At least 65.6 million people “have been forcibly displaced either within their own countries or across borders” based on recent figures from the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. That’s one in every 113 people in the world. Six years of fighting have forced five million people out of Syria, 6.3 million displaced internally. Their lives, their hopes and aspirations have undergone unimaginable change. This is not made easier when those in host countries see only the numbers in the media, and forget that each person was leading a life we take for granted, before circumstances threatened everything.
The Refugee Food Festival hope to change perceptions towards refugees by showcasing talented cooks, their passion for food, and encouraging communication from the kitchen to the table. Originally founded in Paris, the festival takes place around June 20, World Refugee Day. This year, ten European cities opened their kitchens to bring people together through food.
Bringing Syrian Cuisine to Amsterdam
27-year old Syrian Yamen Makzoum is fully focused as he smooths hummus around small serving bowls, his precision showing his 13 years in the kitchen.
Makzoum’s kitchen for the evening is in an intimate yet spacious room of Het Amsterdamse Proeflokaal, newly opened across from Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium. He explains and demonstrates how to make Syrian dishes to our small group of many nationalities, drawn together by our inquisitiveness and love of food. Makzoum has been preparing his ingredients and dishes since lunchtime and as we stand around a kitchen worktop he muses on Dutch hummus. “Hummus is the chickpea in Arabic, here (in the Netherlands), hummus is a dip”. Where does he stand on Avocado hummus and its hipster cousins then? “It makes no sense.”
Makzoum has lived in the Netherlands for a year and a half, and his language skills put many long-term non-dutch residents to shame. He is quietly determined and his culinary vocabulary surprises the Dutch guests.
Whilst he has worked as a sous-chef in French and Italian restaurants in Syria and Lebanon, for Makzoum, Arabic cuisine is his passion.
I like to cook Arabic food because it’s really nice, really fresh. We don’t use a lot of spices.
The reasons for us being there vary. For one, it is to discover new flavours and to be inspired by Syrian cuisine. A Lebanese woman misses the flavours both Syrian and Lebanese food have in common. One couple there know Makzoum personally and have combined their support and a birthday present for the husband.
An unexpected link between Netherlands and Syria
We begin with a beautiful table of Hummus, Tabbouleh and Fetteh, a dish of warm yoghurt, tangy tahini and soft chickpeas. Deep-fried pita bread pieces are scattered over the top. “Do you fry them in oil?” one of the guests asks.
A little bit oil, and ghee. That (ghee) is normally coming from the Netherlands. […] Arabic people, they say, ‘that is from the Netherlands, that is the best’. But here, nobody knows it!
Makzoum chuckles and the room erupts into laughter and surprise. “Dutch people don’t use ghee,” another guest remarks. It is amusing that an ingredient unheard of in Dutch Cuisine is exported into other countries as a respected, staple item.
A dish of lamb, rice and aubergine follows soon after. It is all shared out on the table, and moments of quiet ensue as we scoop helpings onto our plates.
Dessert is Halawet el Jibn, a Syrian dessert. It is made with a mozzarella and semolina dough, filled with ricotta, rose water and orange blossom. A sugar syrup is drizzled on top and decorated with pistachios. They are divinely light and Makzoum makes roll after roll, feeding everybody in the room until they are fit to burst. He then takes the remainder downstairs to share with the rest of the restaurant.
Beyond the Food
For Makzoum, this evening’s menu shows his passion and ties to his home cuisine. “I don’t like a lot of modern kitchen as they take away that history”. He tells us that although he has had professional experience cooking other cuisines, he says his relationship with Arabic food and its history is what makes it so special.
The evening was primarily a celebration of Syrian flavours, recognising Makzoum’s talents, and showing that there is more to a person than a label, refugee. However, as a result, it also brought eight relatively unknown people together to the table as guests. Breaking bread over our commonalities, when many feel divided. Regardless of our backgrounds, and opinions, food is a language we all share. Something the Refugee Food Festival highlighted perfectly.
Feature Image: Maclean