I’ve never been to Syria, and I can’t say I’ve always wanted to visit. For years, I’ve heard of the political situation, and understood this was not a place for me . However recently, I’ve come to view Syria as a culinary Shangri-La. I’ll give you the three signs that caused me to revaluate Syria, and you can see if you agree with me:
- It started when I was in B-School and taking an international marketing class. Talk about a new perspective; if I did not learn to erase my preconceived notions, I’d be in trouble. In particular, one student (from Syria) who worked at the World Bank awed me with her insights, and the lively discussions that ensued in class. I regret I never told her, so she’ll probably never know that I learned a lot from her and admire her tremendously.
- I read a facinating article from the Saudi Armaco World magazine about Syrian chocolate maker, Ghraoui, and was immediately intrigued. They won the 2005 Paris Salon du Chocolat‘s prize for “best foreign chocolate” – now that’s no slouch! (Exhibit A: dates filled with dark chocolate coated almonds)
- In researching a post on cheeses, I discovered that Syria is itself a serious cheese producer – of sheep milk cheese, no less.
Now for some people, that last fact alone might be sufficent to sway them, but it took the three signal to focus my attentions, really, fascinating people + chocolate + cheese = intriguing possibilities. What’s not to like with that equation? So I elected to do a bit of research on the culinary and cultural side of Syria:
Syria borders Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel and Palestine to the southwest. So as you might imagine, its been heavily influenced by its neighbors in the arts and specifically culinary department. In fact, not just the neighbors, but the visitors and conquerors this country has seen for several millennia.
Syria once comprised the entire Levant, and is considered part of the “cradle of civilization”. For several thousands of years, Syria has seen civilizations ebb and flow across its lands, all leaving some sort of imprint as a reminder of their visit.
A Snippet of History
During the second millennium BC, Syria was successively occupied by Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Arameans. Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Hittites perhaps sensing they were missing out, added to the list of occupiers, often with only marsh land separating their various empires. Eventually, the Persians added Syria to their hegemony of Southwest Asia, only to surrender it to the ancient Macedonians after Alexander the Great’s conquests. This history just reads like something out of a Hollywood movie.
Syria also plays a significant role in the history of Christianity – Saul of Tarsus was converted on the Road to Damascus. Christians might know him better as the Apostle Paul, and he went on to establish the first organized Christian church it Antioch in ancient Syria.
By AD 640, Syria was conquered by the Rashidun army with the consequence that it became part of the Islamic empire. In the mid-7th century, the Umayyad dynasty, then rulers of the empire, made Damascus the capital. Syria was divided into four districts:
The Islamic empire stretched from Spain and Morocco to India and into Central Asia, allowing Syria to prosper as its capital region. Early Ummayad rulers constructed splendid palaces and mosques throughout Syria. Christians in this era were tolerated, and several held governmental posts. The country’s power dramatically declined during later Ummayad period due to the corruption of the empire’s rulers. Their dynasty was then overthrown by the Abbasid in 750, who moved the capital to Baghdad. Arabic became the dominant language.
Sections of Syria’s coastline were briefly held during the Crusades of the 12th century, and were known as the Crusader state of “the Principality of Antioch”. Shi’a extremists known as Assassins (Hashshashin) also caused mischief in this area. In 1260, the Mongols with an army 100,000 strong, destroyed cities and irrigation works. Aleppo fell in January 1260, and Damascus just three months later. About this time the Mongol leader had to return home to China, breaking off his attacks to attend a pesky succession dispute issue. The Mongol leader left in charge, Kitbugha, proved not nearly as formidable, and in only a few months, they were defeated by the Egyptian Mamluks. The Mamluk leader, created two capitals in Cairo and Damascus, linked by a mail service that traveled by both horses and carrier pigeons.
A short time later, an emir Sunqur al-Ashqar, attempted to declare himself ruler of Damascus, but he was defeated. Al-Ashqar, who had shrewdly married a Mongol woman, appealed for help from the Mongols, and they returned with an army of 50,000 Mongols, plus over 30,000 additional enforcements. The Mongols retook the city, but Qalawun, the Mamluk leader persuaded Al-Ashqar to switch allegiances, and they fought the Mongols (the Second Battle of Homs) in a close battle finally won by the Mamluks. How’s that for a story of love and treachery?
By the end of the 15th century, the discovery of a sea route from Europe to the Far East ended the need for an overland trade route through Syria. Devastated by the Mongols, Syria was easily absorbed into the Ottoman Empire from the 16th through 20th centuries, and largely removed from world affairs.
The Ottoman Empire
Because the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany during World War I, the Entente powers were determined to dissolve this great Ottoman territory – the allied diplomats secretly agreed on splitting this territory into several zones of influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 sealed the fate of modern Southwest Asia for the coming century; providing France with the northern zone (Syria and what is now Lebanon), and the United Kingdom with the southern one (Jordan, Iraq and Palestine).
The French Mandate
In 1920, an independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under Faisal I, who later became the King of Iraq. However, his rule over Syria ended after only a few months, as a result of a clash with French forces who occupied Syria until the League of Nations placed Syria under a French mandate. In 1925 Sultan Pasha al-Atrash led a revolt and is considered one of the most important revolutions against the French mandate, as it encompassed all of Syria. Al-Atrash won several battles against the French at the beginning of revolution, which resulted in France sending thousands of troops to Syria, and regained many cities. Syria and France negotiated independence in September 1936. However, the treaty never came into force because the French Legislature refused to ratify it. Syria proclaimed its independence again in 1941 but it wasn’t until 1944 that it was recognised as an independent republic.
So that’s a very brief recap of Syrian history, although alternatively I could have summed this history up as the Académie Syrienne de la Gastronomie did, and saved a lot of space: “A lot of travelers, artists, poets and archeologists visited Syria and liked it.” They stayed, and stamped the culture with some of their own, but the details were too fascinating for me to ignore.
The capital Damascus is the largest city in Syria, and the metropolitan area is a governorate on its own. Aleppo in northern Syria, the second largest city, is also a major center; its old town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Latakia and Tartus are Syria’s main ports on the Mediterranean sea.
Geography, People and Culture
Syria is mostly arid plateau, with dry hot summers and mild winters. The northwest part of the country bordering the Mediterranean is fairly green. The Northeast of the country “Al Jazira” and the South “Hawran” are important agricultural areas. The Euphrates, Syria’s most important river, crosses the country in the east, and is considered one of the fifteen states comprising the “Cradle of Civilization”. Given that name, it is no surprise that Philip Hitti (professor of Arabic studies) wrote, “the scholars consider Syria as the teacher for the human characteristics,” and Andrea Parrout (archeologist and Louvre curator) claimed, “each civilized person in the world should admit that he has two home countries: the one he was born in, and Syria.”
Traditional houses in Damascus, Aleppo and the other large cities are preserved and traditionally the living quarters are arranged around one or more courtyards, typically with a fountain in the middle supplied by spring water, and decorated with citrus trees, grape vines, and flowers. Outside of the larger city areas residential areas are often clustered in smaller villages. The buildings are passed down through the generations.
Damascus, has long been one of the Arab world’s centers for cultural and artistic innovation, especially classical Arab music. Aleppo is known for its muwashshah, a form of Andalous sung poetry popularized by Sabri Moudallal. Finally, Syria was one of the earliest centers of Christian hymnody, in a repertory known as Syrian chant, which continues to be the liturgical music of some Syrian Christians.
If you are a history buff, look no further than Damascus, considered one of the oldest, if not the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world. Rivaled by, hmm – Aleppo (another Syrian town that may sound familiar given that a favorite pepper is named after it).
Located in southwestern Syria, Damascus is the center of a large metropolitan area of roughly four million people. Besides being the capital of Syria, it is also its largest city. Nestled in the eastern foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range about fifty miles inland from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to being widely known as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Damascus is a major cultural and religious center of the Levant. The Great Mosque which tells the story of the different stages of the city’s history is at the top of the list for most pilgrims and is one of the most sacred places in Islam.
Syrian food mostly consists of Southern Mediterranean, Greek, and Southwest Asian dishes, with Turkish and French cooking thrown in for good measure. In Syrian foods, presentation is everything. Individual hor d’oeurves (meze) are often stuffed with vegetables, or vegetables are stuffed with meats. Even the most basic dishes are garnished. A typical Syrian meal begins with mezze, a spread of salads and appetizers, and an assortment of nuts and pickles. The main meals include some protein with a vegetable, salad and rice dish. A typical Syrian meal is followed by tea of coffee, platters of fruit and homemade pastries.
Note: I compiled this list from multiple sources and discovered some spelling variations. If I saw something spelled more frequently one way, that was the spelling I choice, or if two versions seemed equally popular I listed both. I suspect there might be some regional differences not accounted for in my summary, hence the variations. This is a mere sampling of the incredible foods I found – some very familiar, but I did not necessarily associate with Syrian cooking, but it was interesting to see popular dishes show up and the imprint that Syrian cooks added to the recipe.
Baba ghanouj – a dip made up of grilled eggplants, chopped tomatoes, chopped parsley, chopped mint, garlic, onion, chopped green pepper, pomegranate molasses, and decorated with pomegranate arils, and olive oil.
Batata harra – literally “spicy potatoes”
Fattoush – a ‘peasant’ salad of toasted pita bread, cucumbers, tomatoes, chickweed, and mint
Falafel – small deep-fried patties made of highly-spiced ground chick-peas
Fuul (Vicia faba) or Ful Halabi (after Aleppo) – mashed brown beans (fava) and red lentils drizzled with lemon olive oil and cumin. This dish looks like it came via Sudan where they do not appear to add the lentils. It is also popular in Egyptian cooking as well.
Hummus – dip or spread made of blended chickpeas, sesame tahini, lemon juice, and garlic, and typically eaten with pita bread
Jibbneh mashallale – string cheese make of curd cheese and is pulled and twisted together, like Italian mozzarella
Kibbeh – if a single dish could be called a national dish, this is it and it consists of a shell made from bulghur wheat and flour that is shaped into a hollow torpedo and filled with a protein and vegetables. Once prepared, the kibbe is fried and served with lemon that is dripped onto the meat once it is bitten. Kibbeh is probably the most difficult Syrian food when prepared by hand and today few women can duplicate the efforts of their female ancestors. Now when kibbeh is made, modern conveniences such as the Kitchenaid mixer are brought in to help.
Kabab – minced meat and spices that can be baked or charcoal-grilled on skewers.
Kousa Mahshi– squash stuffed with meat, tomatoes, rice and other spices
Labneh– strained yogurt, garnished with olive oil and sea salt.
Lahm bil ajĩn – a pastry covered with minced meat, onions, and nuts. Think pizza. It has a special flavor that it gets from tamarind paste or temerhindy.
Makdous – stuffed eggplant in olive oil
Manaeesh – mini pizzas traditionally garnished with cheese, Za’atar, or minced meat and onions. some bakeries allow you to bring your own toppings and build your own or buy the ones they sell there. This dish is also very popular in Lebanon.
Mujaddara – lentils cooked with wheat or rice, garnished with sauteed onions.
Mutabbel – an eggplant salad similar to baba ghannouj, said to be its spicier cousin. It contains grilled eggplant, tahini, yogurt garlic and topped with olive oil.
Pastirma or Bastirma – cured dried meats
Shanklish – a cheese commonly formed in the shape of a ball, and often covered with herbs and spices
Shish taouk– grilled chicken skewers (white meat only), marinated in olive oil, lemon, parsley, and sumac
Tabbouleh – diced parsley salad with burghul, tomato and mint
Yabraq (yabra’) – grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice. They are small and slender.
Za’atar – a spice mix of dried thyme and sumac that differs by region, and even family as each cook imparts their own stamp on it.
“Fiy ma’adaty khalwah la yamluha illa al-halwah.” Translated: “There is an empty place in my stomach which only sweets can fill.” Now that’s a Syrian saying, I can use at home.
Each city or region has its own specialties, Aleppo is the origin of many sweets and pastries, often characterized by a generous use of ghee (clarified butter) and sugar. Damascus is known for its ice cream and candied fruits.
Mr. Sama’an, or multiple pastry shops in Damascus explains that basically the pastries fall into three catagories:
- baklawa, consists of 12 paper-thin layers of flaky crust
- jatayir, with only two sandwiched layers of the same flour, sugar and egg batter
- kanafe, which resembles shredded wheat
These three types and their numerous variations are all deep-fried until brown in a heavy sheep-fat butter called semni. A fourth type exists that is baked in an oven, like a western biscuit or cookie. [source: Saudi Aramco World]
Baklava or baklawa – a dessert of layered pastry filled with nuts and steeped in Atar syrup, usually cut in a triangular or diamond shape. If its cut into smaller round pieces like tiny roses, this same pastry is called kul washkur or “eat and thank.” Cut in triangular shapes which curl up at the points to resemble blossoms, the pastry is called wardat (flowers). Filled with sweet cream it becomes nammoura or “delicious”; shaped into thin rolls filled with pine nuts and decorated with pistachio it becomes assabia’ issit “lady’s fingers.”
Ballorieh – shredded wheat sandwiches pistachio filling and sweetened with Attar syrup
Greybeh – a dry pastry made from oil and flour and sprinkled with cinnamon
Halawet al-jeben – Cheese pastry, rolled and stuffed with cheese or thick milk cream, served with Attar (Atar) syrup which is essentially a simple syrup with either rose water or orange blossom water added.
Halva – sesame paste sweet, usually made in a slab and studded with fruit and nuts. Halva is readily found in about any Middle Eastern or Eastern European market in the US.
Karabij – is a type of ma’amoul and popular in Aleppo where it is called “Karabeej Halab”
Kenafeh (k’nafe) – shoelace pastry dessert stuffed with sweet white cheese (ricotta like), nuts and syrup. This desert is often served at special celebrations such as brit milah or engagement parties.
Ma’amoul (mamoul) – date, pistachio or walnut filled cookies shaped in a wooden mold called a tabi made specially for Christian (traditionally Eastern) and Muslim holidays (such as Ramadan).
Mamuniyeh – semolina, boiled in water with the addition of copious amounts of sugar and ghee, and typically served with salty cheese or milk cream (qeshtah).
Swar es-ett (Lady’s wristlet)-a dessert of round pastry steeped in Atar syrup while the center is covered with smashed pistachio.
Taj al-malek (King’s crown) – a dessert of round dry pastry, centre is filled with pistachio, nuts or cashew.
Zilebiyeh – thin sheets of semolina dough, boiled, rolled and stuffed with pistachio or qeshtah.
Znood Es-sett (Lady’s arms) – filo pastry cigars with various fillings.
Syrian Food Bloggers and Resources:
Because I could not pick just one recipe to feature, I linked to some great resources on Syrian cooking. I tried for find sources that focused exclusively on Syrian food, and I am sure there are others, so if you find them please let me know, and I’ll add to the list.
Aromas of Aleppo – cookbook author
Orange Blossom Water – wonderful photos and recipes – a treasure of a resource
Syrian Foodie in London – great ideas from a Syrian ex-pat in London
Paris Alep – a Syrian food blog in French