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MENAFN - Jordan Times - 10/09/2012

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Syrian refugee Mohammed chars eggplants on top of a makeshift clay oven at the Zaatari Refugee Camp on Saturday (Photo by Taylor Luck)
(MENAFN - Jordan Times) Carefully feeding cardboard strips into the mouth of his makeshift earthen oven, 12-year-old Mohammed kindled much more than the fire to prepare his family's dinner.

The Daraa youngster is one of thousands of Syrians in Jordan, who despite having lost friends, relatives and homes, refuse to give up a cultural tradition that has cemented into a form of culinary therapy.

"Whether times are good or bad, at weddings or at funerals, Syrians are all united by one thing," Mohammed said as he carefully rotated slightly charred eggplants resting on top of the clay-moulded oven outside his tent in the Zaatari Refugee Camp.

"We cook."

Long renowned as the culinary artisans of the Levant, Syrians are famous for delicate flavours and sumptuous sweets that have taken the Arab world by storm and become a source of national pride.

Facing a life in refuge, thousands of Syrians are now turning to their culinary roots in an act of gastronomic defiance of the ongoing violence that has turned their lives upside down.

"Bashar [Assad] can bomb our homes, imprison our children and kill our families," said Abu Hassan as he strained a stream of liquorice root sous (juice) through a T-shirt turned sieve.

"But he can never take away our passion for food."

Faced with limited funds, no supplies and unable to leave the desert campsite, the army of defiant Syrian chefs resorts to improvisations that would make any budget-conscious culinary connoisseur envious.

Hand-moulded clay and mud mounds serve as ovens, and recycled food cartons as firewood, while daily yoghurt rations are transformed into a wide array of dairy products.

Zaatari residents have even concocted a way to slightly ferment the juice that accompanies their daily food rations into a syrupy molasses, a staple ingredient of several Syrian dishes.

"With a bit of imagination and some hard work, an alternative ingredient is never too far away," said Abu Hussein.

Despite their ingenuity and enthusiasm, Zaatari's amateur chefs admit they face a daily battle serving up even the simplest side dish: The limited produce that is allowed to enter the camp is sold at twice the market rate and residents spend hours scrounging for firewood and cardboard.

Even staples such as sugar, flour and tea have become luxury items, with the limited quantities that find their way into the camp sold by entrepreneurial residents at nearly JD10 per kilo.

"You never really appreciate something as simple as sugar or tea until it's gone," lamented Um Mohammed, a 42-year-old Daraa resident, as she tended to a brewing pot of thyme.

For Syrian culinary artists, help is on the way.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) finalised an agreement with a German firm on Saturday to introduce dozens of "communal kitchens" to the Zaatari camp and enable Syrian families to finally serve up their favourite dishes.

In a bid to encourage self-sufficiency, relief officials said the move is designed to move away from the stereotypical pre-packaged food handouts and provide Syrians with fresh ingredients directly.

"Really this is a chance to bring back some normalcy to the lives of people who have been torn away from everything they know," UNHCR Representative in Jordan Andrew Harper told The Jordan Times.

Regardless of the facilities or ingredients, Syrian refugees vowed to continue their gastronomic defiance, serving up whatever they can muster with an eye on one particular final course.

"Whether we are serving bread and tomatoes or kibbeh nayeh (minced meat tartar), every meal we have in this camp is only an appetizer leading up to one final meal," said Mohammed as he served his father a plate of fresh Aleppine mutabbal (eggplant dip).

"The feast of our liberation."


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