For those of us in the Middle Eastern diaspora, food is often the strongest connection we have to where we come from. We might not truly know where that is, but the smells and flavours that remind us of our grandmother's cooking are enough to trigger a confusing yet comforting nostalgia for home, regardless of whether we are Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian, or from anywhere in that beautiful but endlessly tormented part of the world.
That food is a particularly special part of the Middle East, not just because of its incredible flavours, but also because Middle Eastern cuisine unites the region's richly diverse countries. Whilst each nation has its own cuisine, there is so much crossover between them all that Middle Eastern food is an entity in itself, and it is the most amazing amalgam of dishes. It is a kind of language in its own right, contaminated (or enriched) by the idiosyncrasies of neighbouring nations, and spoken both in and far beyond the region, in English and Arab-speaking countries, and even in Israel and Iran. If only the Middle East could achieve that kind of union in other ways.
In fact, I myself often feel more Middle Eastern than Iraqi, perhaps due to my parents' Turkish, Iranian, and Kurdish roots, but also as a result of growing up in London with friends from all over the Middle East, who, as my brother would say, are as 'equally confused' as I am. Our food, however, continues to make perfect sense.
Last month, the AMAR foundation ran a campaign called 'My Baghdad Kitchen', which encouraged people to host fundraising dinner parties to feed Iraqi families during Ramadan. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to bring some friends together and test out my own cooking skills for a good cause. I didn't want to just cook Iraqi food, but rather a range of Middle Eastern food, to remind us that what's going on at the moment is a regional problem, and that we really are better together.
Using family recipes, I put together a menu with food from all over the Middle East, including traditionally Levantine starters like Tabbouleh and Fattoush, a less known but incredibly tasty Saudi Arabian rice dish known as Kapsa (which is actually probably my favourite Middle Eastern rice dish!), as well as dishes popular all over the region, like the za'atar flatbread Mana'eesh and of course, Hommous and Babaghanouj.
With the help of my magical kitchen assistant brother, we served up traditional dishes with our own twists. My personal favourite was the Shorbat Addas (lentil soup), which I served chilled in small glasses, topped with baked Arabic bread croutons and a hint of paprika. They were the perfect way to start the meal off. Clearly all the gazpacho I ate whilst living in Madrid has had an influence on my own cooking
Of course for dessert I had to make my Almond Milk Mahalabiya, which was a light and refreshing way to end the meal. I also finally tried my hand at Baklawa, mixing the usual pistachios with pecans rather than the more common walnuts or cashews, and served them up with a cup of Iraqi Chai to keep us warm as the night got cooler.
With the great British summer time on our side, we set up in the garden for what ended up being an enjoyable, balmy, candle-lit evening. We had Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, and Jews all sitting beside each other, enjoying the familiar flavours that remind us of home, and sharing all too similar stories. Although it truly felt a world away from what the Middle East is today, it gave me a glimmer of hope for what the future could look like.
Thanks to the generosity of our guests, we managed to raise over £155 for the AMAR foundation's campaign, meaning that we could feed 6 Iraqi families for a week during Ramadan.
Although their meals would be nothing like what we enjoyed that day, by holding events like this, raising awareness, and trying to give back to a region that has given us so much, maybe one day we can be hosting supper clubs like this in Baghdad or in Damascus, where all of this incredible food was first made.