Megan Abbott

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT #COOKFORSYRIA

Megan Abbott
EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT #COOKFORSYRIA

New flavours are set to hit the London restaurant scene this month with the launch of #CookForSyria, a charity initiative hosted by Clerkenwell Boy, Gemma Bell PR and SUITCASE Magazine in aid of the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. With support from Jamie Oliver, restaurants across the capital and beyond are backing the initiative by dedicating a dish on their menu to the cause, with £2 per plate sold donated to Children of Syria fund which is powered by Unicef’s Next Generation.

The month-long fundraiser will kick off with a dinner at 180 Strand curated by some of the world’s top chefs, including: Angela Hartnett, Yotam Ottolenghi, Fergus Henderson, Sami Tamimi, Nuno Mendes and José Pizarro. Each chef will put a Syrian spin one of their signature recipes, which could be Syrian steak tartare or a traditional English dish mopped up with Syrian flatbread. The initiative will also encourage supporters to host their own #CookForSyria supper clubs at home, with helpful tips from the chefs involved.

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

In the late 90s, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi met working as pastry chefs at west London deli Baker & Spice. Both had grown up in Jerusalem – Ottolenghi on the Jewish side and Tamini on the Palestinian side – moving to Tel Aviv at similar ages before heading to the UK to pursue a career in food. So began a culinary partnership which led to the launch of their first deli, Ottolenghi, which opened in Notting Hill in 2002. Londoners flocked in droves to pile their plates with vibrant salads, citrusy greens, glossy aubergine, exotic grains and nutty cakes. Three delis followed, with their Middle Eastern and Mediterranean-inspired recipes sparking a food revolution across Britain. The pair have written two cookbooks; Ottolenghi: The Cookbook explores the endless possibilities of vegetarian cooking while Jerusalem sees them explore their hometown’s multifaceted culture through food.

What made you want to get involved with #CookForSyria?

It’s the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Doing what we can do to raise money and awareness is quite literally the least we can do.

What have you learned about Syrian cuisine? How would you describe the core flavours of Syrian cooking?

This is the food which bookends everything we do. The food of Syria is similar to the food of Palestine and Lebanon – the food we grew up with. There are regional variations, of course, but this food forms a great part of our cooking. Smooth hummus topped with lamb or our favourite, muhammara, a paste of red peppers and chopped walnuts, spiced with Aleppo chilli. There’s also Aubergine purée, one-pot dishes spiced with cumin, cinnamon and allspice, rice or wheat dishes sprinkled with pistachios or mixed through with caramelised onions and lentils. These are the dishes which we eat when we want comfort and the sort of dishes we’ll be making to generate funds to hopefully provide comfort to those in great need.

Which dish on your menu are you cooking for Syria and why?

We’re cooking muhammara, a classic Levantine dip which you can eat by the spoonful it’s so good. Scoop it up with pitta or it’s the perfect addition to a full table full of food. We’re also cooking a dish called harak osbao which directly translates to mean ‘he burnt his finger’ – a reference to it being so irresistible you can’t help but get stuck in. It’s a mix of lentils and pasta with lots of flavour injected in with the tamarind water, chicken stock and pomegranate molasses in which it’s cooked. Fresh herbs, sharp sumac, refreshing pomegranate seeds – it’s beautiful comfort-food fit for a feast.

Understanding a culture’s cuisine brings us closer to it, sharing the beauty and history of a place through its flavours. Backed by some of the nation’s greatest culinary talent, every dish will offer celebration, conversation and a chance to taste the food of a country currently stricken by conflict but with a rich cultural past and, hopefully, future.

What have the flavours of Syrian cuisine brought to this dish?

Aleppo chilli and ground cumin in the muhammara, the pomegranate molasses in the harak osbao. The lentils and fresh herbs: these are all classic Syrian flavours.

Do you have any tips for recreating this recipe?

Make sure the oven is as hot as you need it to be for to roast the peppers because you want their skin to be black and charred before they get peeled. The dip can be prepared a day or so in advance, as the flavours actually improve over night. Serve at room temperature rather than fridge-cold.

For the harak osbao, seek out a block of tamarind rather than starting with a ready-made paste. This makes a world of difference as the flavour is so intense without any of the acidity which can occur.

What advice would you have for someone throwing a Syrian supper club at home?

The more dishes you can fit on your table, the better! A Syrian meal should be a feast, the table heaving under plates people can pass around and share. A lot of the dishes are great at room temperature which means you can prepare a lot in advance. The muhammara is even better the day after it is made which helps: just don’t serve it fridge-cold. Make sure there’s lots of soft pitta to scoop everything up and some homemade mint lemonade to raise in a glass. For pudding, follow a little set-milk pudding with some squares of sweet baklava, eaten with either a short black coffee or some mint tea.

Fergus Henderson

Fergus Henderson opened St John Bread & Wine near Smithfield, London’s biggest meat market, 22 years ago. Housed within a former bacon smokehouse, it is fitting that this whitewashed restaurant champions nose-to-tail dining which sees a daily-changing menu of kid liver, offal and tripe alongside a hearty wine list. There are now three locations around the city and the St John has become synonymous with carefully executed comfort food like bone marrow or potted has, as well as those legendary doughnuts from their own bakery. Henderson is one of the world’s most iconic food figures and is often cited as a source of inspiration by his culinary peers.

What made you want to get involved in #CookForSyria?

I have been deeply moved by the plight of the Syrian people. Being part of this initiative, along with so many other brilliant chefs, is an honour. And if our humble bread can help this unhappy situation in any way, I will be happy.

What have you learned about Syrian cuisine?

Having just come back from Israel, I was struck by the commonality of the cuisine – Arabic, Israeli, Lebanese and Turkish. The power of the table brings everyone together.

How would you describe the core flavours of Syrian cooking?

The sharpness of labneh, the crispness of tabbouleh, the richness of the shawarma, the embrace of hummus… Such contrasts of flavour, all extreme in their own way and wonderful when combined.

Which dish on your menu are you cooking for Syria and why?

Syrian onion bread with roast bone marrow and parsley salad. Roast bone marrow has always been on the menu at St John, so it is symbolic of our desire to feed people. Instead of our usual toasted sourdough, the onion bread comes in happy rounds to share around the table.  The humble act of breaking bread is such a strong thing – it seemed appropriate for this occasion.

What have the flavours of Syrian cuisine brought to this dish?

The bone marrow is a nod to shawarma, the parsley a nod to tabbouleh and the sumac in the salt gives a subliminal citrus undertone.

Do you have any tips for recreating this recipe?

Be relaxed – a happy chef makes for a happy meal. Be fluid with your dough, imagine that you are massaging tired limbs. Therapeutic for all involved. And, it’s liberty hall once at the table.

What advice would you have for someone throwing a Syrian supper club at home?

Give me your address, I’ll be round with a bottle of wine at 7.30PM.