In recent years I have become increasingly fascinated by the Muslim culture and am eager to learn more about the way of life and of course the food. I have enjoyed delicious Syrian and Lebanese food in several London restaurants, most notably Le Mignon in Delancey Street and Yalla Yalla Restaurant just off Brewer Street in Soho.
Syria is an intriguing country located between Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Almost 90 per cent of the population are Muslim and about 10 percent Christian yet Syria is a secular state with no official religion. Tolerance of religious minorities is actively encouraged.
Agriculture accounts for 60 percent Syria’s (GNP) Gross National Product and is the mainstay of the economy. Sixty five percent of the country is not considered arable, yet the country is self sufficient in food with lots of lovely fresh vegetables grown on its rich productive steppe land. An enviable situation and a not insignificant consideration in a country where sanctions are a perennial possibility.
Wheat, sugar beet, olives, lentils, cotton, tobacco, tomatoes, oranges and grapes are all grown organically. The main meats come from sheep, goats, chicken, and cattle, but I came across several camel butchers in the Souk in Damascus. Camel meat is supposed to increase men’s virility, and one butcher who seemed to be proof of the pudding proudly showed me photos of his two wives and 16 children!
In Damascus the arcaded souks line either sides of the cobbled streets and alleyways. Stalls selling the same products tend to be grouped together so to find a whole street of spice merchants so head for souk al-Bezuriife. I was particularly interested in the different types of za’atar and sumac and other unfamiliar ingredients like dried limes, dried rosebuds, okra and aubergines.
The chef at Four Seasons Hotel had kindly lent me a young English speaking chef called Roget to escort us around and answer my zillion questions. We found fresh pistachios still in their soft pink shells, slim Syrian pine nuts and a myriad of walnuts. Young men press fresh pomegranate and mulberry juice at every corner, another sells handbag shaped bread. Even if you have no intention of purchasing the souks are intriguing to wander through and linger in to catch a glimpse of Damascus life (acres of bright glittery clothes, carpets and sexy underwear.
Meat is freshly butchered and virtually still warm when sold, they seem to be particularly fond of the unmentionable bits, particularly the testicles and of course not a scrap is wasted. Many butchers have a little open fireplace in their stalls where a variety of kebabs are cooked to order. Little bakeries are dotted here and there cooking bread to order as people wait.
There is a long tradition of street food in Syria. Lots of falafel stalls – chick pea balls stuffed into pita bread with salad and tahina or rolled in a wrap sandwich. Others specialise in shawarma, thinly sliced lamb or chicken from a revolving spit like the Turkish doner kebab stuffed into Arab bread. All are freshly cooked and inexpensive. Restaurants many of which are converted palaces or khans vary but we ate very well and cheaply over all.
Every meal starts with mezze, a selection of starters to be shared, some hot, some cold. A typical selection might include some houmous, tabouleh, baba ghanoosh, moutabal, klibbeh, moussaka and a thyme salad.
For main course there seem to be a myriad of kebabs mostly chicken and lamb made with cubes of meat, others with mince either in balls or shaped around the skewer, sometimes chunks of vegetables were interspersed between the meat. In Aleppo we had a particularly delicious aubergine and lamb kebab and a cherry kebab – specialities of that city. Fattoush, consisting of stale Arab bread, tahina and chickpeas or meat was comfort food at its best. Dessert was either gorgeous ripe seasonal fruit, figs, kaki and pomegranates were in season or sticky sweet pastries similar to baklava stuffed with gorgeous fresh pistachio and dates and of course the ubiquitous crème caramel.
There is a rich baking tradition and many third and fourth generation patissiers are still turning out a dazzling array of beautiful biscuits. This article is about food but to most people the food is secondary to the monuments; don’t miss the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, the awe inspiring ruins of Palmyra, the Roman Theatre in Bosra, the Krak des Chevaliers near the city of Homs and close to the border of Lebanon and the Citadel of Aleppo.
This refreshing and highly nutritious Middle Eastern Salad may be served as a starter or as a main dish. It should be predominantly green, just flecked with grains of bulgar. I like to serve lots of well seasoned cucumber and tomato dice with the salad and Arab or pita bread.
Serves 6-12 served as a starter or a main course
4 ozs (110g) bulgar – cracked wheat
1-2 ozs (25-50g) freshly chopped parsley
1-2 ozs (25-50g) freshly chopped mint
freshly squeezed juice of 2 lemons or more if you need it
3 fl ozs (75ml) extra virgin olive oil
4-6 ozs (110-175g) spring onion, green and white parts, chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
6 very ripe firm tomatoes a selection of red and yellow, pear shaped etc., would be great, diced and sprinkled with a little salt, pepper and sugar
1 firm crisp cucumber, cut into 1/4 inch (5mm) dice
small crisp lettuce leaves eg. cos or iceberg
black olives – optional
Soak the bulgar in cold water for about 30 minutes, drain and squeeze well to remove any excess water liquid. Stir in the olive oil and some of the freshly squeezed lemon juice, season with salt and freshly ground pepper, leave it aside to absorb the dressing while you chop the parsley, mint and spring onions. Just before serving, mix the herbs with the bulgar, taste and add more lemon juice if necessary. It should taste fresh and lively.
There have always been delicious ways of using up bread, particularly in the Asian, South American, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. Sumac flakes give this Syrian bread salad a characteristic slightly sour taste. If you can’t get Sumac, the salad will still taste delicious but not so authentic.
2 stale pita bread or 2-3 thick slices of stale sour dough or good country bread
a little bunch of rocket or purslane
2-3 teaspoons Sumac if available
1 mild sweet red pepper, optional
½ cucumber, coarsely chopped
4 ripe, vine-ripened tomatoes, cut into ¼’s and then into ½’s crosswise
3 spring onions, sliced at an angle
2-3 tablespoons parsley, freshly chopped
2 tablespoons fresh coriander leaves
2-3 tablespoons fresh mint
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic crushed
salt and freshly ground pepper, maybe even a pinch of sugar or a dash of Balsamic vinegar
If the bread isn’t stale toast the bread until crisp. Cut into uneven sized pieces. Chop the rocket or purslane coarsely. Cut the sweet red pepper into or rounds or dice. Put both into a salad bowl with the tomato, cucumbers and spring onions, herbs and bread. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Whisk the dressing ingredients together. Spoon over the salad, toss gently, taste.
Allow the salad to sit for at least 30 minutes, better still an hour before serving, so the bread soaks up lots of yummy dressing and juice.
7 ozs/200g chickpeas
2 cloves garlic, crushed
4 ozs/110g onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp fresh coriander, roughly chopped
2 tbsp flat parsley, roughly chopped
¾ tsp freshly roasted and ground cumin
½ tsp freshly roasted and ground coriander
½ tsp salt
lots of freshly ground pepper
good pinch of cayenne
¼ tsp baking soda
oil for frying
Cover the chickpeas in lots of cold water and allow to soak overnight.
Next day, discard the water. Drain well. Put the chickpeas into a food processor with the other ingredients. Purée until as smooth as possible.
Cook a little blob in hot oil to check seasoning. Correct if necessary. Shape mixture into 2” rounds. Heat a 1” of oil in a frying pan (or use a deep fry). Cook 3 or 4 falafel at a time, turning occasionally until golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper. Serve warm or at room temperature.
4 Arab bread or flour tortillas
16 freshly cooked falafel
4 ripe tomatoes sliced
fresh mint leaves
very finely sliced fresh lemon, cut into tiny triangles
tahina mixed with natural yoghurt
Lay the Arab bread on the work top. Squish three freshly cooked falafel in a line over the top side of the bread. Lay a line of thinly sliced tomatoes on top, then some pickled cucumber; fresh mint leaves, sliced onions and fresh lemon including rind drizzle with tahina mixed with natural yoghurt. Roll into a Swiss roll; tuck in the ends to eat on the spot. Roll in grease proof paper and eat like a wrap. If you would like to serve as a starter, cut in half and arrange on a plate with one piece propped against the other with extra tahina sauce and a little tomato salad.
This salad was featured on virtually every menu in Damascus but I was intrigued to find that it was made not with thyme as we know it but with fresh summer savoury. This salad was quite a find, because even though I grow lots of savoury every summer I’ve only ever used to enhance the flavour of broad beans.
110g (4oz) fresh summer savoury
4 medium tomatoes diced
110g (4oz) halumi cheese diced 1/3 inch cubes
thinly sliced onions
freshly squeezed lemon juice
extra virgin olive
Chop the savoury, including the soft stalk into roughly one inch in length. Drizzle with freshly squeezed lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil toss to coat. Transfer to a plate, garnish with the alternating diced tomato and cubes of cheese, lay three of each. Sprinkle with sumac and serve.
Syrian Laymoun bi-na na
Fresh Lemon Juice with Mint
Freshly squeezed juices were widely available, lots of orange of course, but we particularly enjoyed this refreshing lemon and mint drink.
juice of six lemons
300ml/10fl oz/ (½ pint) stock syrup
300ml/10fl oz/ (½ pint) cold water
2 fistfuls of fresh mint leaves
Squeeze the lemons juice, pour the juice into a liquidiser, add syrup, fresh mint leaves and iced water leaves. Whizz until mint is fine and the drink is frothy. Pour into a tall glass, drink through a straw while still fresh.
Makes 28 fl ozs (825 ml)
1 lb (450 g) sugar
1 pint (600 ml) water
To make the stock syrup: Dissolve the sugar in the water and bring to the boil. Boil for 2 minutes then allow it to cool. Store in the fridge until needed.
Pistachio Biscuits – Graybeh
Fresh pistachios were in season when we were in Syria in late October. These little biscuits can be shaped in several different ways, little 5cm or 2 inch rounds, 2 inch diamonds with a pistachio nut in the centre or in little rings as described below.
Makes 35 approximately
100g (3 ½ oz) butter preferably unsalted
125g (4 ½ ox) icing sugar
1 ½ tablespoons orange blossom water
1 ½ tablespoons rose blossom water
250g (9oz) fine semolina
50g (2oz) pistachios
Preheat the oven to 170ºC/ 350ºF /Reg 3.
Cream the butter, add the icing sugar and beat until soft and creamy. Add the flour and blossom waters and stir until well mixed. Knead until smooth. Pinch off walnut sized pieces roll each into a 4 inch rope about 1.5 cm thick. Pinch the ends together and press a little pistachio nut or even two into each where they join. Bake in the preheated oven for about 12 – 15 minutes or until pale golden. Cool on a wire rack. Enjoy with a cup of coffee.
Continuing our countdown to Christmas
A Gorgeous Gluten-free Christmas Pudding
A delicious pudding suitable for everyone including coeliacs and those who would rather not eat suet.
200g (7oz) sultanas
125g (4 1/2oz) raisins
125g (4 1/2oz) currants
50g (2oz) homemade candied peel
50g (2oz) cherries
50g (2oz) almonds, peeled and chopped
4 tablespoons brandy
110ml (4fl oz) dark Jamaica Rum
125g (4 1/2oz) butter
175g (6oz) soft brown sugar
2 organic eggs
110g (4oz) ground almonds
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon gluten-free baking powder
grated zest of 1 orange and 1 lemon preferably organic
1 Bramley seedling apple, peeled and grated
1 x 1.2 litre (2 pint) delph or plastic bowl
Put the dried fruit, glace peel, cherries, almonds, brandy and rum into a stainless steel saucepan. Warm gently, turn off the heat and allow the fruit to plump up in the boozy liquid.
Meanwhile cream the butter in a bowl, add the sugar and heat until light and fluffy. Add in the eggs one by one beating well between each addition, add the ground almonds, spices and baking powder, grated orange and lemon zest and Bramley apple, then add the plump dried fruit and the booze. Stir well, better still, get all the family to stir and make a wish.
Put a little circle of greaseproof paper on the base of the bowl. Fill with the mixture, smooth off the top, cover the bowl with a double thickness of greaseproof paper, tie securely with string or clip on the lid if you are using a plastic bowl.
Put into a deep saucepan, cover with boiling water, it should come two thirds of the way up the bowl. Bring to the boil and cover, simmer for 4 1/2 hours. Keep an eye on the water level and top up every now and then as necessary. This pudding is succulent and delicious eaten on the day, but can be stored on the day.
Turn out onto a hot plate and serve on individual hot plates with rum flavoured cream or brandy butter. Alternatively allow to cool, re-cover with silicone paper and store in a cool dry cupboard until Christmas. Re-boil for 1 hour and serve as before.
If you plan a trip to Syria be aware that Syrian airlines cancel and change the time of flights on a regular basis, without prior notice – no refunds – but you can use your ticket any where within Syria over a 12 month period if you are back!
Noreen and Martin Conroy of Woodside Farm in East Cork – who produce delicious sausages and bacon from their free range pigs – have a new website, visit them at www.woodsidefarm.ie
O’Doherty’s in Enniskillen produces the most delicious Black Bacon that follows an ancient style of curing, a process that can take up to three months or more by combining two methods. It was voted best Irish Food Product by the Ballygowan Irish Food Writers. Visit their website www.blackbacon.com