At the end of 2021 I had the privilege of interviewing Anas Atassi, author of Sumac: Recipes and Stories from Syria, for Radical Books Collective event titled “Gastropolitics, Gastropoetics.” The event featured a range of speakers and books asking what it means to take cookbooks and recipes seriously as political texts, with authors speaking to Somali, Afghan, and Syrian food, among others.
You can watch the full event here (the interview with Atassi is at the very end, though it is worth checking out the whole program!). We discuss everything from sumac to nafas to street food to street photography; but I also wanted to write a short post highlighting some of the recipes I cooked my way through (many of them multiple times!) as I read the book, and some highlights from the interview.
Roasted potatoes are my winter go-to for a quick, warming, and filling dinner, and Atassi’s batata harra recipe has kicked up my potato game by several notches; among other tips and tricks, he calls not just for parboiling the potatoes before roasting, but then steaming them a bit in their own heat.
In the book’s introduction Atassi writes that there are two key ingredients in Syrian cuisine: nafas and sumac. Of course, he explains in the interview, these aren’t the only two “essential ingredients” one might name, but I love the framing that it offers us. These two ideas lead us through the book and link its different sections, which range from the street foods that represented freedom to Atassi when he was a boy visiting Syria in the summers to the elaborate mezze spreads that his mother prepares for her glamorous women-only parties to the gatherings of Atassi’s circle in Amsterdam, where he lives now, that include Syrian favorites alongside “twists on the traditional” like his “dirty” bulgur with chicken recipe, inspired by a friend’s dirty rice recipe.
In that spirit, I began to spread itsche on my very millennial avocado toast, pictured here (punched up, of course, with lots of Silk chili flakes & sumac). Itsche is an Armenian dish and Atassi gives his Aunt Jinan’s recipe for it. He points out that you can think of it as a cousin to tabbouleh; they share the same ingredients (bulgur, tomatoes, parsley, onion) — just in vastly different proportions.
What connects all of these different contexts? It’s more than just flavors and techniques; it’s nafas. I’ve written about descriptions of nafas before (here also is Reem Kassis’s deep dive into it), but I particularly like Atassi’s description of it as something you may not be able to see or touch, but that you can “certainly taste.” Accounting for nafas implies that there is more to a recipe than the sum of its parts (a list of ingredients and steps). Atassi describes nafas as the result of accumulated embodied knowledge and of food prepared in the context of human relationships: “nafas is found in the heart of the person at the stove and in the essence of a well-prepared dish.” But it’s also something he suggests can be learned or found: “I hope that you, too, can find your nafas in the recipes and stories contained in this book,” he writes.
This idea is at the heart of his project: rather than presenting a prescription for producing “authentic” Syrian food, Atassi presents finding one’s nafas as a goal instead, suggesting that it’s the essential ingredient of a Syrian cuisine that is not unchanging, not restricted to a particular set of hands or places –– but is nevertheless distinct and identifiable by the nafas, that thing that can’t be touched or seen, but tasted. For Atassi, feeding his community Syrian style, in a way that honors his mother and grandmother, can’t be reduced to a set of dishes or preparations that precisely recreate something he once ate in Syria; it has more to do with nafas. That might include adding Syrian spices to a Dutch pea soup, or taking inspiration from friends’ cooking. One of the most quietly profound aspects of the book is its presentation of Syrian cuisine as a living tradition, embedded in practices of commensality and mutual care, to be modeled and emulated –– rather than a strict repertoire of techniques to be mastered (though I should add, the recipes are reliable and the instructions excellent).
The book also, it should be said, lives up to its name: sumac is the other essential ingredient of Syrian cuisine that Atassi identifies, and the sour and tart notes resonate throughout this book so brightly and beautifully. Sour and tart have always been my favorite flavor notes, and if you’re the same, this book is a treasure. It’s taught me how to use some familiar ingredients (sumac, lemon juice, pomegranate molasses) and some less familiar ones to me (tamarind paste!) to brighten up some of my favorite dishes. Unlike nafas, sumac is bright and visible, and Atassi calls it the “red thread” that connects everything in the book. In our discussion we remarked that as a vehicle for tartness prized in a time when year-round citrus and refrigeration were impossible, we realized that sumac is also a “red thread” connecting past and present forms of Syrian cuisine.
Pictured above: my take on Atassi’s recipe for biwaz, an onion and parsley salad that is a beautiful tart addition to a larger menu as a salad or a tart garnish to serve with shawarma and kebabs, as Atassi suggests. I had extra greens lying around when I made it and chopped those up along with the parsley to give it a bit more volume and heft. Below: the spinach fatayer from the book, also with a delightfully tart filling. I once speculated about how these types of greens-stuffed-pastries may have traveled around the Mediterranean, but never had the courage to try my hand at these miniature delights. I now make this version regularly (and my technique improves every time, though it has a long way to go).
The book is also clear about presenting recipes and stories that are not the result of the efforts of a single author, but rather the result of a collective process of authorship. Atassi’s mother, grandmother, and aunt are referenced and cited throughout the book; and indeed the book recreates not just food but an entire material world that forms part of those recipes’ context. The food photography in the book features Aghabani tablecloths that Atassi has collected, and, as we discuss in the interview, dishes and other items sent from family all over the world. The pages also include a rich series of street photographs from Damascus taken by Atassi’s friend Rania (more about that in the interview too). Together all these elements form a testament to a Syria that is more than a site of conflict, but rather a vibrant place where people live full lives — in Atassi’s words, “a place where life is to be cherished and enjoyed.”
My thanks go to Anas Atassi for sharing his time for our interview and Bhakti Shringarpure for organizing the event.