Cooking delicious and distinctive food, a daily activity for many Syrian women, is providing empowerment and stability to a small group of Syrian refugees in Cairo and opening new windows on the delights of home-cooked Syrian dishes.
This is the story of Zeit Zeitoun, a new Cairo-based catering firm offering dishes from the incredibly diverse and delicious Syrian recipe book prepared by Syrian women.
Unlike some other independent cooking companies, Zeit Zeitoun is systematic and business-oriented. This is result of an idea that came into the mind, or perhaps the heart, of Tamara Al-Rifai, a humanitarian worker currently working and living in Egypt, when she visited one of the many scattered Syrian refugee communities on the eastern suburbs of Cairo earlier this year.
“Let us establish two things: first, Syrian women, whatever their gender views, love to cook, and they cook very well; second, it is unlikely, if not impossible, that you can get two Syrians to sit and talk together without their talking about food,” Al-Rifai said with a warm smile, remembering how the idea of Zeit Zeitoun first came to her.
“So when I was there in the Al-Obour district [on the eastern outskirts of Cairo] talking to women about their survival schemes, I had this light bulb come on in my mind. Why should they not come together and be more organised in order to secure a steady source of income rather than just operate on a day-to-day basis, which is inevitably an added factor of instability for these women and their families?”
Talking to friends, mostly Egyptians who had been guests at her dinners when she worked in Cairo, Al-Rifai found there was a great deal of willingness to help. She managed to raise around LE25,000 to buy the equipment, utensils and ingredients to get the business started.
Then it was time to cook, if still not to sell. “It’s that these women cook anyway — they cook for their families here in Egypt and they have cooked for their families in Syria — and it’s true that they often cook the same dishes, but this is not enough to start a catering business,” Al-Rifai said.
“To be able to sell the food, we needed to standardise it. We all have the same basic recipes, but maybe one of us would add a bit more of a particular ingredient here while another might not,” Al-Rifai explained. At this point, Al-Rifai’s mother, also in Cairo and an impressive cook, met together with one of her friends and the three women sat down together to come up with a business model.
“We sat down together and had extended meetings to agree on detailed recipe and cooking techniques. We had to weigh, taste and perfect, because you cannot send a kilo of stuffed vine leaves out one day to one client and then send a completely different set to another the next,” Al-Rifai recalled.
For four weeks, the preparatory operations were done and redone, with meetings, remarks, debriefings and a lot of fun taking place in the process.
“There comes a point when the cooking takes over from everything else and when the dishes take you away from your status as a refugee on a trip of nostalgia into the relatively recent past that is recaptured during the cooking hours,” Al-Rifai said with a sigh.
“In the kitchen of Zeit Zeitoun we have had the Proustian experience of food dissolving the boundaries between past and present,” she added.
In his novel À la recherche du temps perdu, the French 20th-century writer Marcel Proust introduced the idea that objects and aromas are capable of intertwining the past and the present.
A madeleine cake plunged into a cup of tea could bring back the past for Proust, and for the women of Zeit Zeitoun a similar experience can be had through kibbeh, a kind of meat cooked on a tray in the oven, and kibbeh labniah, or meat cooked in a thick yoghurt sauce.
“Syrians and Egyptians are linked together. There have always been links, whether during the period of the Syrians who came to Egypt in the 19th and early 20th centuries or during the years of Egyptian-Syrian unity in the 1950s. But always, if you are a refugee, you are trying to recreate parts of your home to help you survive as well as to bring you in a steady income,” Al-Rifai said.
She is widely travelled and cooks recipes from diverse cuisines, but over recent years she has chosen only to cook Syrian food and only to use tableware brought from Syria.
“I am clinging to my home — this is what I think I have been doing, and I am sure it is the same for many Syrian women here in Egypt like elsewhere in the world, whether they are refugees or not,” she said.
Throughout her travels, on which she meets many Syrian refugees, Al-Rifai has met many women who have kept parts of Syria with them, at times through the few items they managed to bring as they left.
This is particularly the case for those who departed before the conflict got too intense to force them to flee, or, in the majority of cases, through recipes.
For Al-Rifai, it was the experience of becoming emotionally uneasy while entering a friend’s house for dinner through a garden filled with the smell of a particular jasmine tree that brought back, at first unconsciously, the good years of life in Syria before the conflict took over most of the country.
Sharing her troubled sentiments with a leading newspaper columnist, she was prompted into writing about Syria and Syrians, the smells, food, exile and nostalgia.
In one of her columns, now printed weekly in the independent daily Al-Shorouk, Al-Rifai recalls the story of a woman in a refugee camp in Germany who asked her to stay over for a dish of majadara.
“Join us for lunch — we are cooking majadara [a dish of rice and black lentils] for lunch today and we are having lots of fried onions on top,” she said. The dish was a reminder of the bygone days when Al-Rifai’s grandmother would send dishes of majadara to her parents’ house, “maybe to remind me that I hadn’t been to see her,” she added.
Of course, in exile there are many dishes that go missing from the dinner table, either because it is impossible to afford them or because the ingredients are not there. “We have dishes which require very specific spices that are available in every spice market in Syria but not always in Paris or Berlin,” Al-Rifai said.
However, the women cope, exchanging ideas on how to improvise as they connect through the Internet with long-established Syrian communities across the world and find out where to go to get particular ingredients.
This has helped Syrian men and women, in Egypt as elsewhere across the diaspora, to cook for their families and for those who enjoy Syrian food, either in their restaurant versions or in home-style dishes. It has also meant that accommodations can be made to the particular taste of each country and the availability of certain ingredients.
“There have been many success stories. You are thinking of the small restaurants in Alexandria across the Corniche, and I am thinking of a Syrian lady I met in Germany who managed to create a specific niche for Syrian food in Berlin that is otherwise subject to the very strong and established influence of Turkish cuisine,” she said.
“All this is also about preserving Syrian cuisine — part of Syrian culture — especially for the new generations of Syrians who are born in exile and who have no recollection of a past that is now gone.
"But it is also about introducing real home-cooked dishes from Syrian cuisine, not at all about grilled meat and chicken, which are different from typical home-cooked dishes from Lebanese cuisine or other countries of the Mashreq like Iraq or Jordan, despite some unavoidable overlap,” she added.
She says that a great deal of that success that has been achieved by the operations of Zeit Zeitoun, which produces home-cooked food from fresh ingredients under impeccable hygienic conditions and is promptly delivered and properly priced.
“The pricing issue was crucial because I wanted the women to get an adequate profit to secure a reasonable income, but equally I wanted to avoid any over-pricing, even if unintentional,” Al-Rifai said.
Zeit Zeitoun is a name that met Al-Rifai’s aim of being easy to pronounce. The logo was designed by an Egyptian friend who volunteered to set up the website of the new catering service. At first, they focused on 10 items for appetisers and 10 items for main dishes.
“We wanted to do them really well and make sure that they were well received by the many Egyptians who like Syrian food,” Al-Rifai explained.
After Ramadan, during which Zeit Zeitoun is continuing its success, a few more savoury items will be introduced to the menu, also from Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, like the current ones. Desserts might follow.
“This project would not have been possible without funding from friends, recipes from two mothers, and communications support from a professional PR company, all of whom worked pro bono,” Al-Rifai emphasised.
She concludes that at the end of the day Zeit Zeitoun is a “refugee’s kitchen and is about the need to keep going until the day may or may not come when that refugee can go back to her own house and her own kitchen.”
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly , 16 June 2016