When you cook for one thousand people in a restaurant, there is a diverse menu and a constant stream of skillets carrying single portions across the line until the food is plated and the skillet returned to the dishwasher.
When you cook for refugees, things look different. Pots reserved for big-batch veal stock are your bread and butter in a volunteer kitchen, as are industrial scale propane burners, and stirring spoons that look like boat paddles. Spices are added with ladle scoops instead of pinches; lentils in kilos instead of cups.
The food for Moria, the registration camp that housed one to four thousand people at any given time as they waited for their papers that would allow them to take the ferry to Athens, was cooked in Pikpa Solidarity Camp by four volunteer chefs.
Pikpa is a Greek-run organization built into an abandoned children’s summer camp that has been aiding the most vulnerable of the refugee population since the very start of the Syrian conflict, providing them with housing, food, legal and medical support as well as psychological aid.
One of the most extraordinary things about Pikpa is its emphasis on refugee agency. Instead of providing generic meals three times a day (like the ones we packed for Moria), Pikpa opens up the kitchen store-room every morning from 10-12pm, allowing refugees to come fill their milk crates with ‘groceries’ and supplies for cooking their own food for in the community kitchen. This practice is vital, not just for helping mothers craft food that their children will like to eat— food that is familiar— but for giving refugees purpose and utility, which they are denied every other step of their journey.
However, food is more than sustenance to be cooked simply for the purpose of eating. Food is community, food is tradition, and food is often more about the making than the product. Food is home. Some recipes require more than a small cutting board in a communal kitchen. Some recipes need to spread out, and envelop an entire countertop, or kitchen, or community for a day.
One morning a group of Kurdish women knocked on the Pikpa kitchen door. They wanted to make bread, they said. I was alone in the kitchen peeling carrots for one-thousand, and didn’t mind the company. The set to work, and seemed to me to know what to do from instinct. They asked me for ingredients tucked away on shelves as though the recipe was simply part of their DNA, a collective knowledge passed down from generation to generation.
The women ushered their small children out of the kitchen as though this was an equal part of the process as working the oil into the flour. They worked rhythmically in a line, punching down the dough and then rolling it into a perfect ball, passing it down the counter so other could roll it into a thin disk. Still another painted the dough with dramatically colored Za’tar paste, and I watched from the corner, peeling carrots without even noticing, captivated by their work.
When the first tray of breads came steaming from the oven, they tore slices apart and handed them to those of us in the kitchen to try before taking a bite themselves. They made warm bags of the flatbreads and handed them to every volunteer who, drawn like scavengers to the delicious smell, walked into the kitchen .
I asked the women if they wouldn’t rather save some bread for themselves, for their families, and one answered, “There is enough. You are helping us, and we want to make these for you. To say thank you.”
At the end of the day, when there were just crumbs on plates where breads had been, the woman explained the recipe to me and gave me a plastic bag filled with homemade Za’atar. Since we do not have the gift (yet) of having this recipe in our hearts and memories as these women did, I have adapted it here for you, with more precise measurements.
When you make it, just remember: this is a recipe to be shared.
To make about 12 rounds of dough:
- 1 cup water, it should feel slightly warm to the touch, but not hot
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons sunflower seed oil
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
For the topping:
- 1/2 cup Za'atar (you can buy this in most markets, or use this ingredients list to make your own):
- 1/4 cup ground sumac
- 3 tablespoons dried thyme
- 3 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1. Combine the water, sugar, and yeast in a small bowl and let rest for at least 10 minutes. It will start to foam, and this is how you know the yeast is active and good to use.
2. In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt. Measure the oil and set aside. When the yeast is ready, add the flour, salt, and sunflower oil and mix together with your fingers (see image of the women on the floor!) Knead the dough until it becomes smooth and forms a slightly tacky, large ball.
3. Cover the bowl with a damp towel or plastic wrap, and leave in the warmest place in the kitchen to rise for about 1.5 hours
4. You need a hot oven. Preheat oven to as high as it will go (400 degrees for most ovens, but if you can get 500 degrees F, use that)
5. Begin pulling the dough into pieces, taking enough to form a 3 inch ball. Roll the balls until they seal, and start to resist against your hand. Place balls on waxed paper or lightly oiled plastic wrap to rest while you work the remainder of the dough.
6. Mix the Za’atar and olive oil to make a loose paste.
7. When you are ready to bake, use a rolling pin to roll out the balls of dough into disks, about 1/4 of an inch thick. Use flour to prevent the dough from sticking to the rolling pin and work surface, and don’t be afraid to be generous.
7. Transfer the rounds to a baking tray lined with parchment paper, and spread the Za’atar paste on the tops of the breads, leaving a 1/2 inch border.
8. Place the bread in the oven, preferably on an upper rack, and bake for 10-15 minutes, until the breads are puffed and golden brown around the edges.
9. Allow to cool for just a few minutes, but try and enjoy them while they are warm!
*These flatbreads are also wonderful with feta cheese on top instead of Za’atar! Use your imagination and make them your own.