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Bath Welcomes Refugees Benefit for Syria

Last Sunday 15th January we had the honour of cooking for A Taste of Syria in Bath, a benefit dinner hosted by Bath Welcomes Refugees in aid of the charity Citizens UK. With 80 people attending the event, we naturally needed a little help, and it was such a privildge to be joined by Asmaa and Foutoon from Syria, as well as Batool Rasheed, a Jordanian chef from London who also served as translator. Also joining us was Ali Vowles from BBC Points West and her cameraman Andy to capture the occasion. The story airs on Wednesday 18th Jan 2017 at 6.30pm.

Background: Bath Welcomes Refugees

Bath Welcomes Refugees is a group of friendly volunteers who are proactive in helping refugees find sanctuary in the UK, particularly in Bath and its surrounds. There are 5 Syrian families in Bath and BWR has helped make their transition as smooth as possible, practically and socially.

BWR was founded by Bath resident Bernadette Howley who witnessed an alarming episode in Calais involving refugees and lorries. Upset and disturbed, she decided to do something The first BWR meeting was just a handful of people, but after just a couple of weeks, a roomful of people assembled and BWR was well on its way. From small beginnings BWR has grown and grown. Says Bernadette:

“People continue to gather to give of their time, energy, ideas, skills and finance to help in the ongoing crisis. The goodwill of the people of Bath is heartwarming and humbling. But most importantly, I think that the refugees that have arrived so far are finding their feet and feeling comfortable here in Bath - which is pretty remarkable given all that they have been through.”

Taste of Freedom

Joining us in the kitchen was BWR volunteer Jenny Sowerby who we know well from our benefit in 2013. Jenny Sowerby is the author of Taste of Freedom, a collection of her Mum’s Syrian recipes which is being sold to raise money to help the Syrian refugees. Since first launching in 2012, the book has raised an amazing £8000, initially for the Red Cross and more recently for Doctors of the World, a charity delivering medical aid to refugees. The book recently won the Gourmand UK Charity Cookbook of the Year, and will now compete in May with other country winners for Best in the World, at an award ceremony in China.

Cooking together for Syria

What is fantastic about cooking together is you don’t need to share a language, you can work alongside each other and learn as you go along and then have the joy of sharing and appreciating the food at the end.

Rachel shared the cooking privileges with Asmaa and Foutoon from Syria, as well as Batool Rasheed, a Jordanian chef from London who also served as translator.

The day started at 9am with the BWR volunteers lugging boxes full of vegetables up the stairs into the kitchen: 36 aubergines, 30 gem lettuce, 15 cucumbers, 60 lemons, large bunches of parsley and mint, bags of bulgar, green lentils, rice, yoghurt, olive oil and tahini.

Ali Vowles from BBC Points West and her cameraman Andy spent the morning with us capturing the event which will be broadcast on Wednesday 18th Jan at 6.30pm.

We had 5 hours to prepare M’Jaddara, Mutabal, Fattoush and Rice for 80 people.

Asmaa and Foutoon arrived with their children, two toddlers and two under 5s who happily entertained themselves rearranging the kitchen!

Batool Rasheed and the BWR volunteers Amanda Stone, Jane Middleton, Kathy Pflaum, Jenny Sowerby and BWR founder Bernie Howley washed and prepped all the vegetables with precise guidance from Asmaa and Foutoun. Together we cooked dishes that offered a representation of Syrian cuisine:

Mutabal

We started by flaming the aubergines over the gas flames. Foutoon quickly taught me that I had to be much braver and make sure the skin was charred and the flesh soft. Thirty six aubergines later, I finally got the hang of it. It was very important to cover the flamed aubergines with foil so that they would steam and the skins would peel off easily. When the aubergines were cool, Asmaa peeled the aubergines, discarding the burnt blackened skin which had given the aubergine flesh a strong smoky flavour. The aubergine flesh was wizzed up in a food processor with garlic and olive oil and then mixed with thick yoghurt and tahini and seasoned to taste (they both liked to use copious quantities of salt).

Fattoush

We learnt how to chop parsley by taking a small bunch of parsley, neatly arranged, chopping off the rough stalks, and then finely chopping the bunched leaves. The cucumbers, tomatoes and gem lettuce were all very neatly chopped and piled into different bowls, to be mixed later with a garlic, lemon juice and olive oil dressing.

Batool sliced the pitta bread into small pieces that were deep fried until crunchy and then added to the salad at the last minute.

M’Jaddara

Foutoon made the M’Jaddara with bulgar wheat rather than rice and green lentils.

First she cooked the lentils. When they were just tender, she salted them and added the rinsed bulgar and continued cooking until the bulgar had absorbed all the liquid. Whilst the lentils were cooking I deep fried onion slices in olive oil until they were dark brown, again much browner than I would have dared to go. The oil was added to the lentil and bulgar mix and the browned onions to top the dish. As soon as the M’Jaddara was cooked we all tucked into plates of it and all the children including the toddlers happily sat under the prep table with their plates of M’Jaddara.

Asmaa cooked the rice and we had to go back to her house to collect the correct Anjoman rice as we had bought basmati which wasn’t the right rice. She cooked the rice in salted water with a cup of sunflower oil to a large saucepan (she would have preferred ghee but we were making these dishes vegan). Finally we added spices, cardamom pods, star anise, cinnamon and black pepper and cooked the rice until it was perfectly cooked.

By this time we were running out of time so it was a mad dash to transport everything to Oriel Hall ready for 5pm start.

I had to sit down with a cup of tea before starting on the mega clean up. It was worth it and such a joy to work with them.'

Tune in to BBC Points West on Wednesday 18th Jan 2017 at 6.30pm to watch the full story of A Taste of Syria in Bath.

Click here to make a donation to Bath Welcomes Refugees.

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