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Syria

Académie Syrienne de la Gastronomie

 

 


e-mail: academie@gastrosyr.com

website : www.gastrosyr.com

 

Syrian Cuisine

(by Anissa Helou)  

 

Syria lies in the heart of the Fertile Crescent, also known as the Cradle of Civilization where wheat was first domesticated, and with the advent of farming, came a sophisticated approach to cooking with techniques evolving from just grilling and/or boiling to more elaborate preparations including bread baking.

 

The first recorded Syrian recipes were gathered in a 13th century Arabic cookbook, Kitab al-Wuslah ila l-Habib fi Wasf al-Tayyibat wal-Tib (recently edited and translated by Charles Perry as Scents and Flavors, A Syrian Cookbook). The book must have been a bestseller in its time judging by the number of copies that have survived, many more than any other contemporary cookbook -- there were five published between the 10th and 13th century.

 

The book contains around 700 recipes representing the cuisine of the Ayyubid rulers of Syria whose seat was in Aleppo. Over the centuries, many of the recipes have been lost or have changed beyond recognition but a few remain to this day like fatayer for instance, even if the 13th century version is more like a multi-layered bread rather than the filled or topped pies of today. The book also contains recipes for mulukhiyeh (a green sauce made with Jew’s mallow that is served over layers of toasted bread, rice and chicken or lamb), or shush barak (now known as shish barak, with the small meat-filled dumplings cooked in a minty yoghurt sauce whereas the medieval version has them cooked in meat broth), or kabab (dainty meatballs cooked with fruit or vegetables).

 

The 13th century book doesn’t really go into the regional variations but not only was the population smaller then but one can also assume that the best cooking then would have been in Aleppo, the seat of Ayyubid power.

 

Aleppo, which vies with Damascus for the title of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, remains the culinary heart of Syria, not to mention of the whole Middle East – it is rightly considered the gastronomic capital of the region, and this from as far back as the 11th century.

 

Until the 2011 uprising which morphed into an armed conflict and destroyed half the city not to mention half the country, Aleppo was the ultimate destination for anyone visiting Syria, not only because of its historic monuments and medieval souks, the most enchanting of the Middle East, but also for its unrivalled culinary heritage. The city’s supremely sophisticated cuisine is quite distinct from that of Damascus, the capital, with a succession of occupiers as well as refugee communities such as Armenians who had fled there from neighbouring Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century, having left their mark on the already rich Aleppine repertoire.

 

One of the most delightful aspects of Aleppine cooking influenced by the Persians is the subtle combination of sweet and savoury flavours resulting from cooking meat with fruit and/or fruit juice such as kabab karaz (cherry kabab), the quintessential Aleppine dish where tiny meat balls are simmered in stewed sour cherries, or the exquisite kibbeh sfarjaliyeh where kibbeh balls are cooked with quince in fresh pomegranate juice. Also Aleppo, being on the Silk Road, has seen more influences on its cooking brought in by the trade caravans that criss-crossed from Cairo to Samarkand on the south north routes and from Peking to Venice and back on the east west axis. All this contributed to making Aleppine cuisine one of the richest in the Middle East.

 

Kibbeh is Syria’s national dish, a highly seasoned mixture of minced lamb and bulgur wheat that comes in myriad shapes and forms – round or oval balls that are usually fried, grilled or simmered in a variety of sauces; kibbeh can also be baked into a pie, or made vegetarian, with pumpkin, potatoes or simply flour instead of meat. And it can be made with rice. It is probably the most festive of all Syrian dishes and can also be served raw as kibbeh nayeh, garnished with pepper paste in Aleppo or a mixture of fried onions, pine nuts and minced meat in Damascus.

 

The interesting thing about kibbeh is that you will only taste a few of the many variations in restaurants but if you are fortunate enough to be invited into Syrian homes, you will be able to sample the more elaborate versions.

 

One more peculiarity is that Muslim Aleppine cooking differs from that of Christians, spicier and headier with the meat stews as well as the accompanying rice often flavoured with cardamom. A typical 7-spice mixture is common to both communities but the mixture is often made more intense in Muslim families.

 

Even though home cooking will offer the diner the best and most varied of Syrian cuisine, street food can also provide exciting culinary moments, that is if you are not put off by the lack of hygiene.

 

Damascus is the country’s other culinary centre, famous for its baklava. Baklava is a generic term describing two main types of nut-filled (pistachio, walnut, pine nuts) sweet pastries: kol wa shkor, which translates as ‘eat and be thankful’, and describes a whole range of different-shaped pastries made with filo pastry, while the other is for pastries made with ‘hair’ pastry (sha’r which means hair in Arabic because the pastry is made into very long, wispy thin strands that look like hair). The baklava made with the ‘hair’ pastry is shaped into cylinders (borma), or squares (balluriyeh), or tiny bird’s nests (’esh el-bulbul).

 

As for savoury Damascene dishes, many show a strong Turkish influence, from when the city was an administrative centre under the Ottomans (400 years rule), and are not found elsewhere.

 

I was not fortunate enough to eat in Damascene homes but I was still able to sample typical Damascus dishes at some of the city’s best restaurants. I remember trying Bas Meshqat, an old Damascene dish of Turkish origin where minced meat is flattened and rolled around a filling of rice, meat and nuts. The meat ‘logs’ are then cooked in a tomato demi-glace and served with vermicelli rice. The dish was both homey and delicious but in Charles Perry’s paper on Damascene cooking which he based on a list of Damascus dishes compiled by Umm Hadham al-Barudi, he spells the dish’s name as “Basmashkât (Turkish basmis kat, “pounded layer”) and describes it slightly differently: “A dish that is not possible unless you’re on close terms with your butcher, because each serving requires a particular thin, broad muscle from a lamb’s shoulder blade. It is flattened and filled with fried meat and pine nuts, sewn up into balls about the size of baseballs and cooked in a lamb and tomato stew. This dish does not appear to be known in Turkey, so it may have been unique to the Syrian Turks”.

 

The most common dishes in Syria are stews and you have two different types, mnazzli and yakhni. Both are found pretty much everywhere but the Damascene version of mnazzli doesn’t have onions in it. Instead the meat is browned in clarified butter (ghee,  or samneh in Arabic) together with chopped garlic before the appropriate vegetable and cooking liquid are added together with plenty coriander. Mnazzli can also be made vegetarian, although if the vegetables are cooked in olive oil, the dish is called m’alli from muqalla, which means well fried. Vegetables that are cooked in olive oil can also be described as bil-zeyt, meaning cooked in oil.  

 

Haraq Osba’o (meaning “burned his finger”) is another famous Damascene dish where lentils are cooked with pasta, and flavoured with either pomegranate syrup or lemon juice. The dish is served with a garnish of fried onions and fried pasta or croutons.

 

The city is also famous for fatteh, a composite dish made by layering toasted or fried bread, pulses, or meat, or vegetables, and plain yoghurt with the whole garnished with toasted pine nuts. The breakfast version is made with just chickpeas.

 

Syria’s culinary repertoire is not limited to its capital, Damascus, or its largest business city, Aleppo. The country is large with 24 million people living in cities, towns and villages dotted throughout diverse regions encompassing fertile hills, lush plains and desert; and each region or city has its own specialities.

 

Hama, famous for its Roman water wheels is where you will taste Batersh, a delightful speciality made with a purée of grilled aubergines mixed with yoghurt and garlic topped with a luscious minced meat and tomato sauce. And in the desert you find Bedouins whose most famous dish is mansaf which they share with Jordan. Mansaf is another composite dish made with lamb cooked in reconstituted dried yoghurt laid over rice and flat bread with the whole garnished with toasted nuts. It is the Bedouins’ most festive dish, and is always prepared to honour guests.

 

The last six years of conflict have had tragic consequences for this ancient, beautiful country but one positive that provides some comfort for the huge losses in both people and history is that with the displacement of more than half the population with over 4 millions of those displaced having taken refuge in the west, the cuisine has become far better known than ever before with Syrian restaurants opening, catering businesses flourishing and books on the cuisine being published.

 

Beetroot Dip (Mutabbal Shamandar)

Ingredients (serves 6):

  • 600 g/1 pound 5 ounces beetroots
  • 80 ml/1/3 cup tahini
  • 1 to 2 garlic clove, crushed into a paste
  • juice of 1 1/2 lemons, or to taste
  • sea salt
  • for garnish
    • extra virgin olive oil
    • 1 tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

 

Method:

  • Preheat the oven to 220 C/450 F.
  • Gently wash the beetroots and cut the excess stalks but without cutting into the beetroot. You do not want it to bleed during baking. Wrap each beetroot with aluminium foil and place on a baking sheet. Bake the beetroot for 1 1/2 hours, or until completely tender.
  • Remove the beetroot from the oven onto a large chopping board. Unwrap them one by one, trimming and peeling them as you go along. Place in the bowl of a food processor. Add the tahini, garlic clove/s and lemon juice and process until you have a smooth puree. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Add salt to taste and more lemon juice or tahini if you feel the dip needs it.
  • Spread on a serving platter, making grooves here and there. Drizzle a little olive oil in the grooves and sprinkle with the chopped parsley. Serve with good bread as a cold starter or part of a mezze spread.

 

Lemony Lentils with Pasta and Croutons (Haraq Osba’u)

Ingredients (serves 4 to 6):

  • 150g (5 ounces) plain flour, plus extra for dusting
  • Fine sea salt 
  • 500g (1 pound 1ounce) brown lentils, soaked for 30 minutes in cold water (enough to cover the lentils by 2–3 fingers)
  • 100ml (1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon) extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 medium-sized onions (1 pound/450 g), peeled and thinly sliced
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • sea salt
  • 200g (7ounces) fresh coriander (about 1 bunch), most of the stalk discarded, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed 
  • Vegetable oil for frying

 

Method:

  • First make the pasta dough. Mix the flour and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the centre. Gradually add 90ml (1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons) of water and mix with the flour until you have a rough ball of dough. Transfer the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 2 to 3 minutes. Invert the bowl over the dough and let rest for 15 minutes. Knead the dough for 3 more minutes, lightly flouring your hands every now and then, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Shape into a ball. Then, sprinkle a clean bowl with a little flour and place the ball of dough in it. Cover with cling film and let rest while you prepare the rest of the dish.
  • Drain the lentils and put in a large saucepan. Add 1 litre (1 quart) of water and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 to 45 minutes, depending on the type of lentils you are using – some take longer to cook than others.
  • While the lentils are cooking, roll out the dough and cut into long strips, then cut the strips into small squares with sides about 2cm (just under 1inch). Spread the pasta squares over a clean tea towel to let them dry a little. You will be adding half to the lentils and frying the other half to use as a crouton garnish. (This is what they do at Naranj, whereas Sonia fries all the pasta to add at the end.)
  • Next add 75 ml (5 tablespoons) of the olive oil and the onions to a large frying pan and place over medium heat. Fry until golden brown, then transfer half the onions onto several layers of kitchen paper to drain the excess fat – you will use these for garnishing. Reserve one-third of the chopped coriander for scattering over the finished dish and, in a separate pan, saute the rest with the crushed garlic in the remaining olive oil until the aroma rises.
  • Five minutes before the lentils are ready, add half the pasta, the fried onions and their oil, the lemon juice and the coriander and garlic mixture. Add salt to taste and simmer for another 5 minutes. Take off the heat and let cool while you fry the remaining
  • squares of pasta until golden brown in a little vegetable oil. Serve the lentils garnished with the pasta croutons, reserved fried onions and chopped coriander as a light cold main course.

 

Syrian Fatteh (Fattet al-Makduss)

The bread here is traditionally fried in olive oil but I prefer to brush it with olive oil and toast it in the oven.

 

Ingredients (serves 4):

  • For the lamb broth 
    • 500 g (1 pound 1 ounce) lamb from the shanks, cut into medium-sized chunks
    • 1 cinnamon stick
    • 1 large onion (200 g/7 ounces), peeled and quartered
    • Sea salt
    • 3 large ripe tomatoes (600 g/1 pound 5 ounces), peeled, deseeded and finely chopped
  • For the stuffed eggplants
    • 6 1/2 tablespoons/100 g ghee or unsalted butter
    • 50 g/2 ounces pine nuts
    • 300/11 ounces g freshly minced lean lamb, from the shoulder or neck (either ask your butcher to mince the lamb or do it yourself using the fine attachment on a meat grinder)
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • Finely ground black pepper
    • 1 kg/2 pounds 2 ounces Japanese eggplants, trimmed and cored
  • To finish
    • 3 medium-sized round pita breads
    • extra virgin olive oil to brush the bread
    • 1 kg/2 pounds 2 ounces plain Greek yoghurt (sheep’s or goat’s)
    • 2 tablespoons tahini
    • 2 cloves garlic, peeled, minced into a fine paste
    • few sprigs mint, leaves only, finely chopped

 

Method:

  • For the lamb broth: Put the meat from the shanks in a large saucepan and cover with water. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil, skimming any scum that rises to the surface. Add the cinnamon stick, onion and salt to taste. Reduce the heat to medium low. Cover the pan and let simmer for 30 minutes or until the meat is half done. Add the chopped tomatoes and let simmer for 30 more minutes, or until the meat is done. Keep hot in the pan.  
  • For the stuffed eggplants: Put half the ghee or butter in a frying pan and place over medium heat. Add the pine nuts and sauté, stirring constantly, until the nuts are golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon onto a plate. Add the minced lamb. Cook, stirring the meat and mashing it with a wooden spoon so as to break up any lumps, until all traces of pink are gone. Add the allspice, cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste. Return the toasted pine nuts to the pan, keeping some for garnish, and mix well. Let the meat and nut mixture cool before using to stuff the eggplants.
  • Cup your hand around a cored eggplant, holding it upright, and scoop a little stuffing with your other hand or using a very small spoon, and push the stuffing inside the eggplant, using either the narrow spoon or your finger to force it down. Shake the eggplant downwards halfway through to make sure the stuffing has gone down to the bottom of the eggplant. Stuff the remaining eggplants in the same way.
  • Put the remaining butter in a saucepan and place over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the stuffed eggplants and sauté until they turn pale in color. Add 1 1/2 cups/375 ml of the meat broth to the pan. Turn the heat to medium low and let simmer for about an hour, or until the eggplants are done. Keep them hot while you prepare the rest of the dish.
  • Preheat the oven to 200 C/400 F.
  • Tear the pita breads open at the seam, brush with a little olive oil and toast in the oven until golden brown. Remove onto a wire rack to cool.
  • Mix the yoghurt with the tahini, crushed garlic and chopped mint. Spread the toasted bread over the bottom of a deep serving dish. Remove the meat from the hot broth and spread over the bread. Then arrange the stuffed eggplants over the bread and meat and cover with the yoghurt. Garnish with the reserved toasted pine nuts and serve immediately as a main course.

 

Meatballs in Sour Cherry Sauce (Kabab Karaz)

Ingredients (serves 4):

  • For the meatballs (kabab)
    • 450 g/1 pound lean minced lamb
    • 1/2 tablespoon sea salt
    • 1/2 teaspoon 7-spice mixture (or allspice)
    • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • For the cherry sauce
    • 1 kg/2 pounds 2 ounces fresh sour cherries, pitted (or 400 g/14 ounces pitted dried sour cherries soaked overnight in 1 1/2 cups/375 ml water)
    • 1 tablespoon raw cane sugar
    • 1 tablespoon pomegranate syrup
  • To finish
    • 50 g/1/4 cup pine nuts
    • 2 to 3 pita breads, opened at the seam and cut into medium sized triangles
    • 15 g/1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
    • few sprigs flat-leaf parsley, most of the bottom stalks discarded, finely chopped

 

Method:

  • Mix the meat with the salt and spice mixture (or allspice) and shape into small balls, the size of large marbles. Melt the butter in a large frying pan over medium heat and sauté the meatballs until lightly browned.
  • Put the cherries (if using dried, put them and their soaking water), sugar and pomegranate syrup in a pot large enough to eventually take the meatballs and place over medium heat. When the cherries start bubbling, reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the meatballs and simmer for another 15 minutes.
  • In the meantime, toast the pine nuts in a hot oven until lightly golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Be sure not to burn them.
  • To assemble the dish: spread the pita bread all over a serving platter, coarse side up making sure the pointed ends are nicely arranged on the outside. Drizzle the melted butter all over the bread. Spoon the meat and sauce over the bread. Sprinkle the chopped parsley all over, then the sautéed pine nuts. Serve immediately.

 

Pistachio Cookies (Karabij Halab)

Ingredients (makes about 25):

  • For the pastry
    • 350 g/12 ounces semolina
    • 40 g/1 1/2 ounces plain flour
    • 40 g/1 1/2 ounces golden caster sugar
    • ¼ teaspoon easy bake yeast
    • 150 g/5 ounces unsalted butter, softened
    • 3 tablespoons orange blossom water
    • 3 tablespoons rose water
  • For the filling
    • 175 g/6 ounces pistachios, ground medium fine
    • 50 g/2 ounces golden caster sugar
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons rose water
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons orange blossom water

 

Method:

  • Mix the semolina, flour, sugar and yeast in a mixing bowl. Add the softened butter and, with the tips of your fingers, work it in until fully incorporated.  Add the orange blossom and rose water and knead until the pastry is smooth and elastic. Cover with wet although not dripping cloth and let rest for one and a half hours in a cool place.
  • Mix the ground pistachios, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the rose and orange blossom water and mix well. Set aside.
  • Preheat the oven to 400 F/200 C.
  • Pinch off a small piece of pastry and knead it into a ball the size of a walnut. Place it in the cup of your hand and flatten it with your index and middle fingers – it needs to be thin but not so thin as to tear when you fold it over the filling.
  • Place 1 teaspoon filling in a line down the middle of the pastry leaving the ends clear and start pinching the edges of the pastry together from one end to the other to close it over the filling. Carefully shape the filled pastry into a domed finger, leaving the pinched side on the bottom. Place the moulded pastry onto a non-stick baking sheet. Fill and shape the remaining pastry in the same way.. You should end up with about 25 pastries, each measuring about 8 cm long and about 2 cm high.
  • Bake the cookies in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes or until golden. Remove onto a rack. Let cool. Serve with natef. These cookies will last for a couple of weeks and are served for dessert or as a sweet snack with the dip below.

 

Natef

Ingredients: 

  • For the soapwort
    • 60 g/2 ounces soapwort root
    • 625 ml/2 1/2 cups water
  • For the syrup
    • 350 g/12 ounces sugar
    • 100 ml/1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
    • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
    • 1 tablespoon rose water
    • 1 tablespoon orange blossom water

 

Method:

  • Rinse the soapwort and put in a pan together with the water. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil. Watch the soapwort as it comes to the boil as it will foam up and may boil over. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by three quarters. You should be left with 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoon/150 ml of the water, which by then will have become brown.
  • While the soapwort is simmering, prepare the syrup. Put the water, sugar and lemon juice in a pan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Let boil for 3 minutes then take off the heat. Add the fragrant waters and mix well.
  • Strain the soapwort liquid into a large mixing bowl and whisk until you have a lot of white, rather shiny foam. The transformation is miraculous -- it is cause by the saponin in the soapwort. Ideally you need to be whisking the liquid with an electrical beater otherwise it will take too long by hand.
  • Gradually add the sugar syrup to the foam and continue whisking until you have finished the syrup and end up with a fluffy, stretchy dip/sauce. Natef will keep for a few days in the refrigerator.
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