Reports

Lack of Electricity Transforms Food Culture in Idlib

Translated by: Sailer Perkins

The people of the Idlib province in northern Syria are facing difficulties storing their daily food, especially in these hot summer months. Since the province fell from regime control, “systematic” electricity cutoffs have prompted civilians to revive traditional methods of preserving food used by their grandparents.

Refrigerators in Idlib have transformed into cupboards, as they have lost their intended value and instead become more like the old-time food storage systems used in Syria called “shaaria” or “nimlyya.” These consist of a cupboard with doors covered by soft netting, which allows air to pass through. These protect food from insects and extend shelf life by preventing mold.

The people of Idlib have hence returned to a time before refrigerators and are taking up traditional preservation techniques, such as tying foods up in high, airy parts of the home to dry them.

These primitive methods of storage, like air drying or natural preservation through sun exposure that naturally slows down rotting, are currently gaining popularity throughout Idlib. This is especially true for reserve pantry items, as Idlib residents have had to go without those that require refrigeration and have instead resorted to antique methods to keep their homes stocked year round. Products dependent on refrigeration for preservation are almost nonexistent in homes these days.

The preservation process through drying works by reducing a food’s water content and increasing its proportion of solid matter to the extent it becomes an inhospitable climate for microorganism growth. According to Doctor Riham al-Aagha, a biotechnology and nutrition specialist, this means a reduction of water content to 4-6% in dried vegetables and 20-25% in dried fruits.

Doctor al-Aagha added that food preservation through drying has a number of disadvantages, such as the loss of characteristic textures and some nutritional value. Furthermore, dried products may change in color or gain odd flavors, and their shelf life may be shorter than foods preserved through other methods. This is especially true in areas with high humidity.

For his part, Abdalrahman al-Taer, a resident of Kafr Oweid in the southern Idlib countryside, said to “The Syrian Voice” that electricity has been cut to his home for four years now.

Al-Taer continued, “we’re dealing with foods going off quickly, like yogurt, milk, and cooked food, so we resorted to hanging them from the ceiling to expose them to air and extend their preservation.” He indicated that this method was “used in Syria before the use of refrigeration.”

Leftover food hangs outside of a home to prevent spoiling

“Meats are cooked and preserved in jars, which are emptied of air and sealed in order to secure a longer shelf life,” according to al-Taer.

He added that “the lack of ways to preserve food has forced most families to reduce how much they cook, and to prepare only enough for one day at a time to avoid problems with keeping the leftovers in traditional ways. This conflicts with the habits of rural families in Syria, who generally prepare dishes in large quantities to last many days.”

Hussein al-Saed, another resident of the southern Idlib countryside, said to “The Syrian Voice” that “the inability to store food products prevents their use except for when they are in season, whereas most Syrian people are used to storing tens of different food items for year-long use.”

Although there is potential for alternatives to imported electricity to be used in the area, including generators or even wind or solar generation, they are not sufficient to power homes 24/7. Furthermore, most of the population of Idlib cannot afford to purchase the materials for alternative electricity generation.

According to a reporter for “The Syrian Voice” in the region, the cost of purchasing an electrical generator ranges from 300 to 800 USD for each home. Even these cannot power all appliances, and only provide electricity for limited periods of five to 15 hours per day.

Mr. Basem Abu Ali, an industrial worker in the electricity sector, said to “The Syrian Voice” that “alternative energy provides a partial solution to powering some necessary appliances, including refrigerators, although they cannot power home refrigerators for more than eight hours daily. This is not a long enough period to safely store food.”

However, Mr. Abu Ali pointed out that higher efficiency refrigerators of various sizes have been imported to Idlib as part of the solution as well. Because each refrigerator uses only about one ampere of electricity per month, owners can operate them for nearly 15 hours continuously. Although this solution is used every day by some residents of Idlib, it is not widespread due to the weak purchasing power of most of the province’s population.

In addition to individuals, the cutoff of electricity has clearly impacted the frozen food business, which requires huge generators and large quantities of electricity to operate. This has subsequently impacted civilians in terms of storing reserve food for out-of-season use.

Rami Abu Ahmad, a businessman in the southern Idlib countryside, said to a correspondant for “The Syrian Voice” that “a lot of traders [in this sector] are doing away with refrigerated food items due to the rising costs of storage, which are not in line with the income of citizens in Idlib.”

Abu Ahmad added, “those most affected by the electricity cuts are local milk and yogurt producers, since they have to sell milk at undervalued prices to distributors because they are unable to produce and then store it.”

In past decades, Syria was known for using and trading pantry-ready food items. The sale of preserved foods was among the most popular trades in and outside the country, including items such as dried fruits and refrigerated beans and peas.

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