Barbara Abdeni Massaad may be an award-winning food writer and photographer, but she is also a humanitarian. After spending quite some time with the Syrian refugees who were living in horrible conditions not far from her home in Beirut, Barbara took her camera and began photographing people in the camps in Lebanon, especially children. This was the start of her book-cum-fundraising project Soup for Syria: Recipes to Celebrate Our Shared Humanity, a wonderful collection of pictures and soup recipes that has already raised $500,000. The profits from book sales are donated to help fund food relief efforts through the United Nations.
Why soup recipes? Because soup is a comfort food, Barbara says. But also because she spent a lot of time, at least once a week, preparing soup with a friend for the Syrian refugees in Lebanon during the winter, when they were living in very basic and crowded plastic tents. She felt the urge to help these people, and being a cookbook writer and photographer she did what she could to help them through her work.
On the occasion of the release of the book’s Portuguese edition, Sopa Para a Síria, we sat down with Barbara in the Lebanese restaurant Muito Bey in Lisbon, which is owned by her friend Ezzat Ellaz. We discussed the book, which now features recipes from Portuguese chefs Ljubomir Stanisic, Miguel Rocha Vieira, Rui Paula and Kiko Martins alongside those by celebrities like Anthony Bourdain, Yotam Ottolenghi and Alice Waters.
How long did it take you to put the book together?
It came together gradually, so in total it took two years. I met my American publisher and showed him a dummy and he got very excited about it but it took two years to finish it.
How was the process of gathering recipes for the book?
I took two separate approaches: I made a Facebook page and I contacted some of the chefs that I know. I am part of the Slow Food Network, President of Slow Food Beirut, and I’ve met many interesting chefs through out the years and I contacted some of them and told that I wanted to do this book. They were very interested and donated their recipes. But some volunteered on the Facebook page.
Your photographs are remarkable. How was it taking photographs in the refugee camp?
It was mostly about getting to know the refugees: We talked about food, about their problems, and just spent a lot of time together. The second title of the book is “Recipes to Celebrate Our Shared Humanity” – it’s on the cover of all the editions. Connecting people through food is a common feature of humanity, and these recipes celebrate that element of sharing.
How did the Portuguese edition come about?
Ezzat Ellaz from the restaurant Muito Bey has a friend named Pedro Carvalho – he’s a famous actor here in Portugal – and he really pushed to make it happen. Some Portuguese chefs donated their soup recipes. The first edition was published two years ago in the United States, then it was published in the U.K., the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, now Portugal and soon it will be out in Turkey.
Did you run into many obstacles during the process of creating the book? Or was it relatively easy because this is such a worthy cause?
No, the only difficulties I had were in Lebanon because some people didn’t understand why I was focused on helping Syrian refugees rather than Lebanese people. For me there’s no difference between Lebanese, Syrian or any other. It’s not the nationality that counts – what counts is the human being. That’s the main message of the book, that we are all the same and we all have basic needs: shelter, love, food, dignity.
How did you choose the recipes?
A total of 200 recipes were donated to the project, so we had a workshop at my house and we made all the recipes, we tested them, and we chose the best. But I had people working with me, volunteers. It was an amazing experience because we were all cooking soups and we put something like 20 soups on the table and we would taste them all, saying “this one no way” or “this one is very good” or “this one is terrible…”
In Portugal, we’re not so good at cooking vegetables, but we’re very good with soups. What are your favorite Portuguese soups?
That is a shame because you have so many good vegetables! When I came here it was easy to work with the ingredients that you have, because of the really good quality vegetables, meat, fish.
I love your soups and particularly the fish soup with potatoes. My friend Tina [Cristina da Silva Ghafari] introduced me to this one, and it’s one of the recipes in the book.
This two-year project has required a serious dedication to the cause. Is this kind of work something that you are going to keep doing in the future?
I’ve started working with an association, and now when I get money, donations, clothes or food I give it to them. Why? Because this is a project I work on, but it’s not going to define my whole life. I want to continue writing cookbooks, doing work for Slow Food and other places. But, I always will be a humanitarian and I will always work to help others, even if it’s not the only thing I do in life. My mission is to promote food and to promote our [Lebanese] culinary heritage.
Lebanese restaurants seem to getting very popular in Lisbon. There are two restaurants now, Fenícios and Muito Bey.
I think Lisboetas are starting to become more knowledgeable about Lebanese cuisine and all its excellent vegetable dishes. Our cuisines have a lot of similarities.
Will you keep working with Ezzat?
We became very good friends, and we will keep working together. We met in Lebanon and then we worked together in the United States. He was involved in this project in Seattle, Mamnoon, a Lebanese restaurant where I worked as well as a consultant. When I was visiting Portugal with Tina and her family I posted a picture on social media of the other Lebanese restaurant in Lisbon and said, “Look, Lebanese food follows me everywhere.” Ezzat had always dreamed of coming to Lisbon and opening a restaurant, and when he saw that post he said that’s the person I want to work with.
Has the book been well received these past two years?
It has gotten a very positive response all over the world. In Germany, for instance, we sold 16,000 copies and made US$200,000 dollars. This money is only a drop in the bucket, though. Sadly, the situation hasn’t gotten much better for the refugees since I started this project.