The Syrian Kitchen: A refugee food business based on quality not empathy
The Syrian Kitchen - Photograph: Basma Fathy

At Zeit Zatoun, Cairo’s Syrian kitchen, where seven refugee women work, the phone was ringing off the hook throughout Ramadan.

Lina Kassah, who oversees the kitchen, says things have been incredibly busy during Ramadan, which was also the kitchen’s first operational month. But, despite the stress, Kassah seems pleased. “Al-hamdullilah, the kitchen has been growing and growing well,” she says, explaining that the hardest part has been getting orders to far out places.

The business is an intimate enterprise for its founder Tamara al-Rifai, who left Damascus, where she grew up after graduating from high school. The dishes cooked in the kitchen are variations of her family’s recipes. Rifai learned to cook from her grandmothers — one in Damascus and one in Aleppo.

Sheesh Barak from The Syrian Kitchen

Sheesh Barak from The Syrian Kitchen

The Syrian Kitchen

A communications and advocacy specialist, with over 15 years experience working with international humanitarian and human rights organizations, Rifai came up with the idea of founding Zeit Zatoun after meeting with women at an Obour refugee center. Knowing that the second largest Syrian refugee community in Cairo was in Obour, Rifai went to the east Cairo district because she felt it was getting less attention than 6th of October City, the other Cairo neighborhood where most Syrians live. In addition to the offices of a number of refugee organizations in 6th of October City, such as the UNHCR, there are community centers that offer literacy classes and job training for refugees.

Rifai started talking to women at the community center about their situations, about how many kids they have, and why they came to the center. Most of them have the same story — they were uprooted, and now live in a new community, with an uncertain future and an uncertain legal status, even though most people have a UNHCR refugee card. The UNHCR grants refugee status to many Syrians in Egypt, but this does not guarantee either a residency permit or the legal right to work in the country.

Rifai asked the women at the center whether any of them could cook, a question that did not earn her any friends, she quips. “You don’t ask a Syrian woman if she knows how to cook. That doesn’t mean they all know how to cook, but it’s just a question you don’t ask, because it’s assumed.”

She suggested the idea of a catering service, a kitchen where they could cook professional standard meals for delivery. Rifai says everyone at the refugee center expressed immediate interest.

Building a business not a charity

Rifai worked with Kassah to select the women to join the kitchen. Kassah made the initial selections, as she knew most of the women as regular visitors to the center. They were looking for people who liked to cook and were committed to being employed. They also prioritized women running households with no regular income and mothers who had no other support.

From the start, the vision behind Zeit Zatoun was that it would be a business not a charity. It would be a business that generated income for refugee women, but one that depended for its sustainability on the quality of its product, rather than empathy.

Kibbeh from the Syrian Kitchen

Kibbeh from the Syrian Kitchen

Rifai started with some help: a Syrian friend who owns a public relations company designed the logo and Facebook page, initial funds for produce and kitchen appliances were raised among friends, and her mother and friends offered help with training.

Since the launch, Rifai says Zeit Zatoun has pretty much been breaking even. The business relies for the most part on word of mouth and a strong social media presence.

“I already have a network in place that trusts my judgment on food. People know I am a foodie, so if I recommend a place, they trust I have tested it and liked it. I think we should never underestimate the power of social networking in promoting an initiative,” says Rifai.

As the profit margin is currently low, it is mostly used for paying the salaries of the women, buying ingredients and covering some delivery costs. When the business starts to be more profitable, Rifai is planning to expand, which will also give the women working in the kitchen some much needed time off.

One of the difficulties they face is also one of the kitchen’s strengths: often, Rifai says, it feels like the women are working together as they would before a large Eid gathering or wedding.

“The number of stories that come out in the kitchen during our work is incredible,” she recounts. “Every single person in Syria is affected by the conflict in a different way. Every single person standing there has a hundred stories to tell about themselves, about their partners, about their children, about the people who stayed behind and the people who came with them.”

“There is a community feel in that kitchen, which makes it very sentimental,” she adds.

But this community feel also makes it hard to transition to being a business. “There is always the need to go back to discipline and to say, ‘let’s stop talking about this and see if we can make the two kilos of kibbeh that we are required to today’.”

“There is really a community of family and friends together, and there is also the professional,” Rifai explains. “I think this is the crux of this project — it is a business project, but there is also space to support each other and work as a community.”

Deciding on recipes

Maqlouba from the Syrian Kitchen - Courtesy: Mona Nabki

The recipes used come from Rifai’s mother and her mother’s friend, who work in the kitchen, overseeing much of the work and making sure the recipes are consistent.

“The reason I insist on set recipes, and really it’s not a cliché, is that you put a group of Syrian women together and everyone wants to do it her way, and each one is convinced that her recipe is the best and nobody will budge,” she says.

In order to accommodate this, Rifai’s mother and her friend came with a list of dishes they had agreed with Rifai would go on the menu and then took a few weeks to balance this with input from others in the kitchen. It took several attempts to agree on the recipes to follow.

At this point the menu remains somewhat limited, but Rifai says she wants to add new dishes every season, including more vegetarian options and pastries. “We wanted to start with a basic but representative menu, with a limited number of items, but all rich in flavor,” she explains.

Rifai says the most popular items on the menu are usually finger foods — pastries and fried kibbeh. She also singles out the Ouzi, a spiced meat and rice pastry, as being particularly unique, describing it as “a special dish that is so dainty and presentable that it totally disarms people.”

The food is well presented, which is important to Rifai. She explains that part of what makes Syrian food so special is its look: “Syrian food is a varied cuisine. It is very colorful. It is a very happy cuisine — you look at a Syrian table and you see so many colors and so many dishes. People from the generation of my grandmother were very strict about the way their food looked. There had to be a touch of red, a touch of green and a touch of white.”

Rifai’s thoughts and tips on cooking Syrian food

Rifai shared some of her tips on cooking Syrian food and her thoughts on what distinguishes Syrian cuisine with Mada Masr:

  • Perhaps the most common aspects of Levantine cuisine overseas is the broad variety of its appetizers (mezze) — a collection of small dishes of various colors and ingredients that people share, such as tabbouleh, hummus and mutabbal or baba ghanouj. Fresh ingredients — yoghurt, tahina (sesame paste), olive oil and pomegranate molasses (debs rumman) are all staple items for this type of food.
Tabbouleh from The Syrian Kitchen

Tabbouleh from The Syrian Kitchen

  • Cooked main dishes are also very varied, but most commonly known are the different types of kibbeh, which are fried (meatball style), or flat, or even cooked in yoghurt (kibbeh labaniyeh).

Kibbeh from the Syrian Kitchen

  • The use of yoghurt in several savory dishes is very special in Syria, and is a feature not commonly seen in Egypt. Simmering kibbeh in yogurt, or meat in yoghurt (a dish called shakrieh), or even stuffed zucchini in yogurt (a dish called sheikh al-mahshy) is very Syrian/Levantine, and sometimes requires an adjustment for Egyptian palettes, Rifai says.
  • Spices are very special in every Syrian kitchen, with a deliberate focus not to make any of them overpowering, but rather to have a balanced mix of freshly ground spices that Syrians generally buy at the spice bazaar, not in jars from supermarkets. A basic collection includes black pepper, white pepper, dried coriander, cloves, nutmeg and sometimes cinnamon.
  • I cannot emphasize enough the importance of pomegranate molasses in most dishes that contain tomatoes or tomato sauce/paste, Rifai comments.
  • Tamarind is often added to give a sour twist. A spoonful of sugar balances the sourness with a tad of sweetness, something that is also very Syrian.

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