Victoria Stewart gives you the lowdown on Syrian cuisine (Pic: Syrian Supper Club)
Food adventurers, I’ve got an idea. When did you last eat Syrian food? In fact have you ever tried Syrian food? If not, maybe this is the month you give it a go, because throughout November a selection of restaurateurs, chefs, bakers and café owners in London are adding a Syrian-inspired twist to some of their dishes, as part of a fundraising initiative called #CookForSyria.
Started by the food Instagrammer known as ClerkenwellBoyEC1 and the founder of Suitcase travel magazine, Serena Guen, they wanted to get us all thinking about the crisis in Syria through the vehicle of food, the end point being that together we as home cooks, and as many restaurants as possible, could raise lots of necessary funds to go towards the specific needs – nutritional, physical or educational – of Syrian children in Syria. £2 from each sale of each special dish will be donated to Unicef UK’s Children of Syria Fund and NEXTGen London, Unicef UK’s young professional movement, to give children there a better chance of having good foundations for the years to come.
But, but, but… there is more. It’s not just eating out that makes up the month-long #CookForSyria campaign. You could also host a supperclub, attend an event, host a bake sale, or, simply, as the website suggests, ‘spread the word and share the love’ on social media and through adding in different Syrian ingredients to your cooking.
And today it’s the latter part that I’m interested in talking about.
Rose Lukas and Louisa Barnett are two of the co-founders of The Syrian Supper Club, which originally started in July 2012 around their tables at home and is now a monthly evening event at E5 Bakehouse in London Fields. raising money for the Hands Up Foundation. Lukas and Barnett have both lived in Syria while their head chef, Ruth Quinlan, has been cooking the dinners at E5 since 2015.
As a result of their collective experiences, through eating and research and learning to adapt classic Syrian dishes to use at their supper clubs, all three have developed a passion and appreciation for Syrian flavours and ingredients.
So this month, perhaps you might try something new: you could get hold of some Aleppo chilli (Ottolenghi sells jars of it, for example), to add to the butter you normally put on vegetables; perhaps you could try making lamb kibbeh, adding some harissa and preserved lemons to a roast chicken, or buying flatbread, spreading over some za’atar and olive oil and crisping it up.
The Syrian Store Cupboard
“We tried to start off being very Syrian, but then realised that wasn’t always possible, because of the availabilty of things,” explains Lukas. “We now call our food Syrian-inspired Middle Eastern food. We use friends’ recipes, one of our mum’s jam recipes, and so on, and there is always work to do to find new ideas. Ruth Quinlan, our main chef, is brilliant at researching different flavours and where they come from.”
When it comes to recreating Syrian dishes at home, there are hundreds that you could try. But as with any national cuisine, many of the recipes for these have regional variations, thanks to the local climate or a town’s proximity to a neighbouring country. So this list of Syrian ingredients, some of which are easier to get hold of in London than others, is simply something to give you ideas and to get you started. These are the things that the team behind the Syrian Supper Club have used with great success over the years, and it is not an exhaustive list by any means.
Allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, cardamom and za’atar are found in so many dishes, says Quinlan, while bharat “is a fabulous spice blend of things including pepper, clove, cumin, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon and other spices,” which is great to bolster fish, chicken or beef dishes.
Harissa paste is a thick paste made with red chillies (sometimes smoked), garlic, olive oil and spices, which is used a lot in North African and Lebanese cooking. Syrians make their own or buy it in jars, to use on meat dishes (see section on chicken) or blend into hummus.
This, which has numerous variations, is of course the basis for many meals and mezze selections, as it is a brilliant vehicle for many of the dips mentioned below. One particular dish based around it is fattoush, a simple salad made from toasted or fried pieces of pitta bread, mixed greens and vegetables, served with a piquant sauce of sumac and vinegar. Manakeesh is bread topped with with za’atar or mince or labneh (see section on yoghurt below) or cheese.
Labneh, strained yoghurt, is recognisable from a number of dishes in different parts of the Middle East, including Syria. “Some will make add caramelised vegetables, which is delicious, but it is more Syrian to keep it very plain and simple. This is how we do ours, with olive oil on top,” explains Lukas who says it is also easy to make at home. “I buy good quality yoghurt from the Syrian shops such as Damas Gate or Ayam Zaman along the Uxbridge Road in Shepherds Bush, put it in a clean tea towel and leave it overnight. We serve it as a dip with flatbread or crudités, but it’s also very Syrian to mould it into little balls.”
The obvious use of these, seen all over the Middle East, is to make hummus but, says Lukas, “what you get in Syria is not like the chunky stuff you’re used to eating from the supermarket. It’s more like a paste, much thicker, made only with tahini, lemon juice and chickpeas, and always served with olive oil on top.”
Muhammara is a spicy roasted red pepper and walnut dip that originated in Aleppo, Syria. Again you’ll find this across Levantine cuisine, and fantastic eaten with pitta bread. It’s easy to make if you have a food processor at home.
While likely hard to source in London, raw almonds are often eaten at the end of dinner when you might also have oranges or other fresh fruit. “They come in their velvety green case, and you have to rip them open. They taste quite bitter,” describes Lukas. Raw almonds can also be added to a number of Syrian beef and rice dishes.
Known in Syria as burghul, this wholewheat grain is widely used but most often for tabbouleh, the simple and flavoursome salad that’s made by finely dicing tomatoes, cucumber and garlic and adding lemon juice.
This grain, which is roasted green wheat that you buy fried, can come served with chicken and buttery toasted almonds, which Barnett describes as “a goodie with a lovely smokey flavour.”
Mujadara is a hearty dish often served at parties for sharing around. Made with rice, lentil and spices, it’s eaten all over the Middle East but is incredibly popular in Syria and often comes crispy fried flatbread and onions on top. Shorbat Adas, meanwhile, is a delicious and simple red lentil soup, spiced simply with cumin, and made with onions, which is often served with fried flatbread.
Mansaf is a dish eaten traditionally by bedouins in Palmyra, an oasis north-east of Damascus in the Syrian desert. A dish made with spicy rice, poached chicken, nuts, fresh herbs and yoghurt on top, it is served from one big plate and shared among everyone sitting on the floor. Another popular use of rice is warak ‘enab (vine leaves stuffed with rice) as well as the ‘upside-down’ dish maqlooba (see section on chicken).
The classic use of this vegetable is for baba ghanoush or moutabal made with chargrilled smokey aubergine, walnuts, tomatoes, parsley, olive oil and lemon juice, and occasionally pomegrante. Once again, this dip varies depending on where you go in the Middle East but, according to Lukas, the Syrian version will tend to be purer, made without tahini or yoghurt. “That’s my particular favourite. But if you go to Lebanon, it’s all about the tahini and yoghurt, which gives it a very different flavour.”
Stuffing aubergines with walnuts and red peppers or chillies and preserving them in olive oil in huge Kilner jars is called makdous, which many Syrians will make at the end of the summer in preparation for the winter, alongside other pickled ingredients. This is also typical in Lebanon.
Foul or ful is a relatively simple breakfast dish made with stewed fava beans (like broad beans), garlic, lemon, salt parsley, chilli, cumin, tahini, yoghurt and paprika, although spicing varies around the country and the rest of the Levant. Lukas and Barnett say it is often eaten with hummus. Both fava and loubieh (green) beans tend to also be pickled during the months of mouneh (the pickling season).
Things to pickle
Pickles of some description will be always be served on a mezze table in Syria, says Lukas, particularly peppers, celery, carrots, green chillies and bright pink beetroots. As above, much of the pickling is done during the summer.
Meat and Poultry
Fatayer – pastry stuffed with meat and spinach – is one way to use lamb but perhaps the most recognisable use of it in Syrian cooking is kibbeh (meatballs).
“[These are] different wherever you go… and in fact we serve ours as a kibbeh cake because it’s easier to do in groups, and it comes out more moist. I often think of sour cherries at this point as we put them in our Syrian-inspired Kebab Karaz meatballs,” continues Lukas. “Kibbeh are great served with yoghurt or strained yoghurt (labneh), with fresh and dried mint, garlic, lemon, sugar, and perhaps cucumber too,” says Quinlan, while Barnett adds that “kebbeh bi laban or kabbeh labnaiyyah (hot yoghurt kibbeh balls) are very traditionally Syrian, and delicious mopped up with flatbreads.”
Barnett considers the dish known as maqlooba as “a really lovely one, and also well-known as Palestinian fare. It literally means ‘turned upside down’ and you cook it by layering chicken or lamb with rice and aubergine and other things in a big dish and then turning it out. If you’re lucky, the meat in the bottom might be quail.” Another typical use of chicken is to do Shish taouk (kebabs).” If you’ve got poultry on the brain, you could try cooking quail. In Damascus, for example, these “are very easy to come by,” and often served grilled, having been marinated in garlic and lemon.
Rose in all forms – both petals and rose water – is “fantastic” for making rose petal jam, says Barnett. “This is delicious for breakfast. And out there you’d have it with the Syrian version of marmalade (see section on lemon), yoghurt and flatbreads.” Quinlan regularly makes little Syrian pastries called ma’amoul, which are typically stuffed with dried fruit or nuts, but she makes hers with rose water, stuffing them with dried figs, pine nuts and star anise jam.” While it’s not served at their supperclubs, all three women also recommend knafeh, the well-known sticky filo pastry pudding made with cheese and rose water and orange blossom. Finally, remembers Lukas, “one of my favourite things with rose water is this incredible stretchy ice cream from Bakdash in Damascus, which is covered in pistachio and has an elastic texture, almost like dough. The magic ingredient for this is mastic.”
These – quince, lemon, pomegranate – are often added to bring flavour to meat and rice dishes, while the wishna is a sour small cherry from outside Aleppo and used regularly in a rich, sour sauce alongside Kebab Karaz.
In Syria you can find a version of marmalade which is often used as a preserve. “Theirs is made with lemons and oranges, but we began making our orange marmalade because we had an orange tree and didn’t know what to do with all the fruit. In fact the naranj (bitter orange) is from the Middle East, and one of the most famous restaurants in Damascus is called Naranj, meaning bitter orange.”
Article originally published in Evening Standard, November 2016