Barbara Massaad was watching a TV news program about the plight of Syrian refugees from her apartment in the suburbs of Beirut when she decided to visit a refugee camp herself.
"I just wanted to go and see what was happening," she told me. "So I went and started taking photographs and talking to people about food."
Why food? Because Massaad is a cookbook writer and photographer. She grew up working at her parents' kabob shop in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Then she became a force in the Slow Food movement, starting the Beirut chapter, and racked up prestigious gastronomic awards for books like Man'oushe: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery.
A mother of three, Massaad says she was particularly touched by the Syrian children she met and photographed at the camps. She wanted to raise awareness, so she thought about writing a cookbook based on Syrian cuisine, or perhaps a more sociological look at what refugees actually eat. But then, she reconsidered. After all, who wants to eat like a refugee? Then came a call from a friend who, with Massaad, helps run a Beirut farmers market.
"And she said, 'Hey, Barb, why don't we make soups and just give them out to refugees at the farmers market on Tuesdays?'" Massaad recalled. "We made, like, really hearty soups with beans and vegetables and pasta. And lentil soups, because lentils are really popular around here."
Then the idea struck: a cookbook — to benefit refugees — devoted entirely to soup. Massaad called upon an all-star lineup of culinary celebrities for help with Soup for Syria.
"I'm friends with Alice Waters," Massaad says of the pioneering farm-to-table owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. "I contacted her and of course, everything that has to do with humanitarian efforts, she was like, 'Of course.' "
Waters contributed a recipe for carrot soup. TV host and writer Anthony Bourdain pitched in with one for soup au pistou, with white beans, leeks, fennel and zucchini. The Israeli-born British restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi, of such cookbooks as Jerusalem and Plenty, sent a recipe. So did such stars as Paula Wolfert, Claudia Rodan and Mark Bittman.
"It's an easy ask," Bittman says. He's the bestselling author of How to Cook Everything and How to Bake Everything, and he created the Minimalist food column in The New York Times. Bittman says you feel connected to a place when you eat or cook its cuisine.
"You know, I gave them something that's quite the opposite," he said. "I gave them a Korean soup recipe. But they wanted to put together a cookbook that had an international flair to it, and it seems that's what they got."
Readers will find various soup recipes that range from Armenian Cabbage to Iranian pomegranate to Portuguese chickpea to Turkish black-eyed pea with lamb and noodles. They might sound exotic, but Massaad wanted the recipes in Soup for Syria to be easy-to-make and accessible, in terms of price. Soup is universal comfort food, says Massad. It bridges cultures.
"It's special, soup," she says.
So far, Soup for Syria has been published in the U.S., the UK, Italy and the Netherlands. And it's about to come out in Germany and Turkey. Massaad says all proceeds benefit the UN's work with refugees and other charities on the front lines of assisting them, such as the Syrian American Medical Society, which runs hospitals in refugee camps. And with very little attention or publicity, Soup for Syria has already raised more than $300,000.
Red Lentil Soup with Mint and Lemon
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or substitute butter)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 small garlic cloves, chopped
Salt, to taste
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper or paprika, plus more for serving
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried mint, plus more for serving
1 cup (200 g) red lentils
¼ cup (40 g) coarse bulgar (burghul)
4¼ cups (1 l) chicken or vegetable stock
Juice of 1 lemon
Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat and sauté the onions until soft.
Add the garlic and sauté an additional minute. Season with salt and the Aleppo pepper or paprika. Stir in the tomato, tomato paste, and mint and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.
Stir in the lentils and bulgar, then cover with the stock and 2 cups (475 ml) water. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, partially covered, for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Sprinkle each serving with a little dried mint and Aleppo pepper, along with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
"Soup for Syria is an excellent example of collaboration for a worthy cause. As I write, the snow continues to fall here in the mountains overlooking Beirut. I know very well that many refugee families are suffering through the storm, struggling to keep their accommodations warm and their stomachs full. Who wouldn't want to help?"
Recipe from Soup for Syria: Recipes To Celebrate Our Shared Humanity. Collected and photographed by Barbara Massaad. Published by Interlink Books, $30.00 hardcover
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The situation in Syria has led many people to ask - what can we do to help? One woman answered that question by putting together a cookbook. It came out in the U.S. earlier this year and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Syrian refugees. NPR's Neda Ulaby tells us about "Soup For Syria."
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Barbara Massaad is a cookbook author and photographer who, like so many of us, is heartbroken by the plight of Syrian refugees. She lives in Beirut, Lebanon. So when winter approached and the weather got cold, she decided to visit a refugee camp nearby.
BARBARA MASSAAD: I just want to go and see what's happening. So I went, and I started taking photographs.
ULABY: As a mother of three, Massaad was particularly touched by the children there. She wanted to raise awareness, maybe by writing a cookbook about the food the refugees actually eat. But - let's be real - who wants to eat like a refugee? Then...
MASSAAD: A friend of mine called me one day. And she said, hey, Barb, why don't we make soups and we just give them out to refugees?
ULABY: They did - at a farmers market Massaad helps run in Beirut.
MASSAAD: We made, like, really hearty soups with beans and vegetables and pasta.
ULABY: The idea struck for a cookbook to benefit refugees, devoted entirely to soup. Massaad called on an all-star lineup of culinary celebrities for help.
MASSAAD: The first big name I got - I'm friends with Alice Waters. I contacted her. And of course, everything that has to do with humanitarian efforts, she was like, of course.
ULABY: And of course, Waters is famous for pioneering farm-to-table cooking. Other luminaries include TV host and writer Anthony Bourdain; the Israeli-British restauranteur Yotam Ottolenghi, who wrote the cookbooks "Jerusalem" and "Plenty"; and Mark Bittman, the best-selling author of "How To Bake Everything".
MARK BITTMAN: It's an easy (laughter) - it's an easy ask.
ULABY: Bittman is fond of food from Lebanon and Syria. And he says you feel connected to a place when you enjoy its cuisine, eating it or making it. Still, when it came to this cookbook...
BITTMAN: (Laughter) I gave them something that's quite the opposite. I gave them a Korean soup recipe. But they wanted to put together a cookbook that had an international flair to it, and it seems that's what they've got.
ULABY: With soup recipes like Armenian cabbage, Iranian pomegranate, Portuguese chickpea and Turkish black-eyed pea with lamb and noodles, Barbara Massaad wanted them to be easy to follow with easy-to-find ingredients.
MASSAAD: I didn't want to be patronizing, you know, with the recipes? And, like, you have a refugee, and then you have this expensive soup. So I did take that into consideration when I chose the recipes for the book.
ULABY: Something about soup bridges cultures, says Massaad. It's universal comfort food.
MASSAAD: It's special, soup. I think it was meant to be that it's a soup cookbook.
ULABY: So far, "Soup For Syria" has been published in the U.S., the U.K., Italy and the Netherlands. It's about to come out in Germany and Turkey. All proceeds benefit the U.N.'s work with refugees and other charities on the front lines of assisting them, like the Syrian American Medical Society that runs hospitals in refugee camps. And with very little attention or publicity, "Soup For Syria" has already raised more than $300,000.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.