beginner guide to syrian food

I have spent the last month, exploring Syrian cuisine and I have written some notes for myself to try and understand how the cooking works. The name Syria originates from the Babylonian word “Suri” but otherwise known in the Muslim world as Sham (the north). Taking a snapshot of its food, its evident that its a blend of its ethnic minorities: Arab, Kurdish, Turks, Armenian, Circassians, Assyrian and Jewish. From a first glance, I notice that Syrian cuisine involves a lot of stuffing. Stuffing meat into baby courgettes stuffing meat into baby eggplants (makdous), stuffing rice into cabbage or vine leaves (mashi, yabraq, dolma). Dolma is particularly notable as it was the dish that brides made for their fiancé before their wedding day and its still seen as a symbol of familial bond today.

There is a great deal of overlap with Lebanese food and other levant cuisines due to previous conquests by the Ottomans, Persians, and Turks. The cuisine spread particularly through the Arab Umayyad conquest which brought the Islamic era. However, when the Umayyad caliphate was overthrown in the Abbasid revolution, and the capital in Baghdad became the center of science and philosophy, there was a reliance on Persian Bureaucrats (see: the Barmakids which lent its name to the Baramkeh neighborhood in Damascus) and Persian influences were adopted by the Syrian people. In 1516, the Ottomans invaded, and Syria was controlled by the Turkish for 400 years. However, when Turkey lost the first world war, France colonized Syria and drew its usual straight-lined border with British Jordan. Syria gained independence in 1946 but civilian rule was short lived with a series of coup d’états. In 1971 Baath (the Arab Socialist Party) gained control in 1971 with Hafez al-Assad as the leader and cracked down on the Muslim brotherhood. In 2000, Hafez died which meant his young son came into power.

Food is important in Syria. Damascus is a traditional Middle Eastern city which is centered around the souk and its spices, and enclaved by a labyrinth of alleys, shrines, and stalls. Cooking is perceived as a nurturing and nourishment and meals can take up to 3 hours to prepare. Similarly, when visiting a Syrian home, come bearing a small gift either biscuits or a plant but never with food as this can offend the host.

I, personally find it useful to look at key seasonings and ingredients to really understand the palate.

Key seasonings: pomegranate molasses, tahini, garlic, olive oil, parsley, mint, rose water, sugar syrup, sumac, aleppo pepper, orange blossom water, halva, pistachios, ghee, lemon, honey.

Key ingredients: nuts (walnuts, pine, almonds and pistachio), fava beans, labneh (strained yoghurt), olives, vermicelli noodles, dates, clotted cream, sujak (spicy sausage), flatbread, chickpeas, eggplant, courgetti, lamb, sesame seeds, lentils, tomatoes, cucumbers, vine leaves,

Key dishes: kibbeh fattoush, muhammara, kebab, baba ghanoush, kubbeh bil sanieh, makdus, tabbouleh, yabrak, mashi, manakish, falafels, shawarma, hummus, fatteh,

Sweet: booza, kunafah, baklava, mamoul (date-filled cookies made around Easter or Ramadan), Kaak (biscuit), Ruz Halib (rice pudding), mabroumeh, barazek, taj al-malik

Drink: polo (mint lemonade) mint and lemon tea, fresh fruits, and arak (anise-based spirit), ayran which is a salty yoghurt drink, muggeli (spicy tea with cinnamon and walnuts which is traditionally served to a mother after she has given birth), kammun (drunk in the winter, a mixture of salt, water and cumin), erek el-sous (distilled roots from liquorice plant), jallab (fruit syrup made with dates, molasses, carob, and rose water, crushed ice and floating pine nuts)

Other notes:

  1. Appetisers akin to Tapas are known as meze and are usually accompanied by Arabic flatbread
  2. Baharat Mushaklah – Mixed spices, 50% all spice, 20% black pepper, 10% cinnamon, 5% ginger, 5% nutmeg, 5% cloves, 5% cardamom
  3. Aleppo = Halab therefore Halabi Kebab is of Aleppo. Aleppo protected was the old spice hub and infamous for its pepperiness on the silk road, a crossroad between Europe, Turkey and the Far East.

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