PERN

Penrith and Eden Refugee Network

Local Event – Penrith’s Syrian Kitchen

In the small kitchen of her home in Cumbria, Walaa Asfar recreates the culinary delights of her Syrian girlhood. Vine leaves stuffed with fragrant rice, spicy lentil soup, minty tabbouleh scattered with pomegranate seeds, baked chicken with almonds, gooey baklava…

Cooking has always been a source of delight for Walaa. It became a lifeline when she moved to the UK, and is now an increasingly important part of her livelihood. Growing up in Idlib, she was inspired by her mother, who she describes as ‘the best chef’. In her life today in Penrith, she enjoys making food that reminds her of Syria, and sharing the delicious, healthy dishes of her country of birth.

She says ‘I love cooking, cooking makes me happy all the time. When I stop cooking, I am sad. I stopped for a little while and I couldn’t cope with life. Now I am cooking again and happy because I love to feed people’.

Walaa and her family arrived in Penrith in April 2017 under the Syrian Resettlement Programme. It wasn’t where she expected to be placed under the Home Office scheme, but she has grown to love the town and her life here.

‘I was dreaming of living in London but if you asked me to live in London now, I would say I prefer to stay in Penrith. I like my quiet life. It’s good for the kids – a small school, a small community, you can keep them safer here than in the city. I am happy they are here. They have made friends and we have lots of friends too.’

Walaa and her family fled the civil war in Syria, escaping first to Lebanon and then to the UK. Settling in a new country was very difficult at first, especially as Walaa and her husband spoke no English. After a few months, she started language classes and began to meet people, often bonding with them though her love of cooking.

‘It’s how I made friends when I came here, it’s a connection with people. I went to English lessons and I took food with me. I would cook for my teacher and friends and ask them to come round to eat together’.

Determined to forge a future career that would involve cooking, Walaa worked as a chef in the Premier Inn. ‘I worked really hard’ she says. ‘I went to college to learn English, did a computer course and got my catering and hospitality Level 3 NVQ.

Setting up the Syrian Kitchen, which opened in November 2021, involved new challenges. Walaa’s home kitchen had to pass council inspection, and she was on a steep learning curve getting though the red tape. However, she passed her formal assessment with flying colours, and got a five-star rating for food hygiene.

‘Although I’ve always cooked at home, it was not a job, and to start a business, everything was different’ she says. ‘It was a bit difficult with the paperwork, the language, but I have lots of friends, customers and support, and many people helped me.’

Many of these people are now part of Walaa’s devoted customer base. Each week, she circulates a list of takeaway menu dishes, and customers place orders and collect the food from Walaa’s home one evening a week. Although the prices are a little higher than ordinary takeaways, generous portion sizes and high quality mean she is never short of orders.

Back in 2017, Walaa volunteered at Penrith’s Restore Shop, run by Kate Clement. Having sampled her cooking, Kate invited Walaa to cater the ‘Penrith on a Plate’ event and recalls that the shop was packed, and the dishes hugely popular. Kate is now a regular – and very happy – customer of the Syrian Kitchen. ‘The food is just divine. It has great texture and flavours, with both depth and lightness,’ she says. ‘It always looks so pretty too, and it is somehow joyful as well as delicious.’

Walaa says the popularity of her Kitchen is growing. ‘Friend tells friend and they get my number and get in touch with me. I send photos and ingredients so people know what is in it because Syrian food is a bit different. The menu changes each week, and I always have a vegetarian option.’

Looking to the future, Walaa says her dream is to open a restaurant in Penrith. She has catered for events for large numbers of people, including at the Carlisle Culture Bazaar organised by Multicultural Cumbria. ‘It’s very simple’ she says, ‘I love to cook for many people, and to watch them enjoying healthy and tasty food together.’

To contact Walaa and receive each week’s menu, text or WhatsApp 07732 411608. Meals include four dishes – starter, main, side, salad or dessert.