Here is a spice with a story …
A grandfather travelled alone with his suitcase, and in his suitcase, along with his clothes and personal belongings, he carried a big bag of za’atar, a spice mix that no Syrian kitchen is without. He carried it all the way from his home in Damascus to his new home in London, where his family had been waiting for him for a very long time.
Jars of the za’atar now line the shelves of a cosy restaurant in Columbia Street, London.
The restaurant is headed by the man’s son – Syrian chef Imad Alarnab. It’s a pop-up place which has received rave reviews, goes by the hashtag #ChooseLove and is run in collaboration with Help Refugees UK. Together they are raising essential funds for a children’s hospital in the Northern Aleppo region which opened after a crowd-funding mission in 2017.
I take my youngest son to Imad’s Syrian Kitchen for a belated birthday treat.
We see Imad almost immediately. He greets us both with a big hug. I’ve only met him once before, but No. 4 is lucky enough to have met him twice. He has a twinkle in his eye and his voice is gentle. He’s the kind of person you might assume navigates life with ease.
Two of Imad’s daughters are also here this evening, pitching in with the other volunteers. They are as smiling nice as their father as they guide us to our table.
The small crowd (there are seats for just 20) dining happily on Syrian mezze is young and hip (it’s a Saturday night in town). Will my son and I fit in? Our table mates, Clare and Maryam are patient with my great age and my son’s fresh youth, and tell us that the tahini dip and falafels are incredible (they are).
Our conversation turns from young adult ambitions and fearless dreams to an 11 year old’s food preferences and favourite things to do, weirdly washed down with Maryam’s expertise with star signs (she is surprisingly spot on, even impressing an old sceptic like me).
The food is first rate; Imad learned how to cook from his mother (she was known for her wonderful kitchen skills). Actually, this evening is like sharing dinner in a Syrian home – which must be the intention – it’s intimate, unpretentious and generous.
We feast on 8 mezze, 4 main dishes, and one divine dessert.
The tables fill with falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush … and soft, delicious flatbreads. We have stuffed vine leaves and labneh cheese.
Then there’s fattoush, kabsa (spicy chicken with cardamom and rice) and tabakh rohoo (aubergine, squash and tamarind stew), plus tender freekeh lamb which is greened with peas.
Fragrant throughout are spices and herbs … cumin, mint, sumac and za’atar.
Dessert is pretty as a picture – Imad tells No. 4 that it’s Syrian ice cream with candy floss. It’s light and white with green pistachios and my son’s plateful is gone in a flash. Imad chuckles and checks with me before a (sort of) surreptitious second serving … much too good to say no.
A little about Imad
Life in Damascus was kind to Imad – before the war he had three restaurants and two juice bars, and was surrounded by family and friends.
The war destroyed all of that.
Imad left Damascus on 27th July 2015, without his wife and daughters. His parents remained in Syria too. He embarked on a lengthy journey that cut through nine countries (Help Refugees UK came across him in Calais when he was serving up food to a crowd, using very limited resources, on the steps of a church – his ‘home’ for 64 days). He arrived in the UK on 5th October.
Just two months after his departure from Syria, Imad’s mother died.
His wife and daughters have since joined him in the UK, and now his father is here as well.
Today, Imad’s passion for cooking is enabling him to do his bit for those back in Syria. Not just that – he’s sharing a huge and important part of Syrian culture with us (and is clearly keeping his mother’s memory alive too). He talks of hope, angels and humanity, and considers himself to be “a very lucky guy”.
On our way home my son turns his happy face to me, and says that he feels great because Imad was so nice to him, and also because two strangers – Maryam and Claire – asked him lots of questions and listened to his answers. I tell him to bottle that feeling.
He looks away, smiling and thinking and skipping.
And that is the key to Imad’s success: not only does his kitchen showcase the best of Syrian food, but it’s inclusive and he is the best kind of host.
To date Imad and Help Refugees UK have raised more than £50,000 to help keep Hope Hospital running a bit longer. And the other good news is that Imad’s Syrian Kitchen has extended its dates too – it’s now open until the end of September.
Back to the za’atar
I know about the za’atar that was brought here by Imad’s father because I was clumsy enough to contact Imad asking where he sourced his own supply. I thought he might refer me to a decent London supplier.
A week after my enquiry, I had a reply. Imad was apologetic for his tardiness, but he and his family had finally secured a visa for his father after two years of trying. He was relieved and overjoyed. And his father would pack some za’atar for me in his suitcase. I felt humbled by such typical Syrian generosity, and also somewhat of an intruder into Imad’s personal story.
He didn’t forget to give me some of that very special spice blend when we went to his restaurant. I carried it home in my bag like it was gold dust.
We use it sparingly because it has a story that can’t be rushed, and that story doesn’t really belong to us. When we do try it, with flatbreads and a good glug of olive oil, or sprinkled carefully on hummus, we savour it and think about this true taste of Syria.
How to book Imad’s Syrian Kitchen
Imad hosts two sittings, four nights a week, and two on Sundays.
Tickets: £40 (£15 of each ticket sold goes to Hope Hospital).
BYO – corkage £5 (which goes straight to Hope Hospital).
You can book here.