A former Amsterdam prison has recently been repurposed as a temporary home for 400 male refugees. Kamal Naji, a 34-year-old from Damascus is among them. He has a law degree, but worked in a restaurant while he was in college and has now taken on the position of head chef at the refugee center. Before the refugees started cooking for themselves the food was provided by a catering service, but Kamal and a many other Syrians found the meals to be too sweet and lacking in spices.
After a short tour of the building, I am taken to the kitchen where Kamal is busy preparing today's menu. While I'm waiting for him in a small room next to the kitchen, Gordon Ramsey stares back at me from a picture on the wall.
While Kamal is on his way to greet me, he is stopped by a kitchen staffer so that he can taste a dish that was just prepared. His good friend Bashar Sahyouni, will interpret for us during our interview.
MUNCHIES: Hey, Kamal. I see a lot of pictures of Gordon Ramsey around here. Is he one of your heroes? Kamal Naji: Before the war broke out in Syria, I studied and worked in the United States for a while, cooking Syrian, Lebanese, and American food. After I got home from work, I always watched Ramsey's shows like Iron Chef and Hell's Kitchen. Those shows taught me a lot. He really is a good chef. Hopefully one day I'll get to meet him. I have a lot of respect for him.
So how did you end up working in this kitchen? Volunteers would bring vegetables and other foods to the refugee center, but they didn't know how to cook them properly. They asked around to see if there was anyone who knows how to cook, and I offered my services. Before I went to law school in Syria, I worked as a chef in a restaurant. I had plenty of time for that, because I didn't have to show up for anything but my exams.
How many people work with you in the kitchen? We're six, and that includes me. It's not a small team, but we need it, because we have to cook for a lot of people. We're able to make 200 meals every day, because we work together like a family. I wouldn't be able to do it without my team. I'm teaching everyone how to cook and prepare Syrian dishes in case they get transferred to a different facility. If that happens, they can teach the people there how to prepare Syrian food. This way, everyone feels a little bit more at home.
Are you able to cook everything that you want to make? No. The kitchen is quite small and doesn't have all the necessary equipment. We do have help from the Salvation Army and we're very grateful for that. They're very good people, they bring us food, and always check in with me to see if I need anything. They really try hard to make things better for us.
Do you like Dutch food? It's OK. It's edible and quite healthy. When the catering company brings us meals, however, they don't include any spices or herbs. The food is also much sweeter than we are used to. People from Syria—but also from Iraq and the surrounding areas—love spices and aren't used to the sweet food you're accustomed to eating here. We like to eat our rice with black pepper, salt, and olive oil, but the catering company would just bring boiled white rice without spices.
What is your favorite Syrian dish? It's called shakriya: yogurt with meat, onions, different kinds of spices, and salt. We eat it with rice.
What's on the menu for today? I have prepared a few things already. One of them is moutabal, a Lebanese dish with eggplant, yogurt, garlic, lemon, salt, and tahini, which is finished off with a drizzle of olive oil. Aside from that, there is a tabbouleh made with diced tomato, onion, parsley, bulghur, lemon, and salt. We also made baba ganoush from roasted eggplants, pomegranate juice, walnuts, green pepper, garlic, sautéed onions, lemon, and salt, which is garnished with olive oil and pomegranate seeds. Then, we have a hummus salad made with whole chickpeas, tomato, garlic, lemon, and salt, and a traditional hummus dip, which we make by combining chickpeas, tahini, garlic, lemon, salt, and olive oil.
Sounds delicious. And what about that dish I see over there? I call that one the "Syrian chef salad," which is a variation on tabbouleh with couscous instead of bulghur, extra walnuts, and yellow raisins. The sweet flavor of the raisins, combined with the savory couscous and tangy lemon, works really well. It's a great side dish for a barbecue, for instance.
Do you have a hard time getting your hands on the right ingredients? No, not at all. You can buy all of these ingredients in The Netherlands. People also bring us a lot of food, and we get assistance from the Salvation Army. How do people respond to your food? [Bashar, the interpreter, who also lives in the refugee center, answers]: His food is delicious. It's very tasty. Sometimes we only get Dutch food, which makes us miss Kamal's food a lot.
What does cooking mean to you? I have a good time when I cook. It makes me feel like I'm in a different world. When you like what you do, you feel happy, and that happiness spreads to the people around you. Sometimes we don't have everything we need, so we cook something different. We try to do the best we can with what we have. If you like cooking and eating, it's always possible to make something tasty.
If you had all the equipment and ingredients you wanted, what would you make? Hot wings! Spicy ones. But not the kind you put on the Dutch barbecue, because those are too sweet.
Thanks so much for speaking with me, Kamal.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in Dutch.