I am only humbled to write this piece, and it's for the children like the three above pictured at Keleti Railway Station in Budapest which became a refugee camp in its own right throughout the summer.
Food is a powerful thing. It’s not just those points in the day that you look forward to most: those opportunities to escape from the office, those points where suddenly nothing else matters, those moments that inspire me most everyday. Food has the power to change lives, and not just from the basic need to fuel our bodies.
More initiatives are being created to make a difference to communities through food. Jamie Oliver has set a benchmark to show how much change can be made when inspiring people to eat differently. He’s an inspiration and I know he has a lot left in him. There are plenty more movements out there, but one recent one in particular has really hit home.
Very recent in fact. Cook For Syria was only launched in October as a fundraising initiative born from a collaboration between one of the UK’s most influential food bloggers Clerkenwell Boy, founder of SUITCASE Magazine Serena Guen, founder of one of London’s leading PR agencies Gemma Bell and Unicef’s Next Generation London initiative. The project is targeted at giving aid to more than 8 million Syrian refugees, specifically children, who have been forced to flee their war-torn country over the past years. This is particularly powerful as 50% of all Syrian refugees are children.
The initiative has some legs too. You only have to look on the Cook For Syria webpage to see the number of extremely influential chefs, cooks and restaurants participating. This month long campaign has been bought to life by some really key figures in the culinary world. José Pizarro, Angela Hartnett, Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi, Nuno Mendes and Fergus Henderson came together to create Syrian inspired recipes that they cooked themselves at a banquet held to raise money and celebrate the launch of the campaign.
Other exciting and active foodie influencers on social media (mostly Instagram) have also been making a difference. With over 653K followers on Instagram, Symmetry Breakfast was one of the 1st pages I followed and they’ve been fully involved by setting up a pop-up brunch bar at the Good Egg in London. Here they provided some stunning takes on a typical Syrian breakfast, taking a humble flatbread and pimping it out with some serious colour: a ‘violina’ pumpkin fried egg and pumpkin seed relish washed down with a date, banana and tahini smoothie. The following day the boys prepared lamb!
Even local bakeries and cafés have been taking part. Time for a shout out to one of my favourite bakeries that sits discreetly under some rail arches (what hip urban eatery doesn’t) and serves a daily changing menu. Peel & Stone is a tiny joint but Brummies flock here, following the scent of fresh bread that emits out onto the street. The guys have been providing a CookForSyria option for well over a month and a fantastic job they have done at that, donating £2 to the campaign from each dish sold. The most innovative thing I saw on their menu were tahini cookies.
Finally you have the supper clubs, and those perhaps not so famous but still crazy about food…like me! I first saw the campaign on Instagram and wanted to get involved. I was encouraged by the campaign’s suggestion for all foodies to hold their own Syrian inspired supper clubs to raise money. So that’s what I did…
This post is quite unorthodox when it comes to writing down recipes. That’s because I didn’t really follow any, but took inspiration from some of the great chefs I have followed for a while now. Instead of a specific recipe, here’s a list of ingredients and the method I used for each dish…
My starter was always going to be simple. I have never been to Syria, but wanted to take my friends to an authentic Greek taverna where starters are kept deliberately simple: bread, dips, olives and salad. In this instance I turned to my trusty Olive Bread and Bulgur Wheat salad recipes, alongside homemade hummus and tzatziki.
Syrian Inspired Chicken Thighs
I wanted to do a chicken dish because it’s a meat that is taken to a different level in the Middle East. However my inspiration here was from North Africa, specifically Morocco and from the Hairy Bikers’ most recent series ‘Chicken & Egg.’ They may make a fool out of themselves but above the entertainment these two hilarious Jordies are very good at understanding local delicacies and customs when travelling. People like them and so invite them to share authentic food experiences. In their Morocco episode Si & Dave shone light on the delicate use of spices in Moroccan tagines and educated us on the ‘dada,’ the elder Moroccan women known for their superior cooking wisdom. It’s a fantastic episode and worth a watch. You will learn a lot, be inspired and access some great recipes (including a delightful pistachio ice-cream that I’m still trying to master…without an ice-cream maker).
Cinnamon, Ginger, Tumeric, Cumin, Saffron – these were the spices that kept making an appearance. Apart from the saffron, which I used in the rice, I took the other 4 and exploited my mum’s method to create succulent, slow-cooked chicken thighs (on the bone of course). It’s a simple method but requires care. You begin by marinating the chicken in the spices and combining it with olive oil, salt and pepper. The longer the marinade time the better. Then you tightly cover your roasting tray with foil and cook the chicken skin side down for 60 - 90mins at 140°C depending on the amount of meat. After this time you remove the foil, turn each piece over and boost the temperature to 180°C. At this point cook the chicken for a further 30mins (approx.) checking it regularly and testing it until it should fall effortlessely (and mouth-wateringly) off the bone.
The beauty here is that you can prepare the marinade the night before and begin cooking the chicken a good 3 hours before your guests arrive. Once it’s cooked, switch off the oven and return the tray with the door open. The chicken can be left like this for around 30mins while you have your starter.
Persian Chelo Rice
It may seem like I’m going off course a bit with my inspirations here but stay with me. I believe the Persians are the true masters of rice. It’s a staple at almost any Iranian table and the labour put into it is extraordinary (I've never prepared it alone). Chelo is a Persian method of preparing basmati rice in a non-stick pan, and consists of two stages. The rice is first cooked on a rolling boil until al dente, then drained in a sieve before returning it back to the pan with oil to steam along with plenty of butter and saffron. One of my favourite cooks to watch and a real ambassador for Iranian cuisine, Sabrina Ghayour, summrises the cooking method well here.
The magic happens at the stage when the par-boiled rice is returned to the pan. The bottom of the pan is covered with a base layer of rice and the remaining rice is mounded on top while avoiding the sides of the pan. Then several holes are made through the mound of rice with the back of a wooden spoon to enable it to steam. Once steaming, a lid tightly wrapped in a tea towel covers the pan so no steam escapes. The heat is turned to the very lowest setting and the rice is left to cook (untouched) for 1hr.
Why so much effort? First of all this method produces a really delicate rice where each grain is refined and fluffy. Secondly it’s ideal for a dinner party because it can be prepared well in advance, and once it’s cooked, the lid remains firmly on the pan and the rice can sit off the heat for a while. Finally, this process of returning the al dente rice back to the pan involves frying a layer of rice (called the tahdig) at the base of the pan and then mounding the rest of the rice on top. This bottom layer becomes crusty and golden (most of the time) as a result and is a real crowd pleaser.
This is a basic overview of this exotic Persian rice. Once you get your head around the cooking method (and practise a few times), the diversity of rice dishes out there for you to experiment with is endless. I decided on a herby rice that I have got to love from my local Persian restaurant in Birmingham. It’s prepared in the same way, using dill and coriander in abundance on top of the saffron and a little cinnamon.
Mum's Baklava. Recipe in due course…
In the meantime I'll be perusing my Cook For Syria cookbook that arrived today. All profits from the sale of these cookbooks will be donated to the initiative, as was the time dedicated by the countless chefs and cooks who have contributed their own Syrian-inspired recipes. This Kofte Kebab from Berber & Q's chef Josh Katz will be my 1st experiment I think...