Moghrabieh, Couscous of the other end of the Mediterranean

One of the misconceptions I come across when I speak to people about Syrian cuisine that we must eat loads of couscous. When I mention that Syrian cuisine is a Mediterranean cuisine, some people here in England automatically assume that we share the rolled semolina with the North Africans. Many get surprised when I say that couscous doesn't exist in Syria. The majority of Syrians didn't even hear of couscous, let alone cook with it.

Having said all of that, we kind of have couscous after all. Our own version that is.

Moghrabieh is another form of rolled semolina but considerably larger grains. It is more popular in Lebanon than it is in Syria. The name Moghrabieh means Moroccan which indicates, unsurprisingly, its Moroccan origin. I don't really know if Moghrabieh grains where originally brought from North Africa in its current format, or did we import the concept of rolling semolina and adapt it to our taste.

The grains themselves vary in size, so they don't always cook evenly. They retain a chewy starchy consistency when cooked. More dumplings than couscous.

Moghrabieh is available in London from Damas Gate in Shepherd's Bush or Green Valley in Edgware Road.

The traditional way to cook Moghrabieh include chicken, lamb or combination of the two. The cooking process is long and a bit complicated so I tried to simplify it here. The dish needs fragrant spices. I like to use a combination of caraway seeds, allspice and cinnamon.

Here is my recipe:

Moghrabieh 350g (two cups)
Lamb cubes 400g (and/or chicken)
Shallots 6 - 10 depending on size
Chickpeas 1 can drained
Flour 1tbsp
Cinnamon 1tsp
Caraway seeds 2tsp crushed in a pestle and mortar to release the flavour.
Allspice 1tsp
Salt to taste
Stock cube (optional)
Olive oil

Start by browning the meat in some olive oil in a heavy bottom pot or a casserole dish. Remove the the meat from the pot. Peel the shallots whole and brown in the same pot. Return the meat and add all the spices, salt stock cube and the flour to thicken the stew. Cover with boiling water. Bring back to boil then reduce the heat and let simmer till the meat if fully cooked. Be generous with the water as you will need some of that stock to finish cooking the moghrabieh later. Towards the end add half the chickpeas.

In another pot boil some salted water and add the moghrabieh. Cook as if you are boiling pasta. It will need to cook for 30-40 minutes. Taste the grains every once in a while till cooked to your taste. Drain and return to the pot. Add the rest of the chick peas and couple of ladles of the stock. Cook on medium heat till the moghrabieh absorbs most of the stock.

Spoon the moghrabieh in a serving dish with the some of the meat arranged on top. Serve the rest of the stew on the side.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 14. Barasia

Barasia is Syrian for Leek. Baby leek to be precise as large leek as we know it in Europe is almost non-existant in Syria.

Today's dish is one of a large group of vegetable based "in oil" dishes. In Syria and the rest of The Levant, most vegetables are cooked two ways. One with meat, mostly as a tomato-based stew, served as a main dish with vermicelli rice. The alternative is vegetables cooked in Olive oil without meat and eaten with Arabic bread. They are served as a side dish or part of a mezze spread. They could be eaten hot, cold, room temperature or at their best slightly warm.

Barasia is almost always cooked in Olive oil. To be honest with you, I am not sure if a meat version does exist. I never tried such a dish. So, If you know a Syrian or Lebanese recipe for leeks cooked in meat please let me know and I will give it a go.

This recipe is adapted from a recipe given to me by fellow Syrian blogger, Maysaloon.

Here is my Brasia recipe:

Three large leeks (or a bunch of baby leeks)
One carrot
Olive oil 4-6 tbsp
Cumin 1/2 tsp
Coriander 2tbsp
Salt to taste

Clean the leeks by cutting the green ends and peeling the outer layer. Chop the leeks into 1 cm pieces. Slice the carrot very thinly to make sure it cooks at the same time as the leeks.

Heat the olive oil in a pot and add the leeks and carrots. Cook on high heat for 5 minutes. Add the cumin and salt to taste and turn down the heat. Cover and let cook on low to medium heat for 20-25 minutes or till the leeks fully cooked. Add the coriander few minutes before the end to keep maximum taste.

Drizzle with some olive oil if you wish and serve slightly warm with Arabic flat bread.

Meat in a Tray!

Today's dish is Lahmeh bil Saniyeh, which literally translates to Meat in a Tray. The dish, surprise suprise, is meat spread in a tray and baked in the oven. Very imaginative naming on our behalf! Some people have another equally creative name for this dish, Lahmeh bil Sahen. Which means Meat in a Plate.

In the old days, late ninteenth, early twentieth century, most people didn't have ovens in their homes. Lahmeh bil Saniyeh was usually prepared by the family butcher and then sent to one of the city's many communal ovens to be baked. You can still get that today in Damascus especially in the old city and traditional old neighbourhoods.

The dish is made from minced lamb meat mixed with spices and spread in roasting tin with slices of tomatoes on top. Sliced potato and or sliced green peppers are optional toppings. The meat is usually eaten with Arabic flat bread and served with tahini yoghurt sauce.

Lean meat doesn't work for this dish as the cooked meat will come out dry like a piece of wood. Choose a fatty mince or add a big knob of butter. For the waist-size-watching lot, don't worry! You will have a chance to drain all the excess fat towards the end of the cooking procedure.

Here is my recipe:

Minced lamb 1kg
One medium onion
White bread 2 slices
Two large tomatoes
Black pepper 1tsp
Allspice 1tsp
Salt 1-2 tsp

For the sauce:

Greek style yoghurt 300g
Tahini 3tbsp

Heat the oven to 200 degrees.

In a food processor, chop the onions till very fine. Soak the bread slices in some milk (use water instead if you wish) and add to the onion. Process further till you get a smooth paste. Add the onion mixture, salt and spices (you need to add soft butter at this stage if you are using lean meat). Work the meat mixture with your hands till well combined.

Spread the meat mixture into a medium roasting tin and press into 1.5 - 2 cm thick layer. Slice the tomato into thick(ish) slices and arrange on top. Sprinkle the tomato with salt and cracked black pepper for a nice rustic look.

Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes. Check the meat 10 minutes before the end. At this stage the meat would have shrunk and pulled away from the edges of the tin. Most of the fat and some of the meat juices would have melted. Drain all of the fat and the excess meat juices. Return to the oven for the last tin minutes to finish cooking and brown on top.

While the meat is cooking, whisk together the yoghurt and tahini. Add salt and lemon to taste. If the sauce is too thick, loosen with some water.

When the meat is ready, serve a slice of meat with a big dollop of the tahini sauce. Eat with Arabic bread and some salad on the side.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 13. Allspice Tomato Salad

Although the salad market in Syria is dominated by Tabouleh and Fattoush, many others are making presence. In restaurants in Syria people will order one of the many other options available on the menu. Olive, rocket and zaatar salads are as popular as Tabouleh between punters. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't mean the demise of the famous two. You will still get at least one of the two as a matter of default on your mezze spread. At home Tabouleh and Fattoush still dominate the table by a long way.

Today's recipe is a simple tomato salad. Needless to say, you need good quality tomatoes to get a decent tasting salad. The allspice dressing brings an extra depth and warmth to the simple flavour of tomatoes.

This salad can be a great mezze dish especially if you are serving grilled meats and kebabs. Another way I like to serve this salad is as a side to dry(ish) rice based dishes like Riz bi Bazalyah (peas rice) or Riz bi Foul (broad beans rice). These dishes are traditionally served with cucumber yoghurt sauce (tzaziki), but a bit of tomato salad could be a nice alternative.

This recipe is adapted from Po0pa Dwick's excellent book Aromas of Aleppo, The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews.

Here is the Recipe:

Three ripe tomatoes (or good quality cherry tomatoes)
Allspice 1/2 tsp
Aleppo peppers 1/4 tsp (chilli flakes)
Juice of 1/2 a Lemon
Olive oil 2 tbsp
Salt to taste
Parsley (optional to add some colour)

Chop the tomatoes and sprinkle with some chopped parsley leaves. Whisk together all the dressing ingredients. Dress the tomatoes and serve.

Essential Shopping Basket

The most common question I get asked on my blog is "Where can I buy such and such ingredient in London?".

Another common theme of discussion is "I want recipes with ingredients I can buy from my local supermarket". Fair enough but it is not possible all the time. Some recipes have simple common ingredients and some recipes have ingredients that can be omitted or replaced. Some time you will have to make this extra effort. You can't make hummus without tahini!

For all of those people and for every one who wants to try some Syrian/Lebanese cooking, here is a list of some essential ingredient and where to buy them in the UK.


Sumac is a tangy, lemony flavoured spice. It is made from grounding dried sumac berries to produce a purple or deep red coarse powder. In the Levant sumac is mainly used in salads, fattoush and sprinkled over falafel. It adds a wonderful sour flavour that can even replace lemon all together. In Aleppo sumac is used in few dishes, most famously Kebbeh Sumakieh. The most famous dish cooked with sumac remains by far Musakhan, a Palastenian dish that has been adapted into local versions in every Levantine country.

In London you can buy sumac in all large Arabic, Iranian and Turkish supermarket. Damas Gate in Shepherd's Bush and Green Valley on Edgware Road are your best bet for all Arabic ingredients. You can buy it on line from The Spicery and The Spice Shop although the price is considerably higher. Alternatively you can buy it from Comptoir Lebanise on Wigmore St.


Nuts are an essential ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine. The most commonly used are pine nuts, walnuts, almonds and pistachios roughly in that order. There are endless ways to use them, sprinkled on rice, in koftah-based dishes, in mezze, hummus topping, sweets, kibbeh, sauces, drinks ..... the list goes on and on. We pretty much use them in everything.

Nuts are widely available from all supermarkets. You don't have to make a trip to get these!

Bulgur Wheat

Bulgur wheat (or Burghul as we pronounce it in Syria) is a healthy grain made from parboiled then dried and ground wheat. Main stream UK chefs discovered bulgur in the last few years and you can see it now on menues, cooking shows and supermarket shelves. There are two varieties: coarse used in cooking pilafs and fine used in Tabbouleh and Kibbeh.

You can buy bulgur from all Middle Eastern shops. You can buy it as well from high street supermarkets but the grain size is somewhere between the coarse and fine. It is not ideal but perfectly usable.

White Cheese

All our native cheeses in the Levant are fresh white cheeses. They are made from cow or sheep milk and preserved through the year in brine. The most common are Baladi, Halloumi, Nabulsi, Akkawi and Shelal. We eat white cheese as part of breakfast and supper. It matches perfectly with cucumber, fresh mint leaves, sweet black tea or water melon in summer months. In cooking we mainly use it in fatayer and sambousek. Akkawi is the cheese of choice for sweets.

Halloumi is available in all supermarkets. The rest need a trip to a Middle Eastern shop. You can freeze white cheese if you are going to use it in cooking or sweets.

Arabic Flat Bread

Arabic bread (Khobez or Lebanese bread as it is some time called) is the more sophisticated and higher quality brother of Pita bread. The bread is thinner, softer, easier to handle and way more tasty. In my view, pita bread should be outlawed!

You can buy Arabic bread from all Middle Eastern shops, some delicatessens and some large supermarkets especially in West London. Arabic bread freezes very well for up to a month or so.

Pomegranate Molasses

Pomegranate molasses (Debes Rumman دبس رمان in Arabic) is one of my favourite ingredients. It adds the most beautiful sweet and sour flavour. It brings depth and warmth to many many dishes. The secret to get good results with pomegranate molasses is to use it in moderation. It is very concentrated and if you add too much it will over power the dish. In a typical dish for two a table spoon is usually more than enough.

You can buy pomegranate molasses from Middle Eastern Shops. Alternativly you can buy it from Arabica Food & Spice Co. They sell their products in Borough Market, Selfridges and Harrods among other places. On line you can order it from Melbury & Appleton.

Ghee Clarified Butter

Ghee (Samneh سمنة in Arabic) is made by simmering butter till all the water evaporate and the milk solids settle in the bottom. The clarified butter is then spooned off. Ghee differs from normal butter in taste, texture and aroma. Because there is no milk solids Ghee tolerate very high cooking temperature without burning. Syrians usually heat Ghee butter till it smokes then pour it on rice dishes at the last minute of cooking. We also use smoking hot Ghee to top hummus and Fatteh dishes.

You can by Ghee from Middle Eastern and Indian shops. Large supermarkets usually stock it, look in the ethnic food area. Ghee doesn't need refrigeration and lasts for a very long period of time.


Tahini is without a doubt my favourite ingredient. This one is irreplaceable. You can not cook Levantine/Middle Eastern food if you don't have tahini in your kitchen. It is used in many mezze and main dishes. It is used to make sauces to accompany red meat, fish, some rice dishes and falafel.

You can buy tahini from Middle eastern shops and large supermarkets, Look in the ethnic food areas next to Greek products. Tahini last a very long time outside the fridge.

Red Pepper Paste

Sun dried red pepper paste (Debes flafleh دبس فليفلة in Syrian Arabic) is an Aleppian speciality. It is used to make Muhammara and as an ingredient in many dishes.

Red pepper paste is very difficult to find in London. Non of the Middle Eastern shops I know stock it. In my Muhammara post I attempted to re-create my own. I finally managed to find it in a Turkish supermarket in West Ealing. If you are buying yours from a Turkish shop, look at the ingredients. Most are mixed with vegetables, tomato paste, onion or garlic which will change the taste of your cooking.

Red pepper paste will last few months in the fridge if you cover the top with a layer of olive oil.

Aleppo Peppers

Another Aleppian speciality, hence the name! It is made by sun drying Aleppo peppers till dry, then crushed by hand and rubbed in olive oil. It has a very nice aroma and a wonderful bright red, orange colour. The taste has some fruitiness and saltiness to it.

You can buy red flaked chillies from all Middle Eastern shops but they lack the characteristic colour and aroma, so I am not too sure about origin and authenticity. Instead I buy my Aleppo peppers on line from The Spicery.


Za'atar (زعتر in Arabic) is a name of wild herb widely available in Eastern Mediterranean areas. It is somewhere between thyme and oregano. The word Za'atar usually refer to the herbal mix made from dried Za'atar leaves, sesame seeds and salt. Other spices and flavourings can be added to create different Za'atar mixes. As a general rule, there is two variety Green Za'atar and Red Za'atar. The latter uses sumac and usually called "Aleppian Za'atar" in Damascus. The main use of Za'atar is mixed with olive oil to make a tangy dip eaten for breakfast. You can spread the mixture on flat bread dough and baked to make Mana'esh bi Za'atar (Za'atar Fatayer). You can also sprinkle Za'atar on Labneh (strained yoghurt) or white cheese.

Za'atar is available from all Middle Eastern shops. On line from Melbury & Appleton. Alternatively you can buy it from Comptoir Lebanise on Wigmore St.

Allspice (update 4/11/2009)

After a public outcry and a twitter campaign, I decided to include allspice in my essentials list. Read all about it in my previous post.