Suzanne and I meet in a café in Tunbridge Wells as I’m curious about her food venture (I’m hoping for a za’atar lesson too). Her daughter, Vera, is here to help with translation, although by the end of our meeting, Suzanne’s ready sense of humour persuades me that she understands more English than she thinks she does.
Her enterprise is called Al Bet Betak. Home-style Syrian food is cooked from scratch and delivered to your door. Suzanne and her team also cater for bigger events, like festivals and Pop-Up dinners – something they all love to do.
The business is young (just eight months old) and was born from of a need for Suzanne to support her family. But it also gave her the chance to share her country’s rich and diverse cuisine more widely.
Five Fast Facts about Suzanne and Al Bet Betak.
- Al Bet Betak means “My house is your house“, a name that speaks of Middle Eastern hospitality.
- Suzanne first learned how to cook from an aunt at the age of 12. She quizzed family and friends and attended courses to discover everything she could about traditional Syrian food.
- Back home in Syria, Suzanne used to cater for parties of 100-200 people, but actually trained and worked as a nurse.
- Establishing Al Bet Betak has been a steep learning curve, but Suzanne is determined. I’m not surprised to hear that she knows lovely chef Imad Alarnab (who is keenly involved with the #CookforSYRIA movement). She sought his advice on how to get her business up and running, and I wonder if she shared any tips in return.
- Suzanne has also lived in Dubai, and her husband comes from Homs. Their family home was in Aleppo (Halab). The story of their travels is their own. Suffice to say that the family arrived in the UK via Damascus and Lebanon two years ago. Some members of the extended family remain in Syria, while others are scattered all over – in Lebanon, Germany and Canada.
Of course, I have to try it.
A week after our meeting I go with my daughter to fetch our order (although delivery is offered). Sweet smells of cooking fill Suzanne’s house, and her daughter helps to explain which sauce goes with which dish. A notebook filled with beautiful, and (to me) baffling Arabic script is checked to make sure that we have everything we should.
I expect it to be good, given the way Suzanne comes alive when talking about food. But it’s more than that. Each dish is made with care and attention to detail. There is passion and a drive to succeed. You can see it and you can taste it.
Back at the café …
Vera tells me that her school in Aleppo was within walking distance of her home, but at the end of their time there, it wasn’t safe enough to reach it by foot. And when it became even more dangerous, the family left for Damascus.
Suzanne and Vera pore over the map of Aleppo I brought with me, pointing out where the vast covered souks once were. Vera brings up photos on her phone of its once impressive uniformity, explaining that the regulations were strict about how it should look. Before and after images of the city’s former beauty and now total destruction aren’t new, but it doesn’t harm to be reminded of what has happened. Especially with what’s happening right now in Eastern Ghouta.
I place three jars of the stuff on the table, and explain that I’m doing some research. The contents of each jar is different: one is from a Beirut supermarket, one is Palestinian (via Ottolenghi) and one is a gift from the Dubai spice souk. Suzanne’s affinity with food is immediately palpable: she opens the lids, and uses the wrong ends of a series of teaspoons to taste each one. She nods her approval, identifies the blends, and advises me on how best to use each one.
It seems there’s a za’atar pecking order, with Jordanian and Palestinian at the top. The Aleppo blend also rates highly but is different, being more similar to the Turkish mix.
I ask Suzanne a million questions about za’atar and could ask a million more.
The essential message, though, is that za’atar is crucial to the Syrian kitchen. People even pack it into suitcases when travelling abroad and Suzanne confirms that she brought her own blend with her from Lebanon.
Living from the land is part and parcel of life too. Suzanne remembers the jam-making days in Aleppo, when she and one or two sisters or neighbours would get together – whoever was free – to create great quantities of sweet and savoury preserves to see them through the winter months. Suzanne describes her aubergine jam – thick and delicious served in slices.
So you see, Suzanne is a natural, and she wants to celebrate Syrian food. It’s easy enough to try it – just check out the Al Bet Betak Facebook page for the menu, and see its Instagram feed for its wonderful food.
And if Suzanne repeats her offer to show me how to make za’atar, I’ll be very quick to accept.
Tunbridge Wells Welcomes Refugees and the local community have been a huge source of support for Al Bet Betak. Groups like theirs have sprung up all over the UK – there’s probably one near you.
I have no idea what has happened to Vera’s school in Aleppo. Many are now in ruins, but the education system in war-torn Syria is functioning to a degree. For more information on the war’s impact on children’s learning see here and here.
And recent news is that the people of Aleppo are trying to rebuild. A huge task that will take time and effort and money, and an extraordinary amount of resolve.