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.


Peter G said...

Wow! I'm impressed! I thought the Greeks had a sweet tooth...these are absolutely to die for Marianna. And of course "delicious"! I'm totally loving your travels series here and look forward to the next installment.

Peter M said...

Marianna, I'm enjoying your postcard with all this delicious food!

I see many similarities with our desserts and I would have come back needing a diet!

Darius T. Williams said...

OMG - I totally need to have been hanging with you!

linda said...

Delicious! This brings back memories :)

MAG said...

Marianna, I really love your blog!!! And I love all your photos too :)

Maria said...

All I have to say is it is 10:00 p.m. right now and yet I am about to run into the kitchen pull out a package of semolina and begin baking a semolina dessert swimming in syrupy deliciousness.

bathmate said...

a nice posting for this site..
really a wonderful blog...its really good comments


Anonymous said...

I work for a doctor that just came back from his home town...he brought back a box of these delicious treats. The "bird nest" were just awesome!