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.

15 comments:

matt wright said...

The longest blog post in history? Quite possibly!

Amazing stuff. Stunning photos, so much character and charm. Great looking fodder too!

Laurie Constantino said...

Your photos are among the best I've seen of the region. They are so alive, capturing the generosity of spirit you describe in the text. As you mention, the similarity with Greek food is striking - same ingredients, similar names, and the same small plate concept of mezedes. I was pleased to hear that za'atar makes you smarter as I am currently writing a piece about za'atar. I'll definitely be linking to this wonderful post.

Peter G said...

You really were at my type of place Marianna! Such a glorious, gastronomic journey and beautifully captured!

rosemary said...

tout donne envie ! Une petite recette ?
Les galettes de pain ont l'air terrible !!!

duodishes said...

Wow. Everything was just too beautiful. Toooooo beautiful!

Jo said...

oh wow, the last few posts have been so interesting! I've thoroughly enjoyed it and the food looks delicious as well.

Tartelette said...

What an amazing trip! My parents went to Syria a few years ago and still talk about it and the fond memories they have. Love all the pictures!

Latifa said...

wow.........what a journey?
i've visited leabanon before. after your photo's my next trip will be syria.


i can smell the manaeish from your photo's..........delicious!

Ana Min Beirut - أنا من بيروت said...

Hello Marianna:
You take amazing pictures, you have a good taste in food ... Thanks for visiting the blog, although the english hasn't been updated in a long time. I am more into audio blogging on my arabic blog, minbeirutbilarabeh.blogspot.com
Anyhow, thanks for your visit and kind words ... I am happy you found my blog so I could find yours ... I am a "foodite" currently involved in a project to grow my own food, organically... see you around.

Choosy Beggar Tina said...

What lovely photos! I met Peter from Kalofagas and he recommended your site to me - I can see why! I just made huge piles of warak meshi, meat kibbeh, hummus and muhammara bi jibneh and tabouleh last weekend, and we've been enjoying it for the last three days.

I can't wait to go crawling through your archives and see how you make some of these things.

One of your pictures showed green and brown za'atar. I've only ever had the brown kind - do you know what green za'atar is made from?

Marianna said...

Hi Choosy Beggar Tina! Thanks so much for your comment & stopping by! To answer your Q regarding the za'atar:

The green za'atar is a pure blend of all the herbs that go into the mixture, whereas the brown one tends to be 1/3 herbs with the remaining 2/3 being a mixture of cumin, sumac, etc... (explains the darker colour).

Also, the green za'atar tends to be much stronger in taste, the brown one is "lighter" and you can eat tons of it without it being overpowering.

:-)

Maria said...

Beautiful post! Gorgeous photos and amazing dishes. A wonderful journey through Middle Eastern cuisine.

Christine said...

I think I've eaten the bread in the second picture when I was really young. Does it taste kind of like pizza? I remember there was a tang of some sort, probably lemon juice.. Would you happen to have the recipe?

Anonymous said...

Very informative and lovely photos. Can you please help me with a question. What is the plant used in the tea "Sheba" (not sure if I have spelt it corrently)I was give this tea many years ago when in the Middle East

Marianna said...

Hi Anonymous! Thanks for your comment :-) I'm not familiar with "sheba" tea... unless you are speaking about the sheba absinthium ingredient that is incorporated with green tea leaves and sugar? What country did you try this in? Recipes and traditions can vary greatly amongst Middle Eastern/Arabic speaking countries...