Syrian Foodie is One Year Old

A year ago I sat myself down and started writing. I always wanted to do something about my love of food. I couldn't do it as a job. I loved entertaining people and cooking dinners for friends but I wanted to do something more. I thought about blogging for sometime before I actually started writing, partly due to laziness and partly because I am a terrible writer. Writing was never my thing. I would struggle to finish half a page no matter what the subject is, a love letter or a scientific paper. My shawerma post remained an idea in my head for over a year. Then one day some bigoted ignorant homophobic person got me started.

This guy started this awful campaign on the net and it got me so angry. I always thought of the Syrian online blogging lot to be forward thinking liberal and tolerant. I was shocked to read the amount of ignorance and bigotry that came out of some people. But on the other hand my faith in the Syrian blogosphere was restored reading Abo Fares, Dubai Jazz and many other great Syrian bloggers replying to this awful campaign and standing up for freedom of choice. I got inspired, I decided it is about time to start my blog and I got writing. I am so glad I did.

This year has been great. The blog got to a slow start as expected, it took me two months till I reached 10 visitors in one day. I was delighted! Things picked up pretty quickly after that. More and more people noticed the blog and come back. Bit by bit, the word spread around and I started to have followers and regular readership. Many people helped a lot along the way with endorsements, links and blog posts, Thank you very much each and every one of you. A special thanks to Syria News Wire, Syria Comment and Line Attallah who had a great hand in this blog success.

Writing about such a niche market subject as Syrian cuisine suddenly makes me a world expert on the subject. I found my self giving quotes to magazines, filming an interview for a coming documentary and advising production companies filming programs in Syria. One of these shows will be on Discovery Channel in the near future.

Finally I would like to thank every person who followed this blog, read a post, left a comment and livened up a discussion. You made this year a successful satisfying experience worth every effort I put into it. Thank you.

Indian Kebab!

Today's dish is Kebab Hindi, Arabic for Indian Kebab. The person who invented and named this dish, very clearly, has never been to India, never tried Indian food, never smelled Indian food and never even imagined what Indian food is about.

Although you might think this is weird, but I always said Syrian cuisine and especially that of Damascus is similar to Japanese cuisine. Not in flavours or ingredients but in spirit. We in Damascus likes nice fresh flavours. I am not talking about average restaurant menu of grilled meat and hummus, but home properly cooked Damascene cuisine. Like the Japanese, we don't use many spices to choke our dishes. We like to use fresh tasty simple ingredients. We don't over complicate things and we let the ingredients speak for themselves.

Kebab Hindi represents every thing I love about Damascene cuisine. Three simple ingredients; tomato, onion and meat, seasoned with salt and pepper. Nothing more. All put together in the simplest possible form. Yet it works out a treat.

No spices, no chili, no curry powder ... you know what I mean now. Nothing Indian about this Indian Kebab!

Here is my Kebab Hindi recipe:

Minced Meat 600g (Beef or Lamb)
Good quality Tomatoes 500g
Two Onions
Butter (optional)
Pine Nuts 30g

Heat the oven to 180C.

Thinly slice the onions and roughly chop the tomatoes. In a high edges roasting dish add the onion and tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper and add a little hot water to cover the bottom of the dish. Bake in the oven for 35-40 minutes. Stir once or twice while cooking to get an even cooking and prevent the surface from drying up.

While the vegetables are cooking start making the kebab. Mix the meat, pine nuts and a table spoon worth of butter if you wish. Season with salt and pepper and work together till combined. Fry a small patty to taste the seasoning. Once your happy with the taste start forming small kebabs. Wet your hands with cold water while making the kebabs to make things easier.

Arrange the kebabs over the vegetable mixture and return to the oven for another 15-25 minutes depending how do you prefer your meat done.

I like to serve Kebab Hindi with nice crusty bread to soak all the beautiful juices. Alternatively serve with Arabic bread and/or vermicelli rice.

Desert Truffles

Desert truffle is a distant relative of the European truffle most of you are accustomed to. They grow in the dry environment of the Mediterranean, Arabian peninsula and North Africa. They mainly grow in the desert parts of these areas and are collected by local Bedouin. No dogs or pigs are used to find them and instead the Bedouin identify them through tiny cracks in the soil. Desert truffles grow close to the surface and they reach a fair size, up to 6 inches occasionally, pushing the surface to indicate the site of the prized fungus.

In Syria desert truffles are called Kemeh a variation of the Classic Arabic name, Kama'a. They are collected by the native Bedouins and sold in the local markets or exported to Gulf countries especially Saudi Arabia. Come spring time it is common site to see Bedouin women selling Kemeh in the streets and roundabouts of Damascus. Kemeh is highly prized by Syrians and they sell for anything between seven and fifteen UK pounds a kilogram. The price could go much higher in poor seasons and I remember seeing them going for around £80 one year. Kemeh season is very short and coincides with the beginning of spring. They just started to come into the market at the end of my holiday in Syria two weeks ago.

Local myth goes that Kemeh comes from thunder storms and the season is a good one if there were many storms over winter. Some people go even further to say Kemeh grows on the site were lightning hits the ground. Once a chemistry teacher gave us an explanation which I have no idea if it is true or not but here it goes, "when lightning passes through the air the energy causes Nitrogen and Oxygen atoms to react to form different types of nitrous oxides. These in turn dissolve and react with rain water to form nitrogen compounds including ammonia which are strong fertilizers and essential to protein formation". I tried to verify this theory from other sources but I couldn't.

Desert truffles have nothing to do with their European cousins in terms of taste, texture and aroma. Kemeh is more like dense mushrooms rather than the truffles you know. The most common way to cook them is Mufaraket Kemeh which my mum cooked us the last day of our holiday. Some people cook a rice dish with kemeh similar to Aubergine Maqluba and some adds kemeh to kabseh. My dad is a big fan of kemeh, and his favourite way to eat it is added to Lahem bi Ajeen. In Damascus, Lahem bi Ajeen is two layers of Pizza-like dough base (fatayer) with a middle layer of very thinly sliced steak baked in very hot oven.

If you fancy trying Desert Truffle here in London you can buy them preserved from DamasGate supermarket in Shepherd's Bush. Make sure you wash them thoroughly or even peel them again as kemeh is notorious for the amount of grit stuck inside its cracks.

Here is my mum's recipe of Mufaraket Kemeh:

Desert truffle 800g
400g of very thinly sliced lean lamb or beef
One large onion
Chicken stock 200mls
Ghee clarified butter 1tbsp

Finely chop the onion and fry in Ghee on medium heat till soft. Add the meat and fry till brown on all sides. Season well with salt and pepper.

Cut the truffles into bite size pieces and add them to the pot with chicken stock and some extra hot water as required. Bring to the boil then simmer for about 30 minutes till the meat and truffles are fully cooked. The truffles should keep their dense firm texture.

Serve with Arabic bread or vermicelli rice.

Al Khawali Restaurant, Damascus

I just came back from two weeks break in Syria. I was planning lots of food research and stories and even a culinary trip to Aleppo. Instead I spent the majority of my time running from the Court House to the Ministry of Health to the Civil Registry offices trying to sort out paper work and chase a signature here and a signature there. Like the good old days.

One thing I managed to do though is a visit to
Al Khawali Restaurant. There is a general consensus of the Syrian on line community and tourists that this restaurant is the best in Damascus. I never tried the place so I decided it is about time to give it a go. I headed there with my wife and family on a week day lunch. A seven of us.

You couldn't have picked a better setting for an Old City restaurant. The place is located mid way down
Street Called Straight from the Bible (Via Recta or Medhat Basha Street as it is known today). It is the same street Ananais walked down to find the blind St Paul to baptise him and give him back his vision.

The restaurant is located in a beautiful restored old house with a great covered court yard that serves as the main dining hall. You enter the dining room through the VIP hall, a wood covered room with traditional Mosaic Damascene furniture. The walls are full of pictures of the great and famous who dined in the restaurant from Gloria Arroyo the Philippines president, John Kerry US presidential candidate, Joshka Fischer German Foreign Minister to many singers, actors and other famous media personalities.

The menu was a bit disappointing. It was a mixed affair of the usual Mezze/grilled meat combo and characterless western dishes. What brought my attention back was the Oriental main dishes section which included few authentic Damascene dishes that you rarely see on restaurant menu. We ended up ordering two dishes from that section.

We started with few mezze dishes to share Hummus, Mutabal, Baba Ghanoush, Fried and grilled Kibbeh and Kibbeh nayeh (raw kibbeh). We also tried Al Khwali hummus which is an interesting combination of hummus, cumin and sun-dried red peppers paste. All the mezzeh dishes were excellent. The only glitch was the hard Bulgur granules in the raw kibbeh dish. They needed to be soaked in water a bit longer.

The salads were equally good. We ordered rocket salad, fatoush and my dad favourite, lettuce hearts with Roquefort cheese dressing. Not a Syrian salad but very popular in Damascus it is on every restaurant menu.

Between the seven of us we ordered six main dishes; mixed grill, shish tawook, lamb chops, chef special of chicken in creamy za'atar sauce, basmashkat and stuffed vine leaves with lamb steak. The last two were the chices of me and my wife and both came from the "Oriental main dishes" section of the menu. Basmashkat is a dish of a very thin steak folded and stuffed with rice and ground meat mixture then cooked in a nice tomato sauce. It is a rare Damascene specialty that you hardly ever see on restaurant menu.

As a whole the main dishes were good but not as good as the mezzeh and salads. One of things I didn't like was the Bharat (Syrian mixed spice) mix they used. It was heavy on the cloves side and wasn't really to my taste. I am not a big fan of Bharat and I never use it in my cooking but after all this is individual taste.

The meal finished with complementary sweets and a nice cup of tea served in beautiful retro tea pots.