Cooking - Non-Fiction

Zaatari: Culinary Traditions of the World’s Largest Syrian Refugee Camp, Karen E. Fisher (Editor)

About halfway through reading Zaatari: Culinary Traditions of the World’s Largest Syrian Refugee Camp, I realized it wasn’t a cookbook. It was an easy mistake because it looks like a cookbook. There are recipes. There are well-lit luscious photographs of delicious-looking dishes.

But the table of contents is a clue I shouldn’t have missed, and then there’s the subtitle: “Culinary Traditions.” Note it doesn’t say “Favorite Recipes of….” Similarly, the table of contents doesn’t show chapters on Mains, Sides, Desserts or Meat, Vegan, Bread, or Sweets. It has chapters: “Taking Jawleh with Mohammed,” “TIGER Girls and Zaatari Camp Libraries,” and “Join Us for Ghada.”

What is Zaatari? Opened in August 2012, due to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the Syrian civil war, the camp in Jordan is now home to more than 80,000. The Jordanian government estimates there are up to 1.3 million Syrian refugees in the country of whom 670,000 have officially registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Over 13 million Syrians are displaced worldwide or internally – over half of Syria’s pre-war population of 21 million.

Karen E. Fisher, originally from St. John’s, NL, and a University of Washington professor, has been working at Zaatari as a field researcher for the UNHCR since 2015.

Started in a moment of crisis, Zaatari is no longer a temporary home; it is, Fisher writes, “a community of resilience, pride, and identity.” That identity is often expressed through food, and this book provides a wide-ranging invitation to participate in that identity through home kitchens worldwide. It also includes many portraits, stories, and creative submissions (e.g., photographs, poems, etc.) showcasing camp residents.

The book provides a fulsome portrait of the camp, its people, their histories and cultural traditions. A rich, bright tapestry emerges. Food is the primary theme, but not the only one. The Syrian people have traditions reaching back thousands of years. Syria was also positioned on the Silk Road, and its culinary traditions are influenced by that ancient trading route as well as its desert-dwelling Bedouin histories.

Dear Reader, as your representative, I attempted three of the recipes: hummus, tabouleh, and khubz. What’s khubz? Pita bread, but as Fisher notes, pita is Greek. The khubz was a late addition to the book because the camp committee collected the recipes and was asked what was missing. Pita, Fisher said. The committee looked at her blankly. She Googled it and showed them. “Oh, normal bread,” they said. Good catch!

The hummus turned out super yummy. The tabouleh was, you know, okay. I think I probably needed to chop it finer. Tasty and healthy, though. The khubz was something of a miracle, I must say. It’s not something I could even imagine I could produce, but if I can do it, dear reader, so can you.

I look forward to my next visit to virtual Zaatari.


  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Goose Lane Editions (Jan. 30 2024)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 272 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773102354
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773102351

Michael Bryson has been reviewing books since the 1990s in publications such as The Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Paragraph Magazine, Id Magazine, and Quill & Quire. His short story collections include Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999) and The Lizard and Other Stories (2009). His fiction has appeared in Best Canadian Stories and other anthologies. His story Survival is available as a Kindle single. From 1999-2018, he oversaw 78 issues of fiction, poetry, reviews, author interviews, essays, and other features at The Danforth Review. He lives in Scarborough, Ontario, and blogs at Art/Life: Scribblings.

Michael Bryson

Michael Bryson has been reviewing books since the 1990s in publications such as The Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Paragraph Magazine, Id Magazine, and Quill & Quire. His short story collections include Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999) and The Lizard and Other Stories (2009). His fiction has appeared in Best Canadian Stories and other anthologies. His story Survival is available as a Kindle single. From 1999-2018, he oversaw 78 issues of fiction, poetry, reviews, author interviews, essays, and other features at The Danforth Review. He lives in Scarborough, Ontario, and blogs at Art/Life: Scribblings.