18th March 2017 Chloe Morris

POP UP REVIEW II We tried Syria’s favourite dishes with a refugee in London

by Chloé Morris and Daniel Breger for gastroINSIDER

It was a night of contrasts; of joy and pain, war and love, indulgence and sacrifice, new lives and the ones left behind. And baklava. It was undisputedly a night of baklava.

In a bare-bricked loft somewhere off the backstreets of Bethnal Green, we gorged ourselves on overflowing plates of incredible Middle-Eastern food.  At the centre of it all, Imad Alanab – a Syrian chef who was forced to flee his homeland and yet manages to wear an eternal smile; far from the country he loves but somehow transported back there, hunched over a stove, enveloped in a haze of familiar smoke and smells.  This is Imad’s Kitchen, this is – for that moment at least – home.

We ate family style, squeezed together, knees touching, elbows knocking, but nobody minded; it only made it easier to reach across for dishes that would otherwise have been out of our grasp. We started with a festival of meze dishes – the obligatoryhumous, falafel and pita bread; tabouleh; a smoky aubergine moutabal; and a crisp fattoush salad (a mixture of tomatoes, onion and cucumber punctuated with pomegranate pearls and thin shards of fried bread). The real star here though was the stuffed vine leaves – soaked and spiced grape leaves wrapped around balls of rice. They were soft, sticky, bittersweet and delicious.

Before we began the meal Imad welcomed us, urging us to “eat, eat, eat and enjoy!” We clamoured to hear more of his story – how had he arrived at this place? What did he feel? What had he seen? How could we help? – however, Imad clearly wanted to keep this, his opening night, an occasion of happiness and celebration. But as with so many refugees – Syrian and others the world over – there is no escaping the terrible sadness of their stories. Thankfully, there is often also hope. In Imad’s case, the restaurants and juice bars he owned in Damascus were destroyed in the country’s civil war. He fled and, after a journey that took him through Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and France, arrived in London in October 2015, eventually bringing over his young family, including three daughters aged six, 10 and 13. He sought refugee status and became an advisor to Unicef campaign #CookForSyria and now hopes that this pop-up (supported by NextGen, AppearHere, Hampstead Kitchen, Cook For Syria, Kasimira Party Organisers) will allow him to rebuild his business in the UK

Judging by the empty plates, it won’t take him long to achieve that goal. We wolfed down the starters and licked our lips as platefuls of kebab hindi (Syrian meatball stew), kabsa (gently spiced chicken with cardoman, rice, and crispy onions) andtabakh roho (vegetable and tamarind stew) wafted under our noses, onto the table, and into our bellies.

We were full to bursting. Sated, satisfied and blissfully happy. Not a morsel more could pass our lips. And then the baklava arrived. From the outside, the syrup-soaked parcels looked like all the other baklava we had seen before. Sugary and inviting sure, but nothing to suggest that eating them would be a transcendent experience; with pastry that melted on the tongue, leaving nothing but rosewater flecked upon our lips. Put simply, they were happiness manifested as baked goods. Go, eat them. Now. Your mouth will thank you. And so will Imad.

(Photos: Cook for Syria)