Jan 12, 2009

SYRIA & LEBANON (savoury side)

And here is my savoury continuation to my recent trip in Syria & Lebanon... recollections amongst bakeries, souks or restaurants, the least I can say is that literally everything I ate was absolutely delicious, and as mentionned in a previous post, maybe what I enjoyed most was how the fruits and vegetables tasted like... seasonal and in their proper untouched non genetically modified state... sigh...

So where do I start?

Maybe a passage in the morning to a bakery would be a good idea. Undeniably, you can only appreciate how all goods are pretty much made around the clock, at almost anytime of the day, whatever you buy has likely just popped out of the oven! You pass by almost any bakery, and you will see someone rolling out the dough, the other working on the garnishes, and someone else transferring items to a flaming oven...until it finally lands in your own very hands waiting to be devoured.
Above: the smell of local bakeries immediately captures your senses in every street leading you to freshly made "mana'ish" (such as a za'atar variation above- by the way, there is a local belief that eating za'atar improves your memory and makes you more intelligent!) or "saj bread" (above, sprinkled with nigella and sesame seeds) baked on a heated cushion type utensil (you have to see it to visualize exactly what I mean by a "heated cushion"). This is likely to be your first stop of the day as a preparation for a delicious breakfast typically enjoyed with a black cup of tea, olives, and cheese.

Then taking a trip to the souk will amaze you with hills and colours of nuts & spices...
Above: an array of every imagineable spice bought at the fraction of the price that it is usually sold at in Western countries... and lovely green & brown za'atar in image just above.
And during our stroll at the souk, we spotted at one of the numerous spice/tea/herb shops this container with what seemed to be dead dried lizards...! We asked the shop owner what on earth these could possibly be used for, and he whispered back to us "it's like Viagra- for both men & women- if you want best results, then slip it into a lentil soup". Anyone want to try that out and let me know if it works?
You can also admire beautiful coffee pots that you might want to bring back home as a souvenir to reproduce the particuliar taste and aroma of Arabic coffee "ahwé" (or better known as "Turkish coffee"). Coffee is considered sacred in the Middle East, and is enjoyed all throughout the day- in the morning, before lunch, after lunch, before dinner, after dinner, etc etc... If you have the chance to bump into a fortune teller, they can also read your future in your coffee cup after you have sipped it away... What happens is that after drinking the coffee, you have to leave a tiny quantity at the end, turn over your cup and leave it for a few minutes. The patterns that the remaining coffee traces on the insides of the cup form images and symbols that fortune tellers can read and thus allowing them to predict your future... Entertaining, the least I can say!

Then you can break for a charming culinary escapade at one of the many traditional Arabic restaurants where your eyes & tastebuds will be thrilled with beautiful interiour décor and most tasty dishes... The best ones are located in the old quarters...
It would be criminal to skip the typical gigantic mezzé served at the beginning of a meal and relish on salads such as fattoush (below, with the pieces of bread), the infamous taboulé (below) made with tons of super healthy chopped parsley, or a refreshing eggplant, tomato, pepper and mint salad (my personal fave)...

Taboulé has to be "the" most famous salad in these countries, just watch out you don't leave the table with pieces of parsley stuck in between your teeth!Of course you must order some glorious "hummus" (and for a recipe you can try out one I blogged about- it's a family secret recipe!). We ordered a most amazing hummus EVER served with crushed walnuts and chickpeas... and I highly recommend you try out "mouhammara" (below) if you havent tried it yet. Your tastebuds will be whisked away by this mixture of red bell peppers, walnuts, pomegrenate mollasses and other secret ingredients...

It is common to order a "barak bil jibné" as part of a mezzé- these are basically cheese pies that can come in different forms. Some are fluffy and airy like a pillow, they are my favourite!
And please, let us not forget enjoying vine leaves in such countries! Below is "yalanji" (similar to dolmades in Turkey & Greece). As part of a mezzé, you will often encouter the cold lemony variety. As a main course, it is typical to savour it as a hot main course served with meat, as blogged and wonderfully explained by Tony from Olive Juice.
If you're in the mood for a popular chicken based staple dish, then please do order tender & tasty shish taouk (above).
Or try more local dishes, such as okra called "bamyé" in Arabic- convenient for vegeterians if you ask for no meat to be served with it.
Or even better- "kibbé". Kibbé is a beloved dish in the Middle East, and can come fried, baked, served with a yoghurt based sauce (below, "kibbé labaniyé") and in certain occasions, it is grilled "kibbé mishwiyé" which is -for me- the kings of all kibbés! It is traditionally enjoyed with a glass of "arak" (known as Ouzo in Greece for instance).

Meals that last for hours, catered by most friendly waiters, cooked by chefs that know their stuff, and ending with an apple, cherry, watermelon (amongst the endless list of options) flavoured arguile... With that, you have really had a taste of an example of a genuine Middle Eastern meal.
Of course, there are tons and tons of other savoury dishes to enjoy...which tempt me to take a flight back and take more photos...In the meantime, you can always check out my travel photos on my Flickr stream.

Jan 8, 2009

SYRIA & LEBANON (sweet side)

As promised, I have more to tell you about my trip to Syria & Lebanon- this post however will be particularly sweet full of syrupy and nutty goodness! (Next time I'll share savoury specialties with you!). Because both countries share so many desserts (sometimes it's just the name that's different, or one country would use rose water instead of orange blossom water), I've compiled everything together as ultimately pretty much all the below is found in both Lebanon and Syria. If the images also ring a bell to any Greek or Turkish pastries- then do not be surprised as all these countries share a lot of similar staple ingredients in their desserts, amongst which phyllo, syrup and a variety of nuts.
First off, you have to know that when entering a Middle Eastern pastry shop, it is very rare to see people buy just 1 or 2 pieces of a dessert, unlike here in France- instead, the minimum quantity tends to be half a kilo as they usually buy for entire families for casual sugar cravings or to impress at festive events. I once entered a shop and asked for just a piece of baklava and in return I got an odd look like I was the first person to ever ask for such a small quantity! Sometimes if you ask for just one piece, they will give it to you for free- and before I forget, when you're inside a shop trying to decide what to buy, be ready to taste a lot because the seller will often generously make you taste something (or many things) that just came out of the oven while you make your decision as to what to buy. This all reflects the warmth of the people in these regions.
Secondly, most people tell me as much as they find Middle Eastern desserts to be delicious, they also notice that they tend to be overly sweet. This I believe is very much subjective- it is indeed true that they are sweeter then your average cake or tartlet, but I personally do not find them to be nauseatically sugary. It is a question of personal taste.
Thirdly, do not be surprised to repeatedly see the usage of certain ingredients, such as a variety of nuts tucked into layers of phyllo or semolina. Nuts are quite abundant in the Middle Eastern region and are one of the key ingredients to many desserts. Another sacred ingredient is the syrup- almost every dessert is drenched into a silky sinfully sweet syrup, because very little or no sugar is used in a recipe, the syrup makes up for the lack of sweetness in the finished product. One other common ingredient is "ishta" which is a kind of cream similar to ricotta. I personally love pastries that contain ishta, it gives them an amazingly smooth touch contrasting wonderfully to crunchy textures.

Below for instance you can see the "ishta" in a dessert called "knafeh bil ishta" composed of golden layers of crunchy phyllo, crumbles of pistachio and of course... the sacred syrup!
When entering a pastry shop, you can spot fridges that contain "halawet el jibné" (below). Despite their simple appearance, I have to tell you these taste amazing (and are probably my favourite). It is made from a semolina based dough with ishta stuffed inside, and is served with crushed pistachios, sometimes some glacé cherries to add some colour and of course... syrup!
In Arabic, "ish el bilbol" translates to "bird nests" (below) due to the ressemblance between these kataif based pastries to a bird's nest. These are famousingly crunchy and garnished with a variety of nuts.
Everything is served in gigantic trays- with diametres of at least 1 metre!
Here we see "ishta" being used again in "warbat il ishta" (above). These are delicious, and should be consumed the day they are made.

Harrissé (above) is also a very popular dessert in the Middle East, mainly made of semolina. It has a smooth melt-in-your-mouth texture and once you start it is difficult to stop!
These brioche like breads (above) stuffed with dates called "aras ajwé" are common in bazaars or street corners.
And this cotton candy of the Middle East "ghazl el banat" (above) (translates to little girl hair locks) is my absolute favourite. I've blogged about it a couple of times and explained how much I adore using this as a topping to ice cream. It has a lovely silky texture and a nutty taste.
At the infamous Souk el Hamadiyé (Damascus) we tried these giant coconut macaroons (above) which were absolutely delicious! (I know I am overusing the word "delicious" here, but I dont know how else to describe all this goodness!)
While walking towards the Souk, we spotted a shop that was in the middle of making "asabee el sit" (lady fingers, above) , an absolutely delicious fried pastry drenched in a dramatic amount of syrup! Keep note that fried pastries are always best consumed within the hours that they are made...or the next day they feel like a sugar soaked sponge in mouth!

These orange candies and rolls are made of apricot, a fruit that Syria produces a ton of. Known as "amardeen" (above), this is particular to the country of Syria.
A crowd at a famous patisserie called "Al Wissam".
Finally, "katayef"(above) are a sort of pancake stuffed with walnuts, fried, and swimming in syrup. This is also one of those other desserts that need to be consumed the day they are made. Katayef can also come unfried with "ishta" and pistachios, drizzled with syrup.

More soon, and in the meantime you can check out my travel photos here.

Jan 5, 2009


Above: a dreamy capture from the famous "Souk el Hamadiyé" in Damascus, Syria.
I just recently got back from a wonderful holiday and I want to wish you all a Happy New Year filled with lovely and blissful moments! For about ten days I had totally disconnected myself from any internet related activity (and boy did it do me some good!), but am today happy to blog away again and share with you some of my memories in two particularly interesting countries- Syria & Lebanon. In effect, that is where I had been for the past few days. Because there is so much to write about, I will have to split my posts into several parts- this being the first, with food related subjects of course!

Well what can I say about my trip? Syria & Lebanon are two troubled countries with exceptional beauty. In recent times, much is said about them on the news and through the media- often portraying both countries in stereotypical ways relating them to war and terrorism. As a visitor however, you do not feel any fright when walking around. On the contrary, there is so much to enjoy- the fascinating (and often contrasting) cultures, the incredible warmth of the people and the absolutely mouthwatering food! My goodness, do I miss the cuisine there! And maybe most of all, how I miss the taste of fruits and vegetables- everything is seasonal and nothing is genetically modified! A tomato actually tasted like a tomato- I tell you!
Above: the famous "Souk el Hamadiyé" in Damascus, Syria. Below: birds flocking over the entrance.

Above: a coffee and arguilé break at a traditional café in Damascus and a beautiful living room reflecting typical Syrian architecture and design.
Above: beautiful views & dinner in Byblos, Lebanon.

I must say that I found Syria & Lebanon to both be quite different. Having first landed in Damascus, I decided to go to Beirut by car (it is about a 2 hour ride). I was a bit worried about what would happen at the borders, but things often work out just fine if you tip people off with some “bakshish” hehe- this is the way to go in most Middle Eastern countries. When entering Beirut, visually, there is a noticeable difference- it is much more green then Damascus, and this greenery extends with a view on the glistening coast. Damascus is dry, but the warm beige colours are beautified with the golden sunlight, but the palm trees in both cities add a lovely Mediterannean feel. When I arrived to Beirut, you instantly feel there is something different… there is this unique “joie de vivre” in the city- it seemed as if people live each day as if it were their last. Going out at night (the night life is amazing in Beirut!) seeing people with happy faces walking past war destroyed buildings reflected this. During one of my night-outs, amidst the party music and the bottles of champagne in a club, the DJ passed on the national anthem in the middle of his set and the people were chanting along with pride. Whenever I meet a Lebanese person, I always feel how proud they are of their country- here in Paris I often see Lebanese wearing a necklace with their country icon. When you are in Beirut, you can understand this. The war marks in the streets alone explain how much they have suffered and strive for peace. You can still see bullets and shattered glass on buildings, with an omnipresent army and army tanks in the streets for security. Yet at the same time you can notice constructions going on, and new beautiful charming areas being built with a modern downtown area. The contrast in culture and religion is also impressive, it is not uncommon to see a church a few metres away from a mosque, or a gigantic Christmas tree in front of a mosque, and if you drive further you can view the Hezbollah inhabited areas. There is also a European feeling to Beirut- visually very much similar to Greece. The people have also opened up and are a bit “westernized” while maintaining a strong attachment to their country. Beirut is not a city like any other city in the Middle East (and I have been pretty much everywhere in the Middle East)- there is a certain feeling of freedom and a love for life, and I felt like my heart was beating stronger there then in any other country I visited. There is a festive emotion in every street corner.

Syria on the other hand feels a bit more conservative and less westernized (things are slowly changing however). The people however are incredibly friendly and helpful and they seem to be in such peace with themselves. A stranger can offer you a cup of coffee wholeheartedly, and a shop owner will not argue with you if you do not have the exact change. There is serenity in the country, and I became strongly attached to this. The Western world may be advanced and “civilized”, but the stress we have here (in the “modern world”) whether it be the pressure to succeed professionally or emulate billboard models physically does not exist to the same degree in Syria. Because the government filters out so much Western (and particularly American) media or businesses, the people live in their own “Syrian world" with values such as family, respect, love, friendship, and an evident love for food and sharing culinary experiences. Before I had left Paris, people were asking me if Christmas is celebrated in Syria- and the answer is yes! It is true the majority of the population is Muslim, but there is also a Christian minority, and both religions live peacefully together. I myself am Greek Orthodox (one of the main Christian groups in Syria) and we enjoyed a delicious Christmas meal with lots of lamb based dishes and Middle Eastern specialities. The tradition on Christmas day is also to visit all your family and relatives’ homes who open their door for you with a glass of liqueur and Jordan almonds- and this starts early in the morning, so you have to accept drinking alcohol on an empty stomach.
There is so much to say (which I will continue in a second post), but I wanted to also share how interesting it was being in both countries at the time the Gaza crisis broke out. Hearing about it on the news in France is very different then in Syria or Lebanon. The people there are much more involved, and in each shop and street corner, people are talking about the crisis and showing their support for Palestine. I myself personally cannot take a side, the only thing I wish for is that peace is once and for all established in this region.

So do come back and check my blog in the coming days as I will be sharing a lot of my culinary memories, from hummus to baklava and less internationally known Middle Eastern dishes!

To start off I would love to entice you with a Syrian ice-cream speciality called “éma”. This is by far one of the most amazing ice creams ever- it is made from whole milk, mastika and sometimes rosewater, generously rolled in pistachios (and when I say generously, I literally mean it- Syria has an abundance of pistachios so they are not skimpy with it!). The most famous place to enjoy éma is in the famous Souk el Hamadiyé at a parlor called “Bakdash”. No matter what time of the year, there is always a crowd inside and it is entertaining watching éma being manually churned and served (in generous portions, the way gelati is generously served in Italy). If anyone ever visits Damascus, I highly recommend that you stop by Bakdash- it is a must see and you MUST taste!

More on Syria & Lebanon to be continued…