At the end of a street off the bottom of Leith Walk, there’s a cluster ordinary-looking Portakabins. Most are locked up, as you’d expect of a small industrial park at night. But out of one spills a welcoming light, the chatter of voices – and the spicy aroma of food being cooked. I ring the doorbell and am ushered in out of the autumn chill.
In one room dining tables are set with colourful cloths and plates and flowers in cheerfully painted vases. And in the large community kitchen Noura Selibi and chef Riyad Youssef are busy cooking. Within the hour, they’re expecting around 30 diners to join them and to eat the food that reminds them both of home. Noura, a Primary School teacher and a mother of three from Palmyra, Syria, has lived in Edinburgh for 10 months as has Riyad, a father of three, and the former chef-patron of Toschka restaurant in Damascus. Both were forced to flee with their families from the terror and violence of the ongoing Syrian civil war.
This charming and gentle pair are among the most recent of the 2000 Syrian refugees to have come to Scotland under the 2015 Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme, where the UK government agreed to take 20,000 refugees from that civil war-torn country over a five-year period, with leave to remain for five years. Scotland committed to take a minimum of 10% of that number – a target achieved by 2017, three years ahead of schedule. In fact, Scotland has taken four times more Syrian refugees than has Greater London.
It’s surely to their immense credit that Noura and Riyad are cooking at Cyrenians, the Edinburgh-based charity for the homeless and most vulnerable in Scottish society. Proceeds from tonight’s sell-out Syrian Supper Club - launched in August and only the second such event to take place in Edinburgh - will go towards supporting the Cyrenians’ work in changing lives through food.
There’s another element: what’s unique about the Edinburgh Syrian Supper is that diners - who pay £20 a head for as much as they can eat - come into the kitchen while the cooking is underway to help and to ask questions. That way, there’s a natural exchange of knowledge not only about the war, but also of the beleaguered country’s ancient food culture which is being disseminated throughout the world, via the 11m Syrians who have fled their homes since the outbreak of the war in 2011. In addition diners are helping the Syrian cooks and chefs – who earn £10 an hour for their time - to pursue careers in the food industry.
Edinburgh is lucky to have it. On the menu tonight are some typically Arabic dishes that would be recognisable to foodie followers of Yotam Ottolenghi, but which seem somewhat more familial: Maqluba, an upside down rice and vegetable dish; Hindi kebabs (using spicy beef); beetroot Moutabal (baba ganoush), yalanji (stuffed vine leaves); fattoush, little cheese and meat pies, hummus and, to finish, baklava.
They cook with ease and an obvious familiarity with their ingredients – a curious mix of Scotch beef, Marshalls semolina and La Vache Qui Rit cheese sourced from the local branch of Lidl, fresh produce from the local Tesco, and halal meat, tahini paste and pomegranate molasses sourced from the Turkish supermarket in Leith. But as they chop and stir fresh vegetables, skin fresh beetroot, whizz tahini paste with olive oil, and roll out filo pastry, it’s just possible to discern a difference in their moods.
Noura nurses her dishes with a tinge of sadness, as if in lament for the mother, brother and two sisters exiled in Qatar whom she hasn’t seen for five years. With her mother-in-law she hopes to establish a catering business and to find a Scottish publisher for her Syrian cookbook. “Cooking for 20-30 people comes naturally to me, because my mother and grandmother and I always cooked for friends and family every day in Palmyra,” she says. “Doing this reminds me of home.”
To make her pies she uses a little orange plastic hinged pie mould, brought with her from Palmyra via Turkey where she lived as a refugee for two years before being offered resettlement here. This tiny thing is a potent symbol of how food and food memories remain even through the most brutal disruption. For Nuala it’s almost a talisman that reminds her of happier times before the trauma of war and her journey here in December last year with her husband, mother-in-law, father-in-law and two young children of seven and five.
“I remember everything,” she says, using the mould to shape filled pastry into little triangles. “Nobody could forget that. The last thing that brought us out of Syria was the rocket that almost hit our apartment building. It just missed it by inches and it was very loud and terrifying.”
By contrast, there’s a tinge of defiance in Riyad as he proudly replicates the dishes he has made thousands of times back home. “Both sides use the bombs,” he chips in. “They are worse than each other. They took hold of my town and forced us out.” He stops cooking to express himself and he seems agitated. “I am angry,” he agrees. “Everything I worked for all my life was destroyed. I used to own a restaurant, and they took all that away.
“But no, I never feel homesick. I’m very happy to be staying in Scotland. I am a Scotchman.” He gives me a taste of his fluffy, silky smooth hummus, asking in a faux-Scottish accent: “It’s no’ bad, is it?” and points out that he has already learned to enjoy Scottish food as he has encountered it: “Steak pie, sausage and beans and bacon for breakfast. I like Irn Bru with rum.”
These refugees – many of whom are professionals such as teachers, lawyers and doctors as well as chefs whose lives have been fragmented yet who cannot enter full-time paid employment here until their language skills are up to scratch - are cooking informally in their adopted communities. It’s as if the traditional dishes of home are an indelible expression of self. (Continues…/)
On the other side of the country, at Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, locals are piling in to eat pastries and drink coffee in a new Syrian café and patisserie called Helmi’s which overlooks the famous bay. It’s a miserable day of wind and rain but in the course of an hour or so I count a steady stream of customers sitting in or buying take-away.
Tasnim Helmi, 24, her baker husband Mohammad and her parents Bashar and Rania are all smiles. They opened in June this year, one of 24 families to arrive in Rothesay from Syria over two years ago, after Argyll and Bute council became one of the 31 Scottish local authorities to sign up for the humanitarian programme which is funded by the Home Office in decreasing amounts over the five years as they become more integrated. In Scotland, Argyll and Bute, Clackmannanshire, Glasgow and the Western Isles have taken the largest number relative to population.
Tasnim had stop studying to become a medical laboratory assistant in Damascus after only a year because the family had to leave Syria in a hurry after their home was destroyed and people killed in the street. Her four-year-old daughter with Mohammad was born in Lebanon where they fled to before being offered resettlement here.
At Helmi’s the bright and cheerful display cabinet shimmers with freshly baked croissants, macarons, brownies, cinnamon rolls, strawberry tarts, carrot cakes, baclava, savoury quiches, sandwiches and pastries. Mohammad, who ran a bakery in Damascus for 13 years, specialises in large celebration cakes and has already been commissioned to make a wedding cake plus countless themed birthday cakes since opening – a sure sign of acceptance. I spot a children’s Unicorn cake being put into a box ready for delivery.
I ask Tasnim if the family – and its patisserie - has been well received in Rothesay. “Yes,” she replies quietly. She wears a pretty nijab of white with pink flowers - colours that match the feminine décor of the café. “Mohammad has been commissioned to make a wedding cake for a young couple, and he has made lots of birthday cakes since we opened. We see entire families coming in to eat together, or grannies with grandchildren. We have a lovely close island community here that reminds me of home. And that’s very nice.
“In Damascus, we did a feast every day – my mum cooked for the whole family and everything was made from scratch as it is here.
“Yes, food is certainly a link to home. When I taste Syrian dishes such as shawrma (chicken kebab) at my cousin’s restaurant around the corner [at Rayan’s Restaurant], it is a warm, powerful feeling.”
The Helmis’ gentle demeanour seems a typical national characteristic. It seems to me they don’t impose their own food culture; rather, they’ve adapted some of their specialities to suit local tastes – and availability of ingredients.
A long boat, usually made with Syrian filo pastry, is made here with pizza dough moulded to look the part and filled with Cheddar cheese rather than their own home-made Syrian “white cheese” - a simple version of mozzarella made from milk and rennet – and a sausage roll of pizza dough is topped with parsley and sesame seeds rather than the traditional nigella seeds.
Helmi’s popular signature lentil soup, made by Tasmin’s mother, is somewhat different from Scottish. It’s made of lentils, potato, carrot, turmeric and curry powder – and is seasoned with a dash of lemon juice and a sprinkle of parsley.
But baclava, made with pistachios and sugar syrup in filo pastry, and Layalye – a small coloured chequered square cake similar to Battenberg but using apricot jam instead of marzipan and cut into small bite-sized pieces, pictured below – are Arabic. (Continues …)
“Nothing is all that strange or different from European pastries, but a lot of customers want to try our traditional pastries,” says Tasnim.
Since there is as yet nowhere to source specialist ingredients on Bute, she uses a patisserie supplier in London, and wholesalers in Glasgow such as Foodasia at House of Sher, which has recently added a Syrian range, and Strawberry Garden.
Customer Adrienne Cochrane, from Glasgow, said the reason she came to Helmi’s was because she knew about the Rothesay refugees’ plight and was full of sympathy for them. “I was encouraged to visit because one of my friends on Bute had enthused about them and their baking,” she said. “You feel so helpless when seeing all those displaced people from afar on television. I was so sorry for their situation and wanted to help them. This is a small way of doing that.”
Meanwhile, Tasnim is tentatively putting down roots. “My daughter doesn’t know anything about Syria,” she says. “Sometimes I ask her, ‘Where are you from?’ and she answers ‘Lebanon’. She’ll never have the same feelings for Syria that we have, and that makes me both angry and sad.
“Rothesay is our home now. I could not leave it.”
Back in Edinburgh, the Syrian Supper Club customers start to arrive and soon the kitchen is full. They have come from Edinburgh, Perth and Glasgow.
“The incredible popularity of these suppers has taken us by surprise,” says Pamela Timms, Cyrenians project supporter and co-founder of the Syrian Supper Club. “They seem to strike a chord with people. I wonder if it’s because they’ve seen and read about the Syria story from afar, and feel that taking part in these events allows them to help in some way.” The third supper at the end of this month has sold out, and Timms says they could have sold three times the number of tickets.
Local resident Paul Burns arrives with a friend. He also attended the inaugural Syrian Supper Club. “I invited tons of people after the first one in August because I thought the food was really excellent – in fact the best in Edinburgh – and because of the social aspect,” he says. “There’s no other way for us to connect with Syria. Coming here gives you a real chance to offer practical help to these people who have been turfed out of their homes and cities.”
But Omar Chalan (not his real name), 25, is conflicted. He looks round the table and imagines his absent friends sitting there. “Coming here makes me miss home more. And my friends. Lots of them are still in Damascus,” he says. “Being here makes me remember the good old days when we were all eating together, and that is sad. That said, coming here and talking to people about my country and my food is better than staying at home and moping.”
Asked what he thinks about the Scottish diet, he answers: “The Syrian diet is more varied than the Scottish one. Scots kitchens are very small compared to Syrian, and dishes are very limited too. Even as a Syrian I don’t know them all the dishes, because every city has its own specialism. Aleppo is famous for Kubba, meat wrapped in potato or rice dough and deep fried or grilled. Damascus has Shika Laben, similar to a Kubba but with yoghurt.”
Does he think Scotland has its own food culture? “No, I don’t. I’ve had discussions about this with my friends. People eat individually rather than in groups. All you have is meat and potatoes, not a lot of vegetables. I’d always seek out Syrian food.
“In Scotland they don’t cook the same way as we do. There’s no slow cooking, they just eat it as it is. They don’t spend a lot of time spend on preparing and cooking.”
So if food is the great healer and comforter, it’s also a cultural conduit – which works both ways.
For more info about the Syrian Supper Club in Edinburgh, visit cyrenians.scot or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Helmi’s, 26 E Princes St, Rothesay, Isle of Bute PA20 9DL. https://helmis.business.site
[This feature was first published in The Herald Magazine, November 3, 2018.]