh mint, chopped
Fry the zucchini slices in olive oil until done. Arrange on a plate.
Make the tahini sauce: Crush garlic and sea salt using a mortar and pestle. Add to tahini with lime juice and mix well. As you mix the tahini, it will thicken. This is natural. Drizzle in water and keep stirring until it becomes smooth but not runny. Blend in the yogurt.
Pour tahini sauce over the zucchini and sprinkle with za’atar, fresh mint and pepper.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
The writer tweets at @samar11