Syrian Soul Food
Syria, which has been in the news so much recently, is kind of a blind spot for American foodies. We’re a little familiar with the distinctive cuisine of its wealthiest city, Aleppo, but what about the rest of the country?
Syria has been called an island between two seas, the Mediterranean and the Syrian Desert. Most agriculture takes place in a strip about 100 miles wide paralleling the Mediterranean coast (there’s a less important farming area along the northern border of the country extending to northern Iraq). The coastal plain cooks much like Lebanon, with lots of lemon juice and olive oil.
Inland, however, there’s a different culinary accent. The lemon doesn’t grow around Aleppo, so the Aleppines traditionally substitute other sour fruit juices such as pomegranate and tamarind. They also like a local medium-hot red pepper, often substituting it for fresh herbs such as mint or parsley where they would be used elsewhere in Syria (“They don’t seem to like herbs,” a puzzled Damascus gentleman once told me). Both ingredients appear in Aleppo’s best-known dish, muhammara, a savory appetizer of ground walnuts and red pepper mixed with sour pomegranate syrup.
Damascus is 200 miles to the south of Aleppo, but its cuisine is actually a lot more like Turkey’s. The reason is that Damascus was an administrative center under the Ottoman Empire, and there are still a number of Turks living there. It’s known for making a lot of Turkish-style meat-tomato-eggplant stews with names like oturtma and the best baklava-type pastries in the Arab world.
City folk, country folk
In between are the cities of Homs and Hamah, which have been rebelling against the Assads, father and son, off and on for more than 30 years, often suffering grievously. Homs, the third largest city in the country, is a major industrial area while neighboring Hamah is the center of sheep farming. As a result, the two cities have a sort of Dallas/Fort Worth relationship, telling jokes about each other in which the Homsis show up as the city slickers and the Hamawis are the rubes, though when the Hamawis tell the stories, of course, they always get the better of the slickers. For their part, the Hamawis indulge in hick jokes about Bedouins; meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf, where a lot of Homsis work, the locals tell jokes in which the Homsis are the rubes. It’s comedy karma, or something.
Neither city has as distinctive a cuisine as Aleppo or even Damascus. They make dishes found throughout the country such as shakiriyya (boiled lamb shanks in yogurt sauce, served cold), msabbiha (more or less hummus, except the chick peas are whole and just swim around in the tahineh sauce) and halawat jibn, a magical sweetened dough kneaded with fresh cheese, which you can eat it by itself or wrapped around any baklava filling. Hamah does have a street snack specialty resembling a crisp miniature pizza topped with sesame seeds and either red pepper flakes or ground sumac berries.
Dish by dish
When you get past the famous dishes and the party dishes (hostesses jealously guard their recipes), you find a lot of quite simple, earthy dishes, the sort that characterize Greek island cookery. Indeed, they’re the sort of dishes people had in mind when they first started talking about the Mediterranean diet. Here are some examples.
- Burghul mhammas is simple and appetizing. It’s bulgur pilaf dressed with butter, except you toast the bulgur in a pan before boiling it.
- Basha wa-‘asakro means “the pasha and his soldiers.” It’s zucchini stewed with ground meat and chick peas, the chick peas being the soldiers.
- Abu Shalhub means “father of Shalhub,” which is a Christian name, so it might be a Christian meatless dish that has been adopted by other Syrians. It’s quite simple: You cut cabbage and eggplant in small pieces, fry them in butter, add bulgur and water and cook until done.
- Shalbâtu is a perfectly mysterious name — it might come from the Aramaic language, which is still spoken in some parts of Syria, though it would have to mean something like “trouble-maker.” Cut meat in small chunks, boil until tender and save the broth. Cut up some cabbage, fry the pieces in butter until soft, add a good handful of rice, twice as much broth and a dash of cinnamon and allspice. When the rice is done, serve the shalbâtu garnished with the meat.
- Hraqet-isba‘u is lentils, chick peas and fresh pasta cooked with a sour fruit juice and seasoned with fried garlic and cilantro, finally garnished with onions and bits of bread, both fried in oil. The name means “the burning of his finger,” for some reason. Meanwhile, tibakhruhu (“the cooking of his soul”) is meat, eggplant, tomato and onions, finished with mint and garlic. This is such a basic combination of ingredients in the region that the name might actually mean “soul food.”
Serves 3 or 4
This is more or less a lurid pink cousin of hummus and msabbiha. Or you can think of it as a sesame-flavored version of the Persian dish borani-ye choghondar.
- Trim all but about 1 inch of greens from the beets and boil or steam until a sharp knife can easily penetrate the largest beet, 30 minutes to 1 hour.
- When cool, trim the remaining greens and the stringy root, rub off the skin and dice the beets fine. Transfer to a bowl.
- Vigorously stir the tahineh, if it has separated. Mix the tahineh, yogurt, lemon juice and garlic and stir into the beets.
Zester Daily contributor Charles Perry is a former rock ‘n’ roll journalist turned food historian who worked for the Los Angeles Times’ award-winning Food section, where he twice was a finalist for the James Beard award.
Photo: Beets, done Syrian style.
Credit: Charles Perry