Photography of sha’ebiyyat bil fostuq (a type of baklawa) by Jacob Arem
by Emily Smith
“If you like this food, you must go to Syria,” my closest friend, Ala’, said with a dreamy smile. “The best food in the world is there.”
It was 2010, and I’d been living in Jordan for some months, studying Arabic at a small university in the desert. Ala’ and I ate lunch on campus every day, and he forever reminisced about his home country.
“You know,” he said, “whenever I visit my family there, I always come back a little fat.”
Given the amount of food I was served in Jordan, this wasn’t difficult to believe. A “light” meal in the Levant typically included a stack of fresh bread, cucumber and tomato salad, an array of dips and spreads like hummus, baba ghanoush and ful (stewed fava beans), tiny bowls of salt, hot chili and za’atar (a blend of thyme, sumac and, sesame, among other countless variations), a plate of olive oil, falafel and french fries. Everything was served family-style with no individual plates or silverware.
When I finally made it to Syria, the first thing I discovered was that the cultural dishes and portions were similar to those found in Jordan, yet with their own unique flavors and shapes. Baba ghanoush, for example, was sprinkled with fresh pomegranate arils—an ingredient difficult to find in more arid regions. Falafel were fried in the shape of mini-doughnuts as opposed to the disks or fingers common in Jordan and Palestine. And the sweets that typically feature nuts—baklava, bird’s nests, shredded ballorieh and toasted mabroomeh—were studded with pink-and-green pistachios.
Syrians have adopted certain European flavors and fashions, but they have also remained somewhat immune to globalization’s homogeneity. In other Arabic-speaking countries, English and French are used for educational instruction. In Syria, however, students learn either (or both) of these languages, but all education—from kindergarten to medical school—is conducted in Arabic. Furthermore, U.S. sanctions have prevented certain American mainstays (McDonald’s, Starbucks, Apple, Coca-Cola) from saturating daily life. One might find Canadian-brand cola and black-market iPhones, but overall, the country feels refreshingly different from our own.
In the coastal port of Latakia, where old men in tweed suits sat along cobblestone streets and sipped tiny cups of Arabic coffee, European cuisines mixed with the Middle Eastern offerings. Pizza and pasta parlors sat beside shawarma (spit-roasted meats) stands, and traditional French pastries like pain au chocolat glistened alongside za’atar-stuffed croissants. All were tempting but, at that time, my friends and I were looking for a heartier breakfast and locals directed us to their favorite spot.
Jamal Abu Suez’s Café was a modest-looking restaurant at the end of a light-strung alleyway. Barrel-size drums of hummus and ful occupied the kitchen, and dozens of hungry customers filled the dining room each morning. Not knowing what to order, we surveyed the tables around us and pointed to what we’d like to try (essentially, one of everything). Minutes later, our table was filled with tiny plates and a stack of fresh bread. One server would appear with a bowl of qudsiyya (hummus and ful swimming in a pool of olive and flaxseed oils); another with fatteh (a mixture of yogurt, hummus, clarified butter, pita chips and tahini, topped with olive oil and pine nuts)—the food just seemed to keep coming. And though our bellies were ballooning, we did not stop eating.
Just an hour or so south of the Turkish border is the Syrian city of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (second only to Damascus). Known not only for its history and age, Aleppo is famous for its covered markets, medieval castle and Great Mosque, and for its pistachios and olive oil soap industry—all of which have been damaged during the current political unrest in the area. In 2010, though, I found Aleppo to be the most beautiful, welcoming city I’d ever laid eyes upon. There, I feasted on eggplant-lamb kebabs drizzled with a sweet cherry sauce, and berries and blood oranges pressed into fresh juices or muddled with ice for a naturally flavored slush. Muhammara—a blend of roasted red peppers, walnuts, bread crumbs, pomegranate molasses and lemon juice—was as commonplace a dip as hummus. My favorite Syrian dish, it’s chunkier than other spreads and the perfect balance of flavors: slightly sweet, yet tart and salty all at once.
Of course, a journey through Syria wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the capital, Damascus. Before I’d ever set foot in the country, everyone who knew I was coming to Syria mentioned the Bakdash ice cream parlor located in the Al Hamidiyah Souk, just paces away from the Umayyad Mosque. The shop was opened in the 1880s, and the cluster of newspaper clippings, autographed photos of international celebrities and plaques occupying the walls paid tribute to its fame. There, standard ice-cream ingredients were mixed with mastic and sahleb (a flour made from the roots of a Turkish orchid) to give the dessert a melted taffy-like texture.
Workers in paper hats and crisp aprons pounded the ice cream in stainless-steel drums before pulling, stretching and slapping it on marble countertops. It was then rolled into a ball, spun in a mixture of pistachios and cashews and slid into a glass bowl or waffle cone. There were only four flavors to choose from—milk, chocolate, mango and berry—but it was clear the best choice was to order the “cocktail” that featured a bit of them all.
It’s been said that the Prophet Muhammad never set foot in Damascus—that, just before descending the mountains and walking through the city’s gates, he refused to proceed and turned around. His reasoning was that “man should only enter paradise once.” I find the comparison to paradise true, at least in a culinary sense, not only for Damascus, but for the better part of Syria. I returned to Jordan, possibly a little chubbier, but certainly well fed.
Makes about 2 cups
1 large jar (12–16 oz.) roasted red peppers, drained (reserve liquid)
½ c. bread crumbs
2/3 c. toasted and chopped walnuts
4 cloves garlic
2 T. fresh lemon juice
1–2 T. pomegranate molasses (available at Middle Eastern markets)
½ t. salt (or to taste)
1 t. cumin
1–3 t. Aleppo pepper flakes, to taste
In a food processor or blender, pulse all the ingredients to combine. The consistency should be thick and chunky but slightly wet. Add a bit of the reserved pepper liquid to thin, or more walnuts or bread to thicken if necessary. The dip should be tangy, sweet, salty and slightly spicy. Adjust spices to taste. Garnish with additional Aleppo pepper flakes, and serve with pita.