Syria - Flavours of the Silk Road
Written by James Brennan
Ever wondered how spices from the Far East made their way into Middle Eastern food? Syria’s position on an ancient trading route introduced it to new exotic ingredients that fused with fine locally-grown produce to create an entire cuisine.
It has been described as a sensory overload. A commotion of sights, sounds, and smells that transports you to another time. Aleppo’s medieval souk is a discordance of porters’ cries and traders’ patter, rickety carts and billowing silks, walls of olive soap and mountains of pistachio nuts.
From the vaulted stone ceilings, shafts of sunlight beam down onto thronging crowds. The smell of baking bread fills the air, and mounds of spices tickle the nose with their piquant aromas. The alleys twist and turn in every direction, to tranquil mosques, murmuring madrassas (place of study) and grand old caravanserais or khans. These were the merchants’ quarters, which since the Middle Ages offered shelter to traders on their journey along the Spice Road.
History is all around you in Syria. From the energetic souks and old city of Aleppo, to the magnificent Umayyad Mosque of Damascus and the Roman ruins of Palmyra, a nation’s heritage can be seen in its glorious old buildings, and felt in the scarred stone of their walls. But it can also be smelled and tasted in its food. The story of Syria’s cuisine is intertwined with the tale of its rich past. And the souk of Aleppo played a starring role in both. Aleppo has long been associated with food. The prophet Abraham let his cow graze on the mound where the Citadel now stands, offering its milk to the poor, while the Arabic name for Aleppo is Halab, which could be derived from the Arabic word for milk. But it was the city’s position on the Spice Road, the ancient trading route from China to Europe, that was to shape its cuisine.
Passing caravans brought exotic spices that the souk traders had never seen before. They enlisted the services of cooks, and the spices soon found their way into recipes alongside the fine local ingredients grown on Aleppo’ s outlying land. “All the spices used to pass by this city to go to Europe,” explains Pierre Antaki of the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy. “As a smart businessman, when you have something in front of you, you want to know what it is and how it tastes. And this is why the souk traders put all the spices in the food.”?
It was a revolution in flavour that would transform the Aleppian palate, and spread across the entire country. One dish that encapsulates this marriage of locally produced ingredients and eastern spice is kabab bil karaz, or cherry kebabs. A baharat spice blend containing cardamom, cumin, cloves, and coriander comes together with sour wishna cherries and balls of rich, tender lamb.
“Around Aleppo the soil is very rich in minerals and iron,” says Antaki. “It is very fertile land. All our animals breed and feed in open air.”
Cherry kebabs became one of the definitive dishes of northern Syrian cuisine. There was also kibbe safarjaliyye, or deep-fried ground lamb casings stuffed with pine nuts, cracked bulgar wheat and spices, which are cooked with quince in a pomegranate molasses sauce. Both dishes have sweet and sour elements that are thought to have been influenced by Chinese cuisine.
According to Antaki, Chinese influences can be seen in many Syrian foods. “Aleppo has the ‘hairy’ sweets, the knafeh, which they say come from China. It’s like Chinese noodles, which we developed into sweets. We also have vermicelli noodles in traditional Syrian food, which we have with rice and in soup.” Proof that the Silk Road brought with it not just an exchange of goods and ingredients, but also an exchange of ideas.
Ingredients and cooking methods from the Far East transformed Syrian cuisine. The new flavours and techniques melded with simpler Bedouin dishes of rice and meat, and flourished with the Bedouin tradition of hospitality. It had long been the Bedouin way to invite passing travellers into their tents for refreshment. This act of generosity evolved into a culture of plenty in the cities, where rich merchants would spoil their guests with huge and varied banquets. Today, the Syrian mezze table is a stunning array of dishes, from cold stuffed vine leaves and tabbouleh salad, to hot meshwi kebabs and koftas. These mezze splurges can be enjoyed in fine Aleppo restaurants such as Beit Sissi, or Zmorod, which occupy old merchants’ houses dating back to the Ottoman period.Ottoman rule was to bring a whole new range of distinctive tastes to Syria. One such delicacy is booza ice cream, which has its roots in the Ottoman dondurma (ice cream). Made with mastic and sahlab, or ground orchid root, the ice cream has an elastic texture and a very sweet flavour. Booza can be found in the splendid surrounds of a Damascene institution, Bakdash, in souk Al-Hamidiyah. The old ice cream parlour has been serving up its frozen delights since the end of the 19th century.
An influx of Armenian refugees in the early 20th century further altered Syrian tastes. The cured meat, or basturma, can be found in many homes and restaurants throughout Syria, together with sujuk (spicy sausages) and yalanji (vine leaves), stuffed with rice and meat, then folded into neat triangular parcels. Settlers and migrants from different ethnic groups brought their own dishes to the Syrian table, many of which have been assimilated into the national cuisine. And the French presence after World War II helped to refine many aspects of Syrian cooking. As a result, Syrian food is reckoned to be the pinnacle of Middle Eastern cuisine. Regional tastes still vary in Syria, yet even today the cuisine of Aleppo is considered to be among the best in the country. The food there is spicier, sweeter, and richer than almost anywhere else in the region. Even the top restaurant in Damascus has an unmistakable Aleppian quality.
Al Halabi at the Four Seasons Damascus is highly regarded for its northern Syrian dishes. Head Chef Mohamad Helal, born and bred in Aleppo, says the spread of Aleppian cuisine is down to the people. “In Aleppo, wherever there is a social gathering, the conversation is always about food and cuisine,” he says. “This is really the case. They are obsessed with food. The spiciness and the sweetness in Aleppian food is like the basic instincts of the people. That’s the way we are.
”Wherever your travels in Syria may take you, one thing is certain: it’s hard to find a bad meal. People throughout the country are passionate about their food. And whether it’s ful medammes with fava beans, chilli paste and tahini in Aleppo, or fatteh with lamb and hot yoghurt in Damascus, every dish has a story.
Syrians love olives. There’s a plate of them on every dinner table, and olive oil is slathered over almost everything, from muhammara dip to kibbe nayyeh. But it is also used with bay laurel to make the famous Aleppo olive soap. Souks all over the country are redolent with the clean, fresh smell of it. The square blocks are handmade with 90% olives, and are stamped with a pattern of authenticity. But if you want to take some home with you, make sure you get the very best. The highest-quality soap is the oldest. It can be aged up to seven or eight years, and has a brown crust. When sliced down the middle, the soap will be dark green at its core. The older the soap, the more gentle it will be on your skin.
B Aleppo’s century-old Baron Hotel once hosted Lawrence of Arabia, whose unpaid bar bill is displayed on the wall.
Aleppo becomes Qatar Airways’ 100th destination in April this year, a significant milestone for one of the world’s fastest-growing airlines. In a span of just 13 years, the airline’s fleet has increased from only four to its current total of 94 airplanes. Experiencing double-digit growth year on year, the airline has continued to add new destinations to its rapidly expanding global network which will top 120 destinations by 2013.
Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the oldest cities in the world. It will become the airline’s second destination in Syria after Damascus, where the carrier has been flying since 1998.
Syrian Academy of Gastronomy
Syrian cuisine isn’t just renowned throughout the Middle East. It is held in high regard all over the world. The French left Syria with a keen appreciation of its culinary flair, and now many other countries are discovering the nation’s food thanks to the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy. Founded in 2003, the Academy’s goal is to preserve the rich culinary heritage of Syria. But it is also dedicated to honing and improving the food and promoting it on an international stage. It’s part of a wider Academy that includes countries from Europe, South America, and Asia. The Academy holds gala dinners around the world, in which members can exchange ideas. The aim is to develop a Syrian nouvelle cuisine, in which the essence of Syrian home cooking can flourish in a Michelin-standard dining environment, so that epicureans the world over can enjoy one of the oldest and most intriguing cuisines.