For author Anas Atassi, the fruity red spice is the starting point (along with Aleppo pepper and za’atar) to his mother’s recipes and a fuller picture of Syria’s underreported food culture.
Anas Atassi didn’t set out to be a cookbook writer, but his Syrian heritage made the feat an inevitable part of his life. The Amsterdam-based engineer-by-training is an equally talented home cook and storyteller, and his first cookbook, Sumac: Recipes and Stories from Syria, named for the bold red Syrian spice, illuminates these gifts.
Though Atassi hasn’t traveled to Syria in more than ten years, memories of eating eggplant jam with his sister, spooning rich soups during Ramadan, and the smells of khebzeh harra (flatbread with spicy tomato sauce) cooked at local street stalls permeate his mind as well as his kitchen. When he started university in Europe, he missed the flavors and spices of his culture, like Aleppo pepper, za’atar, and, yes—sumac. He began preparing his instructive mother’s recipes, swapping photos and comments with her. Soon enough, Atassi became a skilled cook and more deeply connected to his culture. As he navigated being a Syrian cook in his newfound home in Amsterdam, he decided that he wanted to share this connection with the world.
Part of that desire was to show the world a side of Syria they hadn’t seen before. An ongoing civil war has forced 6.6 million Syrians to seek refuge in other countries, and recent images of destruction, grief, and terror tend to overshadow the vast history and culture of Syria and its people. “We’re such a generous people, with so much culture and history, but you don’t see that story on television,” Atassi tells me over WhatsApp. “I wanted to tell the story I know through this cookbook, and through the flavors of the cuisine.”
Though Atassi was born in Homs, Syria, his parents’ work took his immediate family to Saudi Arabia when he was a child. Still, Syria was home, and Atassi grew up spending summers in the country with family and loved ones. Atassi has lived in many places since—Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Amsterdam, to name a few. Yet Syrian food has been a constant in his life. As is the case for many Syrian families, the women-only dinners and robust breakfasts he describes in his book are pieces of the past. Atassi lives on his own in the Netherlands, and his family is dispersed around the world. Atassi and I connected by WhatsApp, discussing everything from the essential ingredients that can make most any dish a Syrian meal, to how cooking can reshape painful narratives of a nation that has a storied history and culture, predating incessant war and turmoil.
What motivated you to write this cookbook?
I am by no means somebody who was a trained chef, but I love food and cooking, and I especially like Syrian food. I became more conscious of that fact when I left my family house and moved out for my studies and basically started really missing the good food of my mom. This is when I started learning using Skype and began sending pictures through WhatsApp to my mom in order to learn more about cooking and recipes.
Of course, my mom, my auntie, and my grandmother contributed to this. And I think, at a certain point, during my work, I was speaking with my colleague next to me (she’s Italian), and we would speak about food, I think, half of the time, and the other half is only about work, and that’s when I realized, “Okay, I need to do something about it.” And I decided to do a cookbook, but I really wanted to do not just a cookbook. There are so many stories and history and people connected to those recipes that I wanted to make sure those stories resonate and are surfaced for others. The intention was really to share the recipes and the stories of my family, but also the stories that are both my story and stories Syrians can also relate to.
Can you describe “nafas,” a component that you state is essential to Syrian cooking? Why is it so important, and what does it mean to the cuisine?
“Nafas” is really the ultimate recognition or compliment you can give to a Syrian cook. I remember, whenever we’d visit friends for dinner with my mom, we would get back home, and my mom would say, “This lady, she really has nafas.” Which meant, she has the right way of mixing ingredients and bringing the best of the simple ingredients to make it very special. And that’s the essence of cooking: mixing the spices and having the right timing and the right ingredients. I think nafas is definitely something that is essential to Syrian cooking.
“Nafas” is really the ultimate recognition or compliment you can give to a Syrian cook.
Sumac is the second essential ingredient you list. What are some dishes in the book that you think showcase the importance of sumac really well?
If I would choose one dish, it would be the chicken wrap [page 202 of Sumac], which is called “Musakhan wraps.” It’s actually originally Palestinian, and Syrians have adopted this dish and made a small twist to it. “Musakhan” is originally Palestinian, where they put a loaf of bread with a lot of onion and sumac and roasted chicken. Syrians kind of adapted this dish. We loved the Palestinian Musakhan, so we made a wrap using flatbread, and with the same ingredients, toasted it on a hot frying pan. Because there are very limited ingredients to it—basically chicken, sumac, and onions—it really brings in the taste and the beauty of sumac. It’s very prominent, yet so simple, and really delicious.
What should home cooks know about sourcing sumac?
Usually Turkish or Middle Eastern shops have sumac, as well as many of the ingredients that are common in the cookbook, like pomegranate molasses or tahini, which are another two essential ingredients if you want to have a Syrian meal.
You mentioned a desire to return to the flavors of your homeland. How did cooking Syrian food as an adult allow you to do that?
For me, I grew up outside of Syria. But I was lucky enough to be able to return for three months every year during the summer for holiday in Syria. It’s only when the war started in 2011—the ten-year anniversary of the Syrian crisis is actually this month—that I stopped.
You mentioned that you’re an engineer, not a classically trained chef yet—though I wouldn’t know that from reading your book. It’s just so stunning! And there are these intricate recipes that are so thoughtfully crafted. So, for someone who’s new to Syrian cooking, how can they become more comfortable with using new flavors, new tools, and a different approach to cooking?
I would start with having the really main, simple ingredients. I think those simple ingredients are essential seasonings that would make any of your dishes Syrian. It would make a burger Syrian! For example, these include sumac, seven spice blend powder, pomegranate molasses, and tahini. Those are the main ingredients that can transform Syrian cooking and turn a dish into a Syrian dish. I do have recipes, and I do have measurements, but I tell readers: Don’t just trust my measurements; you do it to your own taste, you do it to your own liking. Syrian cooking is all about putting some, tasting a little bit, putting some more, tasting, tasting again. It’s all about putting your own preference and flavors into it.
Syrian cuisine is ancient, yet it has been adapted across time, region, and family. Are there adaptations specific to your family that show up in this cookbook?
I think one of the things about my family is that we like things to be very simple and subtle. So, if you have a dish, don’t overdo it; that’s from my mom and my dad. And I also like this. To a certain extent, I like to go to all extremes sometimes, but having it simple and subtle, by trying to make sure that the main ingredient’s taste, for example, is really more prominent. It gives the right integrity to the main ingredient of the dish, rather than overflowing it with so much spice and so much flavor around it. So that’s Damascus, for example. Damascus is very known for its simple and subtle tastes. But other regions within Syria—like Aleppo is very famous for their more adventurous types of flavors, especially since it was on the Silk Route. It has adopted many flavors coming from China all the way into Aleppo; it’s adopted a lot of flavors from around the world, making it a more adventurous and spicy cuisine.
Cuisines across the Middle East are often conflated with one another. What are some characteristics that make Syrian cuisine different that those of its neighbors?
It depends really on where you are in Syria, because Syrian cuisine by itself is also very regional. For example, the area around the region of Syria that is neighboring Iraq is very much influenced by the Iraqi people, and then Iraq is also very much influenced by the Syrians. So it gives a very special type of blending of two cultures within a small area between Iraq and in Syria. And the same goes between, for example, Turkey and Syria, neighboring Aleppo, where they have also quite a really special blend of food culture and flavors. Cities along the Mediterranean are very much by the sea and by Cyprus and have that very simple, subtle taste. So it’s really depending on the region. I would say that there is no one Syrian cuisine only, or Lebanese cuisine, the way we know it. There’s so much influence within all of those countries that makes it really its own, depending where you are in the region, but also depending on which family you’re coming from.
Were there any especially memorable moments during the book writing process?
For me, it was really interesting, the engagement that I had from my mom and from my sisters and from my auntie and from my grandmother. They were so engaged and so fascinated that I was doing this project, and they wanted to contribute in any way—whether giving a recipe comments or criticizing, whatever it is, or even bringing me some of my grandmother’s cutlery and plates from Syria to Amsterdam to feature them in the book. Also, with my grandmother and my aunties, they chipped in and brought some of the most beautiful gifts for the photos, like a tablecloth that is very typical to Syria called Al-Aghabani. They brought it so I could feature that in the book.
Your book represents a Syria that isn’t defined by the dark hands of war and despair. Why is that representation important for readers?
I think that this is one of the most important messages of the book. I hope that it shows the different perspective of Syria, different from the one that we hear all the time from the news. I hope it really shows the generosity of Syrian food and the rich food culture, the food culture that we grew up with at all the celebrations. Even at funerals, you were surrounded with food always. In addition, all of this is about the rich, kind people. Unfortunately, the news only shows the negative, and I think that the kind people of Syria deserve a better narrative. And by this, I really hope that we kind of control and switch the narrative to the other, and more to what people in Syria relate to.
Your cookbook weaves stories of past, present, and an uncertain future in Syrian culture. What do you want readers to take from that approach?
After looking into the book, and reading the stories, and looking at the delicious food, I want readers to put Syria on the next to-go and to-travel list, once all the turmoil is over. I want them to share those stories and share this perspective that they learned from the book on the rich Syrian culture. I think that’s really the most important message: that this book can help shape those stories about what it means to be Syrian in people’s minds.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
THREE EXCITING RECIPES FROM SUMAC
Lamb Kebabs with Cherries
Lamb is mixed with warm spices like allspice and cinnamon and stewed with fresh cherries for a savory summer dish.
Get to know the sweet side of eggplant with this jam that’s perfect for spreading across a slice of buttered bread.
These wraps full of shredded chicken are a perfect ode to sumac.
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