– Kamal NAJI –

Syrian cuisine
Amsterdam

TODAY  • Wants to join a culinary school and hopefully one day open his own restaurant

SPECIALTY • Shorbah, Syrian lentil soup

REFUGEE FOOD FESTIVAL 2017  • Restaurant Stedelijk

Portrait

When I first met Kamal in his humble home in the south of Amsterdam, I could tell he was a little shy, but as soon as we started talking about cooking, he became comfortable and proud; his aura completely changed.

Kamal comes from Damascus in Syria, a country where he used to be a lawyer. Growing up in the city, he always enjoyed food, whether it was his mother’s shakriya – a yoghurty soup with meat – or the ubiquitous, but ever delicious hummus. Whilst at university, he started working in a restaurant to finance his law degree. He remembers his first moments in the restaurant as if it was yesterday. He revered the head chef, but also the other members of the team “I listened carefully to everything I was being taught about food, it was like a second education. I remember trying all these different ingredients and dishes, and my mind began racing with ideas”. However, one thing Kamal never enjoyed is cooking sweet dishes. He jokes “I’m not good at precise measurements”, I can concur!

Once he graduated, Kamal stopped cooking professionally and focused on his law career. However, when he fled to the Netherlands, 3 years ago, Kamal and food met once again.

Kamal is playing a major role in the integration of other refugees into Dutch society, and he his achieving this with food. He is working on various voluntary projects, regularly cooking for groups of 80 people. He tells the story of when he first arrived in the Netherlands and saw all these delicious vegetables in the streets, but – in his own words – no one knew how to cook them. So besides cooking usual meals for refugees, he began making Syrian dishes such as baba ghanoush, and falafel, which went down a treat. He then started helping others to acquire the culinary skills to turn professional.

Then, Kamal tells me how to make the famous shorbah, a Syrian lentil soup, a feather in every chef’s cap, he claims with a big smile on his face. His eyes light up with excitement as he reels off an exhaustive list of ingredients. He exemplifies that raw passion about food. But for him, food meant so much more “For me, cooking was always a way to disconnect myself from the outside world. In the kitchen I had free rein, cooking is a way to express myself, it’s like an art. Blocking out the negativity and relieving stress was easy with cooking”. He isn’t the biggest fan of Dutch food quite yet, although he does enjoy the cheese! He is, however, very fond of the food from his native country, but also Asian food of which he enjoys the freshness and the oriental aromas.

Kamal would now like to take the next step of going to culinary school to learn about different cuisines “I want to be as complete as possible and to learn european styles of cooking”. He loves doing voluntary work, but thinks it’s time he is compensated for the skills he has. He hopes to open his own restaurant, one day, but in the short term he’s planning on establishing a catering business. Both apprentice sometimes and master some other times, Kamal has a lot to learn but also has a lot to give. Despite his and his family’s struggles, he is a jovial character, very excited to be a part of the Refugee Food Festival, which he describes as “a great opportunity to bring people together, to show the world who refugees really are and most importantly to cook some wonderful food”.