Green Nuts

We Damascenes have a special love relation with green, sour and unripe nuts and fruits. Come April, hundreds of street vendors walk around the city pushing carts piled with Ouja (عوجة). Ouja are sour green almonds picked way before the flesh turns into the familiar wooden shell of almonds. The fruit is sour, crunchy with a furry skin. They are usually eaten dipped in salt. Sour and salty, perfect representation of Damascene taste.

Green pistachios are another firm favourite of people of Damascus. They come into season in last August, early September. Once again the city streets are full of sellers. In contrast to Ouja, green pistachios are not sold on carts. Instead sellers usually make temporary bases mainly around the roads leading to Al-Rabwa. The nuts come in a red soft shell once peeled a more familiar pistachio nut emerges. These are not sour but a rather soft and delicate version of the dried variety. If you decided to try these be warned they are extremely addictive. And after a long evening with a huge bowl of green pistachios you finger tips and nails will have a deep dark stain that might stay for a couple of days.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 27. Musakhan

Palestinian food shares most of its dishes with the surrounding Levantine countries. Few "national" dishes of Palestine like Maqluba (upside down rice dish) and Mahashi (stuffed vegetables) are common all through the Levant with, sometimes very distinct, local variations. Today's dish, Musakhan is on the contrary a true uniquely Palestinian dish. Musakhan in it is original format is a very rustic dish of layered bread, sumac and onion mixture and roasted chicken.

In Syria, Musakhan is fairly well known and frequently eaten dish although the Syrian version varies a lot from the Palestinian ancestor. The flavours remained the same but the cooking, ingredients and presentation has been refined in keeping with Syrian fondness with food finesse. Here goes thick Taboon bread and comes in paper-thin Saj bread. Chicken is shredded and Musakhan is served in individual portions.

Musakhan is hardly ever eaten as a main dish in Syria. It is usually served as a side dish or part of a large spread in dinner parties and big family occasions. In coffee shops and restaurants Musakhan is usually served as a small snack dish you can munch on in the few hours you spending there smoking Argeeleh. Another very popular version of Musakhan is tiny small pastries stuffed with the chicken and sumac mixture and served as part of finger food buffet in parties.

For this recipe I use Saj bread, a very thin Syrian bread that can be bought from large Middle Eastern supermarkets. Alternatively you can use Lavash bread which is a similar bread native to Iran, Armenia and Turkey. If you live in an area where you can have access to Turkish shops then you can use Yufka pastry. Finally if you are getting desperate use filo pastry.

Here is my Syrian style Musakhan recipe:

Cooked chicken 500g (boiled or roasted)
Three onions
Olive oil 1/2 cup
Sumac 4 tbsp
Pomegranate Molasses 1 tbsp (my own addition, optional)
Pine nuts 30g
Saj bread

Heat the oven to 200 degrees.

Start by frying the pine nuts until golden in the olive oil. Be very careful as pine nuts burn very quickly. Remove from the oil when ready.

Slice the onions thinly and fry on medium heat until they go translucent. Shred the chicken and add with the sumac, pomegranate molasses and the rest of the olive oil (keep some to brush the bread with at the end) to the pot. Taste and add salt as required. Remove from the heat.

Cut the saj bread into 20cm (8inch) squares. Spoon 3-4spoonfuls of the chicken mixture into the centre of the bread. Fold three corners in and roll the bread into a spring roll shaped pies (see below).

Arrange the rolls in a roasting tin. Brush generously with olive oil and back until golden brown.