The border refugee camp where delicious Syrian cuisine is the subject of a new book

At Zaatari, almost every one is a foodie, says Canadian academic

A painting by a Syrian refugee of a woman baking in the Zaatari refugee camp.
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The Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan is a home for 80,000 Syrians. Not the kind of place one would expect to discover culinary delights.

Canadian information science professor Karen Fisher travelled there nine years ago to study how the inhabitants used the internet. But it was the food that made a lasting impression. She was mesmerised. “It looked beautiful,” recalls Prof Fisher.

She is now the author of a new book which details what she found. Zaatari: Culinary Traditions of the World's Largest Syrian Refugee Camp was published last month. It contains hundreds of recipes, and dozens of stories about life in Zaatari.

Over centuries, modern-day Syria's cuisine has been influenced and enriched by its proximity to Turkey and location on the old Silk Road trading route. Syria food has spread across the Arab peninsula.

Urban centric

Many Syrian recipes have been documented in cookbooks, mostly focusing on those created in Aleppo and Damascus, two of the great cities of antiquity. In Aleppo, the culinary tradition is so strong that it is said that whenever two people meet in the city, the conversation immediately turns to food.

Professor Fisher’s book, however, is based mostly on recipes from Hauran in southern Syria, the birthplace of the 2011 revolt against President Bashar Al Assad.

Zaatari’s residents mainly came from the rebel areas in Hauran that were bombed by forces loyal to the president before Jordanian authorities closed the kingdom’s borders to refugees in 2014.

Since Roman times, Hauran has been a bread basket. Merchants from Damascus acted as intermediaries, selling its grain to Najd, modern day Saudi Arabia, and other parts of the peninsula.

The main ingredients in Hauran meals include cereal. Another is goat and sheep yoghurt, which is dehydrated and dried into stones called Kethi. Although some dishes originated from other areas, Hauran added its own twist, Dr Fisher says.

Almost “everyone in Zaatari is a foodie”, says Prof Fisher, who teaches at the University of Seattle. “I had no idea how big a project this would become.”

Hummos secret

The culinary book starts with hummos, loved even by Bogey, Dr Fisher's late golden retriever. The recipe is from Abu Abdullah, renowned for selling the best hummos on Shams Elysee, the main street in the Zaatari camp.

Prof Fisher has downsized the recipe from a yield of 11 kilograms to a more manageable amount. Abu Abdullah's secret, it seems, is the sition of cold water, tahini and lemon-salt in batches to a very smooth chickpeas paste. Ice is used in the blender in between.

Abu Abdullah is from Deraa, the provincial capital of Hauran. In early 2011, schoolchildren in the city painted graffiti, inspired by the wave of Arab uprising uprisings, demanding the removal of the President Bashar Al Assad.

Their arrest and subsequent torture was one of the sparks for the revolt. The authorities used force to suppress the ensuing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hauran, and in most other parts of the country. By the end of the year the revolt had militarised, with its fighting core drawn mostly from Hauran and other rural areas.

In interviews with hundreds of camp residents for the book, very few talked about the war, Prof Fisher explains. It is too painful, too sensitive.

The main meal in the camp is ghada, or lunch, cooked usually by women, who sometimes express unhappiness to their husbands by oversalting or under-salting the food.

The refugees live in caravans, their movement and work restricted. Building is banned. Among them is Abu Yazan, a bicycle mechanic who cannot afford adequate tools and Najma, who teaches football and dreams of finishing high school. Her education was interrupted when she was forced to flee Deraa after security forces arrested her father. He has since disappeared.

Abu Mahmoud, a former Zaatari resident, says the tight dwellings and widespread poverty takes the joy out of cooking in the camp. “The kitchen traditions are being kept but it is not pleasant to live in a caravan,” he says. He managed to leave the camp a few years ago and move to Amman after being hired by an international organisation.

Bedouin dessert

The book launched last month at a reception in Amman, organised by the Canadian embassy. Women refugees cooked. Um Mamdouh, form Adam, south of Damascus, made rgagah, a pastry with pulled chicken, caramelised onion, ground cardamom, and other spices. She was with her two daughters when she arrived in Zaatari in 2013. The daughters managed to leave the camp when they married Jordanians.

On the menu was mleihi, which is Haurani spiced lamb with tangy kethi sauce over bulghur. For desert there was lezzeyyat, a Bedouin crepe with Arabic halawah, coconut and walnuts.

One of Prof Fisher’s favourites is jaib Al tajer, or pocket of the merchant. It is a thin, crispy, deep fried dough that is half open and filled with chicken and cabbage, with pine nuts and a bit of sauce. “Taste that,” says Prof Fisher. " It is incredible.”

Updated: March 11, 2024, 7:35 PM