Food on the Frontline: Syria and Iraq

(photo by Omar Omar)

Syrian food is fantastic, and as diverse as its neighbors in the Middle East: creamy hummus, fried kibbeh balls stuffed with spiced meat, rice dishes baked in phyllo dough, meatballs glazed in cherry sauce, flatbreads, baklavas, honeyed sweets, tea.  Sadly, none of that was available on the frontline, where the Syrian Kurds faced off with ISIS.  As bullets whizzed by just yards away, we milled safely around behind a large concrete building… and ate apples.

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Crates and crates of apples. Green ones, red ones, blushing ones. There was no other food for these soldiers. Just all you can eat apples, obviously grown from an orchard nearby. My green one was tart and sweet and surprisingly crisp for a piece of fruit that had spent all day in the desert sun. Could I fight a war on a stomach full of malic acid? Maybe not.  But it sure beat an MRE. (Syrian photos by Omar Omar)

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Meanwhile, in Iraqi Kurdistan, on the hilltops peering down at ISIS-controlled Mosul, the Kurdish peshmerga fighters spend most afternoons eating bread with dipping sauce – maybe something made with tomatoes or beans. But on good days – and I happened to stumble upon a very good day – one of the commander’s friends will pack up dozens of shrink-wrapped plates and drive the hour or so up the dusty, windy road to feed the fighters.

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The men gathered on carpets spread out below a makeshift tent and feasted on plates of biryani, a traditional Iraqi rice dish (served at both weddings and funerals) made of rice and angel hair pasta cooked with saffron and cardamom. The starches are tossed with carrots, peas, raisins and nuts and topped with meat… today I tasted chicken and lamb. It’s meaty but sweet, filling but light, the perfect meal for a treeless mountaintop in 100 degree heat.

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The biryanis were served with bread, plates of raw vegetables and olives, and bowls of stewed beans. Cokes, Fantas, and finally, sweet teas rounded out the meal.

It’s the truest form of Food Under Fire yet. To stumble on such a feast was a surprise; to be invited to share it was an honor.

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