Siege recipe site helps blockaded Syrians to keep eating

By Erika Solomon

From radish leaf breakfast salads to sparrow stew dinners, Abu Omar has meals covered for tens of thousands of Syriansliving under siege.

His darkly comedic Blockade Meals, a Facebook page with nearly 11,000 likes, offers cooking tips, recipe ideas and step-by-step photographs that mimic the style of foodie cookery sites. But this young mechanic-turned-rebel offers recipes that are neither organic nor gourmet: they show how to make a meal out of dwindling food supplies in areas under blockade.

One recent post recommends picking leaves from the common Syrian mulberry plant.

“You can either fry them or you can stew them,” an April post suggests. “Put them in a pressure cooker for half an hour, add some oil and spices, and then stew it another half-hour. It will become a tasty meal. Another plus: It helps move your bowels.”

The UN estimates that around a quarter of a million Syrians are living under blockade as the country’s civil war enters its fourth year. Food scarcity has been so severe in some areas that local doctors have reported cases of sickness and even death from malnutrition, most of them children.

Civilians evacuated from Old Homs under UN auspices earlier this year said many people had resorted to eating cats and leaves.

Abu Omar, who uses a nom de guerre, says he lived in Homs’s Old City under blockade for nearly two years. He and some 1,000 fellow fighters were finally able to leave the city this week through a deal with the government.

“Even more than offering recipe ideas I wanted to show we are still happy . . . We mujahideen [holy warriors] don’t have a problem making do with whatever God leaves us with,” he says in an interview with the Financial Times.

The 24-year-old Abu Omar had never cooked a meal before he and his comrades were trapped by the government siege. He learnt through friends and by trading ideas over the internet with Syrians under blockade in other areas.

“In the (besieged) Assaly district of Damascus, they make bread out of lentils for example, because they have a lot of that there. We don’t. But for ingredients we all have, we share ideas,” he said. “For example, everyone has grasshoppers.”

(Wash them and fry them, he says in one post. “They’re tasty.”)

On Blockade Meals, Abu Omar also suggests planting a garden with radishes – the leaves grow quickly and make good salads until the vegetable matures. If something tastes bad, hide the taste with pomegranate syrup – a locally made sweetener.

Most important, he says, are the right cooking utensils. “The pressure cooker is the best friend of the besieged. It will cook anything,” he writes in one post, with a picture of a battered metal pot. “I’m in love with my pressure cooker.”

President Bashar al-Assad’s forces began using blockades as a tactic in late 2012 in an effort to choke supplies to areas where they were unable to dislodge rebel fighters.

There are several blockaded areas around Homs and Damascus – cities where the government wants to cement its control in order to hold the country’s strategic centre. Rebels still hold large swaths of northern and eastern Syria.

Some opposition-held suburbs of the capital that refused to make a deal with Mr. Assad’s forces have been besieged for more than a year and a half.

Rebels have adopted the blockade technique themselves, particularly in the northern province of Aleppo, where they have besieged two loyalist towns as well as the government-held half of Aleppo city. Abu Omar, now out of Homs, hopes to enjoy the taste of freedom with one of his two favourite meals: fried fish or chicken liver.

There is one blockade recipe he plans to keep using: fried green figs. “Cut them in half, salt them and fry them. The taste is something between fried eggplant and potatoes – delicious.”

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