JAZRA, Syria: On a day off from the Raqqa front line, Syrian fighter Iskandar was busy chopping up chicken and garlic cloves for a steaming pot of home-cooked mouloukhieh stew. He stirred the ingredients for the dish into a large pot perched atop a gas canister, set up in an abandoned home in the town of Jazra, a western suburb of Raqqa.
“I used to love going into the kitchen with my mom so I learned from her. This is the first meal I’m cooking on the front,” the 28-year-old fighter with the Syrian Democratic Forces said excitedly.
He and comrades from the U.S.-backed SDF have been battling Daesh (ISIS) militants for control of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Daesh’s Syrian territory since 2014.
The SDF has spent months encircling the city and finally broke into it in early June.
After long stretches away from home, Iskandar and his comrades have grown nostalgic for a traditional meal.
“We got bored of the food that we get every day. It’s not that we don’t like it, but we’re sick of eggplant, kebab and grilled meat,” he told AFP.
Fellow fighters requested an old favorite: mouloukhieh, an aromatic stew made with bitter green leaves, lemon juice, a heavy dose of garlic and chicken, and typically served over white rice.
Iskandar got to work, finding some dried mouloukhieh leaves in an abandoned Jazra home and venturing to nearby shops to buy the other remaining ingredients.
“I hope they forgive us. We picked them so we could eat,” Iskandar said of the green leaves.
“If there’s any other dish they want, I’m ready: stuffed vegetables, oven-roasted chicken, beans,” Iskandar said proudly.
He flipped a yellow towel behind his neck to dab at the sweat gathering on his skin as his colleagues hovered nearby, impatient for the mouthwatering meal.
Some were spread out under the shade of a grapevine while others sat inside, where a sputtering air conditioning unit provided the only reprieve from the heat.
A refrigerator inside was stacked with bottles of water, ice cubes and a plate of chopped cucumbers that Iskandar would toss into some refreshing yogurt.
Typically, meals for fighters on the western front are prepared in the village of Hawi al-Hawa, less than 2 kilometers from Raqqa.
The meals are usually made by a team of chefs the previous day so that they can be speedily delivered to hungry fighters on the front lines.
“Every day, we deliver 5,000 lunches and 5,000 dinners,” said Hoghar, a kitchen logistics coordinator wearing fatigues and eyeglasses.
Outside, SDF members loaded plastic bags filled with bread loaves and cubed white cheese as rows of massive pots lay drying in the sun.
“We get requests from the fighters and we try to fill them as much as we can. They mostly ask for vegetables and fruit,” Hoghar said.
Recently, fighters have been saying they crave meat pies, which the chefs plan to prepare in Kobani – a three-hour drive away – because there are no bakeries in Hawi al-Hawa, Hoghar said.
“We’ll transport them in refrigerated trucks, then we’ll distribute them from here.”
Nearby, the SDF has been churning out another key commodity: ice.
With temperatures rising above 45 degrees Celsius across northern Syria, fighters have been struggling to stay cool and hydrated.
The militia has struck a deal with the owner of a small ice factory on the outskirts of Hawi al-Hawa, allowing them to freeze water there if they pay for the materials and diesel.
“Our forces are getting exhausted and they needed something to cool them down,” said SDF fighter Mohieddine Mohammad, 38, as the machine produced blocks of ice.
The blocks are transported to fighters closer to the front, who say they are indispensable.
“The most important thing for us is to get ice so that the water can stay cold,” said Matay, a 22-year-old militiaman on the frontline.
“In this heat, it’s not enough to be in the shade, to shower or to pour bottles of water on our heads.”
Near the factory, fighters were savoring vanilla ice cream distributed from a truck.
During lulls in the fighting, Matay said he and other fighters in the Arab-Kurdish force rush to a small creek north of the village for a refreshing dip.
“We go to the river so we can swim, shower or even wash our clothes and take a break from this heat.”