In the kitchen of a small eatery in Reyhanli, Turkey, Abu Mohammed took a break from deboning the flank of a freshly slaughtered lamb to opine on grave matters happening just across the border in Syria.
“This is what should be done to the Islamic State,” he says, jabbing and swiping the air with his knife as if he were eviscerating one of the extremist fighters.
Having illustrated his disdain for ISIS, Mohammed laid down the knife on his butcher’s block and resumed tearing each rib away from the meat.
He wasn’t always a restaurateur and purveyor of fine meats. Not long ago, Mohammed wielded an assault rifle in defense of his hometown, Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria. But a bomb blast injured his right leg, prompting him to put down his weapon and join the millions of Syrians living in exile in Turkey.
In Reyhanli, a small city with a rapidly growing Syrian population, he opened Sultan Kesap, an eatery and butcher shop that provides his displaced countrymen with culinary reminders of home during better days.
Several new Syrian restaurants like his opened here in just the past year, catering both to new Syrian residents and to those Turks whose tastes are evolving thanks to the influence of Reyhanli’s newest residents.
“Even the Turkish people that come to my restaurant prefer my food to their traditional dishes,” Mohammed boasts.
Based on his assertions of culinary superiority, photographer Nish Nalbandian and I asked for the works. We had come to his restaurant after a long day spent speaking with Syrian children, who had lost their fathers to the fighting, and the caregivers now looking after them.
Mohammed prepared a selection of his finest dishes, including Kibbeh nayeh, raw lamb lightly spiced and mixed with bulgur wheat giving it an earthy flavor; Lahmacun, lightly baked flatbread topped with ground meats and seasoning; and Kofta, minced lamb slow-cooked with pomegranate, which provides a subtle tang to the savory meat shaped into half-spheres and lightly fried.
“Where I’m from, they don’t even see meat anymore,” Mohammed told us while we indulged in heaping portions, albeit guiltily, aware that Syrians just a few miles away are making do with what little food is available to them.
But on this side of the border, the Syrian food is plentiful and delectable.
A few days later, we were at the popular restaurant Orijinal Halep Lokantasi, located in the “Little Aleppo” neighborhood of Gaziantep, in southeastern Turkey. We ate heaping bowls of fatteh, a popular Syrian staple made with the tangy yogurt sauce labneh, chickpeas, vegetables and fried pita, all mashed and stirred together and enjoyed with fresh pita.
As if this rib-sticking delight weren’t enough, we also munched on crispy falafel and freshly made hummus drizzled with locally produced olive oil. A favorite among the city’s Syrians, the restaurant is buzzing with families enjoying meals together at long tables, their infant children propped up next to the dishes and fed tiny morsels between thumb and forefinger.
At another local favorite, Baba Amur, the owner — who simply goes by Nerses — served lamb kebabs and regaled us with stories from his hometown of Palmyra, the Syrian city world-renowned for Roman ruins that Islamic State fighters partially destroyed last year.
While restaurants catering to their tastes are plentiful, not all Syrians go out to satiate their traditional food fix. Most still prepare meals at home. Those who came to Turkey with little more than the clothes on their backs and a few pots and pans are particularly ingenious in the kitchen.
One evening, Nish and I traveled to Kilis, another Turkish city on the border, to have dinner with the family of his Syrian friend Saad, whom Nish met during his time covering the war inside Syria.
“He was my first introduction to real family-size Syrian food,” Nish told me as we took our seats on the floor among Saad’s family, including his 10-year-old sister, Garam, and 84-year-old grandmother, who sat cross-legged, quietly eyeing us while smoking a cigarette.
Laid out before us was a home-cooked feast prepared by his mother, Nour, over a single propane gas cylinder in lieu of a proper stove. Despite her lack of culinary tools, Nour’s dishes proved to be our favorite.
Her Aleppo-style kebab — lamb off the skewer, roasted in a large pan reminiscent of a paella dish and covered with sliced potatoes and onions — was succulent on the inside, with a notable crispiness that sealed in the flavor. A close second was her Kebse, long-grain rice cooked with raisins and carrots and seasoned with cardamon and cinnamon.
As Nour insisted we have second and third helpings, we talked of our respective families back home in the States, and of the fighting that forced theirs to leave behind a country and home ravaged by war. They were your average working-class family from Aleppo when the violence began, forcing them to abandon the only life they knew. First Saad came to Turkey. The rest of his family joined him soon thereafter in Kilis.
Life abroad as refugees was difficult for them. With little money to spend on housing, three generations lived in a garage rigged into an apartment, with a makeshift kitchen and a curtain separating the rest of the living space from the “bathroom.”
Just recently, they moved into the simple apartment, with few furnishings other than the carpets and pillows covering the floor, where we shared a meal. But compared with their previous abode, it was lavish.
By the time we were sipping our after-dinner tea, the rumors and conspiracies born of war began to swirl.
“The Islamic State and the Syrian regime are working together!” asserted Bilal, a lifelong friend of Saad’s, who now lives with the family. Saad is currently in Europe , married and looking for work.
Bilal was adamant that the opposite sides in the conflict are secretly collaborating against the various rebel groups — despite their sectarian differences. It’s a commonly held belief, in part because the Syrian government appears to fight with other opposition groups more than it does with Islamic State.
The other family members nodded in agreement, while young Garam dozed on the rug.
It seems even the best meals are but a temporary distraction from the harsh realities Syrians face, even when the dishes are empty and their stomachs full.
Carmen Gentile is an international correspondent and author of Kissed By The Taliban. The forthcoming book is his account of surviving a rocket-propelled grenade that struck him in the face while he was embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.