“In the rest of the world, when they find a rose, they smell it. In Aleppo, we make jam out of it.”
Located at the crossing point of the historic Silk Road, the city of Aleppo has long been famous for its ancient market, its towering citadel, its olive oil soap, and its vibrant textiles. Yet for those in the know, it is Aleppo’s gastronomy that is the city’s crowning treasure, a startlingly complex cuisine that capitalizes on complex flavors, influences that range from Persian and Chinese to Armenian, and abundant local produce and prized ingredients such as Aleppo peppers, quince, pomegranates and pistachios. Food from Aleppo is known for mixing spicy and sweet, so that each bite contains a surprise—think baba ghanoush with pomegranate molasses, for example, or lamb kebabs made with a sauce of sour cherries. Muhammara, the city’s most famous appetizer, is a mix of hot pepper flakes, roasted red pepper, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses. The city’s dairy is so well known that legend has it that the name Aleppo comes from halib—, the Arabic word for milk, because Abraham stopped to milk his cow there. And if you don’t believe Syrians about how delicious Aleppo’s food is, you can trust the International Academy of Gastronomy, which crowned Aleppo as the only city besides Paris to be awarded the Grand Prix of Gastronomic Culture. As the Arabic saying goes: “Damascus has its water, Homs has its women, and Aleppo has its food.”
Yet Syrians from Aleppo often go further, insisting that Aleppans have a certain joie de vivre that has over the centuries led them to perfect everything that might help in holding a party. Tailors are famous there, because elegance is paramount. Restaurants are often located in gorgeous Ottoman houses, replete with tiles and fountains, to create the perfect ambiance. Some of the most famous musical instrument factories in the Middle East were located in the area before the war, and food is often eaten while talented oud players perform and sing. Meals typically have over a dozen dishes and last several hours, and menus change with the seasons and holidays.
In other words, Aleppan food has always been a feast for the senses. It is perhaps not surprising that with the Syrian refugee crisis, Aleppo restaurants have been popping up across the globe, from Amman to Istanbul. Now two refugees from Aleppo, a young chef and an entrepreneur, are bringing the magic of Aleppan gastronomy to Amsterdam. Meet Abdullah Nashef and Ammar Nashed, founders of the catering company Kok Bestellen—which in Dutch means “order a cook.”
From Aleppo to Amsterdam
I recently spoke with Ammar and Abdullah at a small café on the banks of one of Amsterdam’s many canals. They arrived by bicycle, and had I not known any better I would have assumed they had grown up in the city. When the waiter approached, Abdullah ordered in perfect Dutch. I was astonished when he then told me, in equally perfect English, that they had both arrived in the city only in 2015. At the time, Abdullah spoke only one language, Arabic, meaning that in the space of two years he had become fluent in two new languages. Until he had crossed the border from Aleppo into Turkey and then boarded a rubber dinghy to Europe, he had never traveled abroad from Syria in his life.
Abdullah has a certain boyish enthusiasm about him; Ammar is much taller and quieter. When I had first heard about the pair, I was told that Ammar and Abdullah were brothers, but they are not— their last names, Nashef and Nashed, have a single letter that is different, but they are so often together that they are mistaken for relatives. That is one of the many coincidences in this story. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Before the war, Ammar began his career as a singer in Aleppo, trained in the style of the iconic Aleppan singer Sabah Fakhri, who had revived the traditional Arabic muwashahat style for mass audiences, and who was famous for interacting with audiences when he sang. Ammar regularly sang in Aleppo’s many restaurants, but after a few years he decided to train to become a chef. He attended the Hotel Training Center in Aleppo during the day and sometimes performed in restaurants in the evenings. He could sing dozens of songs; he could cook dozens of appetizers and many styles of kibbeh, the city’s trademark dish of meatballs cooked inside of shells of bulgur. Eventually he ended up in the kitchens of some of the country’s finest hotels.
In the meantime, Abdullah, still in his early twenties, was learning to be a businessman. Aleppo had historically been located on the Silk Road, and over centuries it had cultivated manufacturing, commerce, and trade as a city located at the crucial crossing point between the Middle East, Europe and Asia, with an enormous market at its heart. As a teenager, Abdullah worked at his father’s business, aspiring to one day become an entrepreneur. Even after the war broke out, he continued to manage a series of his own shops—a video game shop and electronics shop. He took notice of what made Aleppo’s businessmen so well known throughout the region— their language skills and their ability to network. Aleppan merchants in the city’s old market were well known for being able to seamlessly move between languages, speaking Turkish one minute and French the next. The Aleppan dialect of Arabic was peppered with foreign words as a testimony to centuries of those interactions.
Abdullah knew of Ammar. He had watched him performing at restaurants, and they had spoken on a few occasions. He had no idea that they would end up bound up in one another’s lives on another continent.
When the war broke out, Abdullah and Ammar survived for several years, but by 2015 Aleppo had become the front line of the country’s civil war, and was especially dangerous for young men. In the summer of 2015, both fled separately to Turkey, then traveled via the treacherous sea route to Greece. It was the same year in which over one million refugees made their way across the Mediterranean, with thousands drowning. When I asked Abdullah about the journey, he simply said: “I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t want to dwell on how difficult it was.” Both landed in Greece and headed straight to the Netherlands. They were housed in temporary refugee shelters while their asylum claims were processed, in the same neighborhood as one another. Still, neither one knew that the other was in Amsterdam.
Months passed. Abdullah committed himself to studying Dutch and English. He began making contacts with the hope of somehow opening a business. He learned Dutch astonishingly quickly. “I worked hard at it,” he says.
One day, Abdullah went to visit his brother, who had also recently arrived in Amsterdam. His brother wanted to introduce him to someone. Out of the kitchen came Ammar.
“I was like…. Ammar?” Abdullah remembers, laughing.
It was as though Aleppo had appeared in the heart of a Dutch city—a familiar face from the old world of music and restaurants, of joy. From that point on, when he visited his brother, Abdullah would often find Ammar there, ready to cheer all of them up with a good meal. And Abdullah was amazed by the food.
A Start-up Capital
In another happy coincidence, in 2016 Amsterdam was designated the European Capital of Innovation by the European Commission, and the city was brimming with young people investing in new ideas and small businesses. While much of Europe was hostile to refugees, Amsterdam was open to the skills new arrivals could offer the city. A year after his arrival in Amsterdam, Abdullah was already speaking Dutch and English fluently. Ammar, who was far more gifted at the universal languages of food and music, hadn’t managed to learn much Dutch or English at all, but he was a brilliant cook. Both were surprised at how open Dutch people seemed to the Syrian food scene. One day Abdullah turned to Ammar and announced: “You have the skills. You can make such great food. And I have the languages and the network. So, we’ve become a complete company. Yalla, let’s get started!”
From the beginning, the idea was to offer Dutch people a glimpse of the full Aleppo experience: not only numerous varieties of food carefully arranged, but also traditional Arabic music performed live. Ammar could cook the food and regale guests with music after the meal. As for Abdullah, he would take care of logistics, from arranging the venues and making connections to translating the menu into Dutch. He also became quite adept at cutting vegetables, happy to be an extra set of hands in the kitchen. Thus, Kok Bestellen, or Order a Cook, was born—a quintessentially Dutch name for a very Syrian enterprise, and one they wear proudly emblazoned upon their uniforms.
A Passion for Food
Both men are passionate about spreading Aleppan culture through food. “Both men and women in Aleppo love this thing we call food,” Ammar tells me. “We’re famous for our kebab, for our vegetables stuffed with meat, for our kibbeh. We probably have over 100 types of kibbeh. In the Netherlands, we make only twenty.” Dutch customers are regularly bewildered as they attempt to navigate the many kinds of kibbeh. As for the appetizers, he can only estimate how many there are in Aleppo. “You shouldn’t be scared to say around 400,” he insists.
Even after two years in Amsterdam, he still misses small details that are not available in European markets: Aleppo pistachios, cuts of lamb meat with the fat still hanging on the bone, and rashat, an herb served mixed with yogurt. He notes that all refugees from Aleppo miss their city’s dairy products—not surprising for a city possibly named after milk. His own favorite Aleppan specialties all include yogurt: vegetables stuffed with thick yogurt, labaniyya, meatballs stewed in yogurt sauce, and shish barak, a dish of meat dumplings cooked in yogurt sauce.
Abdullah adds that unique ingredients make Aleppo’s food special. “It’s like quince—most people don’t expect to find that in food, but we use it in kibbeh with quince. No one would expect to find cherries in a dish, but cherry kebabs are one of our most famous dishes. Even for us, when we have a very famous food, someone outside of Aleppo might ask: what is this strange food? In the rest of the world, when they find a rose, they smell it. In Aleppo, we make jam out of it.”
After only two years in Amsterdam, they have their own company, and have catered dozens of events. Abdullah, who aced his Dutch language exams, is about to also start studies in the university. Ammar dreams of one day opening a restaurant in the Netherlands that could match the grand restaurants of Aleppo’s hotels, with a buffet of Arabic food, a bar of the famous fruit cocktail drinks sold in Syria, and a buffet of European food fused with Syrian accents.
In the meantime, if you’re in Amsterdam and you need to order a cook, you know where to find one.
For more information about Kok Bestellen, including their menu, visit: https://www.kokbestellen.nl