- Mushrooms were once an uncommon food in Syria, but they have become a vital resource in one refugee camp where families can’t afford meat.
- In 2016, a Syrian nonprofit began cultivating mushrooms and giving them out to civilians to use as a meat substitute.
- The price of meat has skyrocketed 650% in Syria since civil war broke out in 2011.
- Around 9 million Syrians needed emergency food assistance in 2019 – nearly half of the country’s population.
- View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.
Following is a transcript of an episode of Business Insider Today.
Mushrooms can grow almost anywhere indoors that’s dark, damp, and cool.
The fungus is packed with nutrients and protein.
And in one Syrian refugee camp – where most families can’t afford to buy meat – mushrooms are now a vital resource.
Nasrallah used to grow mushrooms as a hobby. But now, in a Syrian refugee camp near the border of Turkey, he grows them to survive.
Nasrallah, displaced Syrian: “I would give it to my friends and so on. Things were good. But now we have resorted to it as a meat substitute. The prices are sky-high and people are unemployed and there is no income.”
The price of meat has risen by 650% over seven years since the war began in 2011.
Nasrallah: “One kilogram of beef costs 3,500 to 4,000 Syrian pounds. One kilogram of lamb costs 5,000 pounds. People can’t afford that. If you have four or five kids, what can you do?”
Around 9 million Syrians needed emergency food assistance in 2019 – nearly half the country’s population.
Now at a camp 90 miles north of his hometown, Nasrallah and his family rely on mushrooms for sustenance.
He can produce 40 pounds of food from just 2 pounds of mushroom spores – and the spores only cost around $US10.
First, Nasrallah sterilizes hay in boiling water. He packs the wet hay into a bag and spreads 5 to 10 grams of mushroom spores between each layer.
After 20 days in a dark, damp room, the bag is brought to a brighter room, where it’s misted with more water until mushrooms begin to sprout.
Nasrallah: “We eat it and we sell a portion of it so that we can buy things other than food. I grew a small amount, we are eating from it and we sell some so that we can get by.”
While the harvesting process is straight forward, incorporating the food into everyday dishes involves a bit of a learning curve.
That’s because before the war, mushrooms were not a common ingredient in Syrian cooking.
Mousa Ahman, programs director at the Adaleh Foundation in Syria, says mushrooms were mostly served up by high-class restaurants.
Mousa Ahman, Adaleh Foundation: “It’s not public food in Syria. But during the revolution, the necessity created this culture.”
Like Nasrallah, Mousa Ahman’s nonprofit recognised that mushrooms could help feed civilians who were struggling to obtain food in the war-torn region of eastern Ghouta.
In 2016, the organisation began cultivating mushrooms and giving them out for free.
Displaced Syrian: “You’re very lucky if you can eat mushrooms. They’re rich in protein.”
The nonprofit discovered that mushroom farming didn’t require much space or a big investment to make an impact.
They handed out about 2,800 pounds of mushrooms a week during 2017, helping thousands of people.
But when the Syrian army took control of Eastern Ghouta in 2018, thousands of Syrians fled north, and the mushroom project came to an end.
Still, the benefits of mushrooms live on in Nasrallah’s community, where he continues to grow, eat, and sell mushrooms.
And although it’s not their favourite ingredient, the new crop helps these displaced families get by.
Umm Khaled, displaced Syrian: “To be honest, meat and poultry are better. But we cannot afford meat and poultry so we buy mushrooms, and we cook it for the kids because it’s nutritious.”
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