Mortadella: my first attempt

Mortadella is not something you would normally associate with Middle Eastern Cuisine. Firstly it is pork. Secondly it is Italian. So how come it featured on my Syrian food blog?

Well first things first, our mortadella is not pork although the pork variety is available in Christian areas in Damascus and Aleppo. Secondly our mortadella has very little to do with the Italian variety. Mortadella along with other clod meats has been introduced to the Syrian cuisine by the Armenian population mainly based in Aleppo with smaller communities in Damascus and other cities.

Syria has an estimated 300000 (although numbers vary a lot with some authors put the number at 800000) ethnic Armenians. This is the largest Armenian community outside Armenia and Russia.

Armenians were present within or around the northern borders of Syria since ancient times. The ancient Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia occupied the north western parts of greater Syria. This kingdom was part of the region historical and political landscape. It was involved in all the major events of the area from Mongols, Crusaders, Turks and Ayyobid wars. The Armenians established few towns in Greater Syria like Urfa and Aintab. These towns are in modern day Turkey and with virtually no Armeniains left. The kingdom finally fell under the control of Mamluks rule and the Armenian population numbers in Syria dwindled gradually as most of them either immigrated to Cyprus or lived under Ottman Turkey north of the Syrian border. The only town in modern Syria with an original Armenian population is Kassab in the north west of the country, with an Armenian presence estimated to be a 1000 years old.

Most of the current Armenians in Syria today came during the Armenian genocide at the turn of the twentieth century. Tens of thousands of Armenians were forced out of there villages by the Ottmans and taken to the edge of the Syrian desert near Deir Az'Zor were they were killed and buried in mass graves. Armenians who fled the genocide came to Aleppo and other cities in northern Syria where they were given refuge and protected from the slaughter. From there they spread to The rest of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece.

Although Armenians protected their identity, language and culture over the last century they are fully integrated within the Syrian community. This integration is reflected in the Syrian Armenian cuisine. Their food has influenced and been influenced by the wider Syrian food. These influences are most felt in Aleppo were Armenian specialities like pasterma and sujuk are an important part of the city cuisine.

Cold meats are another Armenian speciality. Different flavoured mortadella and sliced cold roasts can be bought from Armenian sandwich shops in Damascus. Hagop in Sha'alan and Syrob in Salhiyah are two famous Armenian take-aways that existed since the dawn of time and serve some of the best sandwiches in Damascus.

I had a go on making mortadella myself but unfortunately it was not that successful so I will not put a recipe. The flavour was very good but the texture was grainy (as you can see in photo) and the motadella didn't hold shape very well so I couldn't slice it thinly and above that it came out white coloured instead of a nice light pink.

I used chicken breast meat and eggs as a binding agent. I think this is where I got it wrong. Possibly in the future I will use an extra binding agent like corn flour or gelatin and I will add meat from the legs as the higher collagen content in will add extra binding and give smoother texture.

I will try again in the future and when I get a recipe I am happy with I promise I will publish it. Meanwhile, if anybody reading this have a recipe that works well please let me know.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 10. Kibbeh Nayyeh

In the small world of foodies, food writers and food bloggers restaurants come into fashion very quickly and some times they disappear as fast. On occasions this "sudden" popularity is a result of a well organised PR drive, just check the story of L'Anima and linguine alle vongole to understand what I mean.

On other occasions the popularity is (I hope) of the more benign genuine variety. Yalla Yalla is the restaurant in vogue these days. For those who haven't heard about it yet, it is a small Lebanese restaurant/cafe in Soho. The place is every where. The late London Paper called it "the best street food in London", it received glorious reviews in Metro and Time Out and fellow food bloggers World Foodie Guide and The London Foodie gave it equally excellent reviews.

In these reviews, I loved the fact people were adventurous enough to try kibbeh nayyeh. This is raw kibbeh made with raw lamb and bulger wheat, something like Levantine lamb tartare.

I always thought kibbeh nayyeh (nayyeh in Arabic means raw) was a step too far for the Western palate and only the most hardcore of gourmet would dare to attempt it. From the look of things I was wrong and more people are welling to give it a go than I expected, so here is a recipe for it!

Kibbeh Nayeh is the queen of any mezze spread and a must on any Levantine restaurant's menu. When well made Kibbeh Nayeh taste fresh and delicious. You need a good quality, fresh as a daisy, lamb meat. Any self respecting restaurant well not serve you the dish if they are not one hundred percent happy with the lamb, so don't be surprised if you get turned down when you order it.

Like all mezze, everybody have their own recipe. The most authentic uses meat and bulger with few flavouring ingredients apart from salt and pepper. On the other hand, upper end restaurants in Damascus add finely chopped onions, green peppers and spring onions to make the dish less shocking for their many tourist costumers. My recipe is somewhere in between.

For this recipe I use fine bulgar wheat. In Syria bulgar come in two varieties fine and coarse and you can pick these from any Middle Eastern shop, the main stream supermarkets' version is some where in between, this will work but leave it a bit longer in the food processor.

If you are a starter on kibbeh nayyeh use a 1:1 ratio between bulgar and lamb. The more hardcore you get the more meat you can use. This ratio is about volume rather than dry weight.

Another ingredient I would love to use but is not available in London is sun-dried red pepper paste. Instead I use preserved chopped chilli, Tesco have this within their Ingredients range and Bart have a similar product.

Here is my recipe:
Enough for four people as you need a very small portion

Ground lamb 150g
Fine bulgar wheat 50g
Onion one quarter
Tomato one half
Chilli paste 1 tsp
Olive oil

Soak the bulgar in cold water for an hour. It should double in size and be of equal volume to the meat. Drain and squeeze the extra water.

Start a food processor on the highest speed then drop the onion while the machine is running. Stop the machine and scrape the sides then run again till the onion is very finely chopped. Add the tomato in the same way. Run the processor for a minute or so.

Add one third of the meat, one third of the bulgar and the chilli paste and process for few minutes till you get a smooth paste consistency.

Now add the rest of the meat and bulgar and process in short bursts so it is all mixed but you keep the texture of the bulgar. Move to a bowl and mix by hand. Season to taste.

Form into small patties. Sprinkle with chopped walnuts and drizzle with olive oil.

World's Fastest Falafel Maker

Today I discovered the world's fastest falafel maker (and possibly the busiest, check how many sandwiches are ready to go). It takes this guy less than 5 seconds to make the sandwich. Amazing stuff!

The shop is somewhere in Aleppo. I need to find it when I visit the city next time I am in Syria.

The video by Pangeality Productions.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 9. Chicken Liver with Pomegranate Molasses

This dish is a favourite of mine. It has two of my favourite ingredients chicken livers and pomegranate molasses. It is a great dish for people who are not so sure about liver, the sweets and sour pomegranate molasses takes away the edge of liver flavour (still, if you never ever tried liver before you might want to start with something less "anatomical" like pate).

I came across this dish in couple of Syrian/Lebanese restaurants in London. I adjusted the recipe a bit by adding a splash of red wine and some butter towards the end to make the sauce thick and glossy.

Here is my recipe:

Chicken liver 250g
Pomegranate molasses 2tbs
Ghee clarified butter 1tbs
Black pepper
Red wine 100mls

Start by frying the livers in the clarified butter. Once they brown form the out side add the molasses and red wine. Season with salt and pepper. Cook till the livers are cooked the way you like them. I like mine just done as over cooking make them tough.

Once the livers are done remove from the pan and reduce the sauce to a quarter. Check the seasoning then add a knob of cold butter to the pan and stir in the sauce. Pour on top of the liver and eat with Arabic bread or griddled sliced bread.

Ramadan special: Lentil soup

Lentil soup is a must on Rmadan table in most Arabic countries. It is a perfect start .... (Deja vu! I feel I started all my Ramadan specials with the same sentence but to be honest what makes these dishes relevant to Ramadan is the same thing; soft, warm and easy to eat after a day of starving).

Syrian cuisine (Leventine in general) is poor when it comes to the soup department. Apart from lentil soup, chicken and vermicelli soup is the only other soup that I can truly call authentic native soup (I am sure my Jewish friends will have few words to say about this one!).

There are many different recipes to cook lentil soup. Some only use lentils and water, some add other vegetables, some use stock, some add vermicelli.... Experiment! try different things and see which way you like it.

I cook mine with few vegetables and serve it with bread croutons and a squeeze of a lemon. Most people fry some chopped onion till brown and add to the soup just before serving. I don't do that. I think this works fine with pure lentil and water soup but if you add vegetables like I do the flavours clash.

Here is my lentil soup recipe:

Red lentils 400g
Rice 50g (replace with a small potato)
One quarter of a medium onion
One carrot
One tomato
Ground cumin 1/2 tea spoon
Salt to taste
Water 1L
Arabic bread
Vegetable oil

Peel your tomato. It is very easy to do. Cross the bottom of the tomato with a knife then drop in a boiling water for few second. The skin should come off easy. Check this video to see how.

Peel and chop your vegetable. Add all the ingredients to a pot and bring to boil. Skim the surface if necessary. Lower the heat and cook for 30 - 45 minutes or till everything is fully cooked (over cooked is even better)

Use a blender for a smooth soup consistency. Add more water if the soup is too thick.

Cut your bread to squares or thin strips and fry in the oil till golden.

Serve the soup with the bread croutons and a wedge of lemon.

Sorry there is no photo of the finished soup but my cat Anwar dropped my camera and broke it. Here is a photo of the little criminal instead!

Ramadan special: Drinks

This year Ramadan started in the second half of August. Temperature in Damascus is in the high thirties and the day is really long, sunset is at 7:30. By the time the call to Maghreb prayer sounds fasting Muslims are desperate to get their hands on that glass of water or ice cold drink to kill their thirst.

Before I go on to Rmadan drinks let me quickly explain why Ramadan comes in winter some time and in the summer some other time. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic year. The Islamic year is a lunar year and almost 11 days shorter than calender year. Hence Ramadan comes 11 days earlier every year to complete a full cycle in 33 years.

Back to drinks ...

Drinks in Ramadan plays a star role on the Iftar table. Although this could be fresh fruit juice, the usual drinks are of the exotic variety (exotic for the Western reader, most Middle Easterners know and love these drinks).

The first of these drinks is Erk-Soos a black mildly sweet and slightly bitter drink made from liquorice root. The process of making it involves put the ground roots in a muslin cloth and drop water over it drop by drop all night long. As you can see it is complicated and time consuming so no body makes that at home. Instead people buy Erk-Soos from specialised shops or from street seller like the one in the top picture.

The second drink is Tamarind (Tamer Hindi in Arabic, literally translates to Indian dates) . I personally hate this one. It is sour and tastes of tamarind. not my cup of tea.

Finally the drink most associated with Ramadan, Kamruddin or A'amruddin as we pronounce it in Syria. Kamruddin is sun dried apricot paste made by squeezing hundreds of kilograms of apricot, mix it with glucose syrup and spread on giant trays to dry under the summer sun. The final product is a tangy apricot leather-like orange sheets. Syria produces tonnes of Kamruddin every year with 90% of the production exported to other Arabic countries. All of it to be consumed over the month of Ramadan.

In London you can buy Kamruddin in most Arabic supermarkets but almost exclusively in Ramadan.

My favourite way to enjoy kamruddin is simply rip some of the leathery apricot paste and eat it as a snack. Alternatively you can make a delicious drink from it. Here is how to make it:

Kamruddin paste 300g
Water 500mls
Sugar 2tbs (adjust to taste)
Orange Blossom water 1tbs

Cut the Kamruddin into an inch size pieces. Put in a bowl with the sugar and water and let soak for an hour. Stir occasionally and you will see the kamruddin starting to dissolve.

Put the whole lot in a mixer and mix for a minute or so till all the kamruddin dissolve. Add the orange blossom water. The drink consistency should be thick (similar to mango nectar).

Chill in the fridge and enjoy.