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May the Breath be with you

If you had told 15-year-old me that I’d end up having my own food business and I’d make Syrian food so good, people would queue for it, I would’ve told you that a camel had a better chance of slipping through the eye of a needle than of yours truly cracking the code of my ancestral cuisine.

This wasn’t adolescent insecurity. Even as a grownup woman who had lived in Syria for 20 years, I still lacked confidence when it came to traditional dishes. I could pull off all kinds of international recipes as long as I had the ingredients and basic instructions but Syrian food remained an enigma to me.

I was Luke trying to raise the X-Wing from the bog on Dagobah while Yoda could do that with a flick of his hand. “The Force is my ally” explanation? Syrian Yodas had something similar; they called it the Breath. They believed that food is more than technique or ingredients, it’s the cook’s breath that makes or breaks it. That’s why the ultimate compliment on someone’s cooking is: His/her breath is delicious.

And just like the Force, the Breath is something innate not acquired. For me, the problem was not a total lack of Breath but that it was fickle and very country-specific. When it came to Syrian cuisine, it was like someone forgot to give me the Wi-Fi password and I was connecting via a dialup modem.

Photo by R.D. Smith @rd421 / Unsplash

So how do you go from being clueless to cooking for a living? First of all, it wasn’t like flicking a switch. It took me 30 years to truly find my footing. But there was one moment at the very start of this long journey that gave me hope and enough confidence to keep trying.

Madame Sana’ was one of my teachers in primary school. She taught me history and geography in 5th and 6th grade but we went on to develop a close bond that has lasted for almost 4 decades.

I saw her the summer I was left in charge of kitchen duty for the first time (you can read about it here). I had gone through all the useful recipes I could find in my Ladybird cookbooks and was out of ideas for next day’s lunch.

”I have an easy recipe for you. Get baby aubergines and fry them then make a slit down the middle and stuff them with minced meat that you’ve cooked earlier. Place the stuffed aubergines in a tray, drizzle with pomegranate molasses and serve with white rice. That’s it!”

Now you may have noticed there were no quantities, no oven temp, no instructions on the size of the aubergines or how deep the slit should be and don’t get me started on how this was supposed to be an easy recipe for a 14-year old who is just learning the ropes!

But guess what? I managed to pull it off. To this day, I still remember the joy in my dad’s eyes when he saw me take the tray out of the oven. The aubergine/pomegranate combo would make any true Syrian’s palate light up like a Christmas tree, and Dad was no exception.

There is an old saying: One flower does not make it spring so I didn’t take this one success as a sign of a change in my cooking fortunes, but that look on my dad’s face? That meant the world to me and it wasn’t merely about a dish that was well made. That dish brought back memories, it awakened taste buds that had atrophied and scratched an itch that gourmet cooking could not reach.

For once, I knew what it meant to have the Breath and I was determined to hold on to it.

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