Last year, I travelled to Zaatari and Azraq Refugee Camps on the border of Jordan and Syria as part of my work with UNICEF. I got to meet Syrian children and their families living in those camps. About 80,000 people live in the Zaatari camp, which makes it Jordan's fourth-largest city. To meet the overwhelming number of refugees arriving into the country, a second camp, Azraq, was built in 2014.
Located 12km from the Syrian border, Zaatari Camp was established in 2012 and the camp's evolution reflects the needs of the camp's residents as well as the skills and entrepreneurship that comes from the many who live here. So much so, that Zaatari has evolved into a city-like settlement that encompasses an assortment of cafes, shops, clothing stores, markets, small restaurants and sweet stalls.
Just down from a popular bakery and two mobile phone stores is this patisserie, Al-Sham. A shop serving some of the most incredible traditional Syrian and Arabic sweets.
I met Ahmad Alamari who gave me a pastry of kadayifi and peanuts, finished with a strong honey-based syrup – it’s really lovely. Ahmad came to the camp with a different job and set of skills behind him. It was at the camp he learnt the trade of producing these trays of sweets that adorn the counters every day.
Ahmad was trained by a chef who also lived in the camp when it was established and ran this sweets shop. A few years ago, he passed away in the camp and Ahmad took over the business and put into practice all the teachings and skills he had learnt from the chef.
The counter is filled with trays of sweets and he talks me through each of the trays, many which use their staples of semolina, sugar, coconut, flour and plenty of nuts. Harissa - a semolina cake; kanafeh, a semolina dough soaked in sugar syrup, topped with pistachio; and Ahmad’s absolute favourite, the kanafeh nabkiyeh, made of ghee, fine and coarse semolina and pistachio; there is baklawa, flaky filo pastry and semolina pressed together; sfouf, a simple coconut cake; basbousa, another syrupy cake this time filled with shaved coconut and ashta (clotted) cream; and bugaj or sorrah, similar to a baklava, it's made with 14 layers of filo pastry that's rolled out and stuffed with pistachios, and covered in sugar syrup.
I think one of the incredible things is the people who live here who have come from Syria are still excited about their food. It’s a classic story of anyone who is displaced from the place they grew up. Food becomes such a strong connection back to the place that you are from, it is quite beautiful to see that even in some of the most terrible situations that human beings can find themselves in that food still provides that soul and provides that connection.
If you want to get involved, #CookForSYRIA is easier than ever in 2021 – all you need to do is invite some friends over, cook a Syrian inspired recipe, and encourage your guests to donate to UNICEF’s Syria Appeal. Find out more via cookforsyria.unicef.org.au.
An dessert rich with Middle Eastern flavours, from Greg Malouf.
In this Turkish recipe for baklava pistachios are used giving a colourful and fresh look to the finished pastry. Baklava can be a little time consuming to make with the process of layering the filo. However, every moment is worth it when you bite into these delicous sweet treats!
You might also like to watch Amal Malouf share the Syrian baklava recipe her mother taught her. Or, view our culturally diverse dessert recipes.