Square Wraps

I am not sure how "new" this bread from Warburtons is, but I only discovered it three weeks ago. During this time I had loads of it. I used it in all manners possible. Wraps, mezze scope, folded and toasted and topped with all kinds of ingredients and flashed under the grill.

I have the tendency to do that whenever I discover a new ingredient. For a month or so I try all kind of things, some successful and some disastrous. By the end of this period my wife, and quite often myself, are bored with the ingredient in question but at least I have a clear idea what is it good for. I will have to say, this bread passed this testing period with a great success. I was impressed however way I used it.

The bread is inspired or "pinched" from the legendary Damascus Bakery, Brooklyn, New York. The bakery was established in 1930 by a Syrian immigrant. Eighty one years later his two grand children are still running a family business that expanded to become a nation wide success story.

The bread itself is very good indeed and despite no resembling any native Damascene bread there is something peculiarly Arabic about it. It is a lot better for wraps than tortilla especially if the stuffing is Arabic inspired. You can also use the bread in a similar manner to Arabic flat bread to scoop mezze and breakfast dishes. It works all right but can't compare to the real thing.

The best use by far is a pizza or fatayer base. Just spread whatever ingredients you like, three minutes under the grill and you get yourself an excellent dinner.

Finally for all the parents out there I thought I should share with you a childhood favourite that I rediscovered in the last few weeks, Fake Pizza. This was my mum emergency dish when we wanted something nice and child friendly for supper. To make my mum pizza just spread some ketchup on the bread, sprinkle some dry oregano, any kind of cold meat, some olives and mozzarella cheese. Few minutes under the grill and you got yourself a dinner.

Sayadieh, food of the brave

This post is dedicated to the brave people of Latakia, Baniyas, Jableh and Al-Bayda village. God bless you and bless your martyrs.

One of my earliest, and most vague, memories of food was in a small seaside restaurant on some Syrian coastal town, most likely in Tartous. My dad and great uncle where invited by our waiter to come and chose our table fish. I tagged along and we were taken to the fish monger part of the restaurant. A normal fish monger with loads of fish over crushed ice but on the corner of the shop there was a glass tank with loads long fish swimming around. "Can we have these?" I excitedly shouted. A firm NO from my dad followed. "These are no good".

I was very disappointed. We missed out on the great prospect of "catching" our fish then have it cooked for us. Why is it no good? It is fresh. It must be better than the dead fish on ice. Never the less, we ended up picking some Sultan Ibrahim (a type of sea bream). The fish was simply deep fried served with lemon wedges, flat bread and Taratour sauce. As simple as it sounds, it was one of the best and most memorable meals til this day.

I came later to discover that the fish in the tank was a fresh water farmed carp. A lot cheaper but with considerably inferior quality.

Syrians by large are not a fish eating nation. The only exception is the coastal area where naturally fish is an integral part of everyday diet. People of Damascus traditionally ate fish no more than once or twice a year. Other types of seafood are not that popular either. I know many many people of Damascus who never tried drawn or crab. Clamps and oysters are out of question. The mere thought of eating such a thing is totally off putting to most Damascene I know.

Over the last 10 years or so things changed considerably. Off goes cheap bland farmed fresh water fish and in comes good quality sea fish. Most fish mongers and even large supermarkets offer cooking service where you buy your fresh fish then have it fried to prevent your house stinking with fried fish for days. Even fish and chips (a very Syrianised version) made its way to Syrian tables.

Most of the fish eaten in Syria is deep fried. Simply score the skin, marinade in lemon, salt, pepper and cumin then deep fry. Simple but really tasty. Other methods include oven baked and Samakeh Harra, an oven baked fish in spicy sauce common in coastal cities.

Today's recipe Sayadieh is another coastal region specialty. The name roughly translates to Fisherman's dish. It is a rice pilaf cooked in fish stock and served next to fried or baked fish.

Here is my Sayadieh recipe:

Sea bass 4 fillets
Basmati rice 2cups
Fish stock 3cups
Four onions
Olive oil
Cinnamon stick
Allspice 1/2 tsp
Small onion or few shallots
Vegetable oil

The first thing to prepare is the cooking broth. This is a lengthy procedure but you need to take your time to create a flavoursome and deep coloured broth. It is the broth that makes this dish. If you don't have fish stock you can either use stock cubes or as I often do a chicken stock and few table spoons of Thai fish sauce.

Slice and fry the onions in olive oil in a heavy bottom pot on medium to low heat. The slow cooking process brings out the natural sugars of the onion and allows it to caramelise and get darker and darker without burnt taste. This step might take up to 30 minutes but the darker you get the onions the better the dish.

Once the onions are ready add the fish stock, allspice,salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for good 15 minutes to extract all the flavours.

Add the washed rice to the stock. Bring to a hard boil then reduce the heat to medium. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes stirring once or twice to prevent the rice sticking. If the rice getting too dry add a little of boiling water. Turn of the heat and allow the rice to steam for 5 minutes.

Heat a heavy-bottom large pan. Season the fish with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add a little oil to the pan and cook the fish fillets skin side first. You need to press the fish fillet down with your hand to prevent the skin curling. Once started cooking you can add the next fillet and repeat the same process. Once the skin is gold and crispy turn the fillet to cook the other side. The whole cooking process should not take more than few minutes.

To finish slice the small onion and deep fry in vegetable oil until dark brown.

Serve the Sayadieh rice with the Seabass fillets. Sprinkle the fired onions on top. Serve with some salad and Tahini sauce.

Mlehy, food of the brave.

When I started this blog two years ago I had two aims in mind, firstly to share my love of food and secondly, and most importantly, to show my beloved country Syria in all its beauty. To share with all of you everything good about the great Syrian people, about their cuisine, their life and their history. A propaganda website, not for a regime or government but for a land and city I love so much.

I promised myself to keep this blog politics free zone. I refrained from expressing personal views on anything that goes on in the Middle East. I wanted it a place for all people. Even food politics stayed out of my blog. No comments on Hummus war. No arguments on who invented Tabouleh, kebbeh or any of the sorts.

As you all know I haven't written anything on the blog for almost three months now since these sad events started to unfold in my beautiful country. I tried to write few times but words were choked in my throat. How could I keep politics out of this blog while my brave country men are being killed everyday on the streets asking for freedom. How could write about the beautiful things of Syria while its people are being arrested tortured and killed.

After some thinking I decided I should start writing again. The least I can do for my country is to go on writing. It is still a beautiful welcoming place regardless of who is in government. Time will come again when Syria is as beautiful and as peaceful as ever.

This post is dedicated to the brave city of Daraa and all the martyrs.

Fifteen hundreds years ago in a tent in the middle of the Arabian desert a Bedouin man named Hatim had guests stopping at his door unexpected. The man and his wife got in a state of panic. They had nothing to feed their hungry guests. It was a tough dry year and they had no sheep to slaughter in honour of the guests. Hatim decided to slaughter his pride and joy, the most valuable possession a Bedouin man can own, his horse to feed his guests. The man was Hatim Al-Taiy a sixth century Arabic poet. Because of that incident and many similar stories he became an icon of Arab generosity up to our day.

Generosity, honouring your guests and hospitality is an essential part of the Arabic psyche. Showing your generosity is as important as generosity itself. With very little resources and few food choices in the desert those days, meat was the only way to showcase your hospitality. You couldn't be an honorable host unless you slaughter some animal and serve an extravagant amount of meat in honour of your guest.

This tradition survived the centuries. Up till this day nothing can show your generosity more than heaps of meat served over large trays of rice. Kabseh in Saudi Arabia, Majboos in Gulf countries, Quzi in Iraq and Mansaf in Jordan are modern examples of this centuries old tradition.

Syria is slightly different case from its neighbours. It is a more ethnically and gastronomically diverse country. Rich resources and food variability mixed with a variety foreign influences over the centuries resulted in a more sophisticated cuisine. Smaller portions, variety of dishes, generous use of vegetables and less meat are the hallmarks of modern Syrian food.

That doesn't mean we Syrians don't have the traditional Arabic generosity running in our veins (well, most of us at least. We Damascene are not famed for our generosity!). Bedouin and tribal areas especially at the East of the country are as Arabic as anybody else. They share a lot more in cuisine and costume with their cousins across the Arabic desert than they do with their country men in Damascus and Aleppo.

Daraa and the wider Houran region extended over the border between Syria and Jordan is another "proper" Arabic area of Syria. People of the region are very generous and kind hearted despite not being the richest in the country. This generosity is evident in their food.

Mlehy is Houran national dish. It is a ceremonial dish for great occasions, weddings and celebration. It is the way people of Houran show their generosity to their guests. The dish is very similar to the better advertised Jordanian mansaf but it uses Bulgur instead of rice.

Melhy is made by cooking lamb (or chicken in less formal occasions) in a broth made with a stone-hard sun dried yogurt called Jameed or Ketha as it is called sometimes in Houran. Of course I didn't have any Jameed here in London (if you know where to get it in London please let me know) so I used the driest form of yogurt I could find, Labneh balls. You can buy these in all Middle Eastern Supermarkets. They are great for breakfast, sandwich filling or a mezze dish.

Finally, if this recipe looks nothing like what your mum used to make please forgive me. I only tried Mlehy once in my life and this recipe is my interpretation of the dish.

Here is my Mlehy recipe:
(Enough for four people)

Four Lamb Shanks
One onion finely chopped
Course bulgur 2cups
Chicken stock 1cup (or boiling water)
Boiling water
Ghee clarified butter 4tbs
Four Labneh balls
Allspice 1tsp
One bay leaf
One stick of cinnamon
Pine nuts 30g

Start by mixing the Labneh balls and chicken stock in a food processor on high speed until you get a smooth runny mixture with no labneh lumps.

Melt two spoons of Ghee butter in a large pot and brown the lamb shanks on all sides. Remove the lamb shanks and fry the onion on medium heat till soft. Return the shanks to the pot and add the stock and labneh mixture. Top with hot water to cover the meat. Add the allspice, bay leaf, cinnamon stick and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a strong boil then turn the heat to medium and simmer for two hours or until the meat is fully cooked and almost falling of the bone.

Once the meat is ready start cooking the bulgur. In a pot add the bulgur, salt to taste and 3 cups of hot water and bring to boil. You can add a ladle or two of the meat broth to the bulgur for extra flavour. Turn the heat to medium and cook for 20 - 30 minutes stirring occasionally. Add more boiling water if required.

Fry the pine nuts in the rest of the ghee butter. Remove as soon as they turn golden as they burn very quickly. Continue to heat the ghee in the pan til it starts to smoke then carefully pour over the cooked bulgur and stir. The last step is optional and it adds a nice smokey flavour but few extra calories, your choice.

Serve the cooked bulgur with a sprinkle of pine nuts with the meat and broth on the side. The broth has a rich sour meaty flavours with a hint of fragrance from the spices. Pour some of it over the Bulgur to eat or simply sip it with a spoon. Delicious!

I am off to Syria!

Finally a holiday. I haven't been back home for a whole year. I have not done that since I first moved to London. I can't wait to get there tomorrow night and have my traditional just-got-out-of-the-plane dinner, Shawerma Arabi.

To all my regular readers, I am sorry I haven't been writing much and thank you for coming back to read the one or two posts I am managing to write every month. I have so much going on in my life at the minute. Way beyond what 24 hours day allows. Unfortunately the blog took the back seat.
I really need to revive my blog and start writing again.

I will try to get as much videos and pictures during my two weeks break to write all about it when I come back. I will also try to write reviews on few new restaurants in Damascus I am planning to visit.

I really hope I will have time!

See you all in two weeks.


Safflower or عصفر in Arabic (pronounced Osfor) is a little know spice used in Damascene cooking. It has an earthy subtle flavour and gives dishes a light yellow orange colour. The spice is the dried petals of Safflowers flowers. Apart from being used in Syria and the wider Middle East as a spice, the plant is grown for its seed oil. It is also used in herbal medicine or as an organic dye for cloths and paper.

Many people consider safflower as poor man alternative to Saffron. This might be the case in other countries but I will have to disagree in the case of Damascus. Saffron doesn't exist in Damascene cooking. I can't think of a single recipe sweet or savoury that calls for saffron.

Safflower in Syrian cooking is usually an optimal ingredient. It adds a certain note to the flavour of certain dishes but they work perfectly well without it. It is mainly used in stuffed vegetable dishes including courgettes (Kusa mehshi كوسا محشي), aubergine and cabbage. Other uses include Ejjeh عجة (Syrian omelet) and Kibbeh Bel Senyieh كبة بالصينية (oven baked kibbeh).

One dish in particular is not the same without safflower. Fakhdeh فخدة, a chicken broth dish cooked with large amounts of safflower gives the dish its characteristic flavour and colour.

I will try to cook few dishes using safflower in the near future.

Freekeh with Slow Roasted Lamb Shanks

Freekeh (فريكة roughly translated, Rubbed) is a type of wheat grain common in the Levant, Egypt, Turkey and parts of North Africa. Freekeh grains have a distinct nutty smokey flavour due to the preparation method. Traditionally freekeh is cooked as pilaf or soup but it is a versatile ingredients and can be utilised in numerous ways from salads to cereal bars.

To make freekeh, wheat is harvested green. This is then arranged in piles and set on fire. This is a tightly controlled process and only the straw and chaff burns while the high water content in the green grains prevents them from burning. This process gives freekeh its distinct smokiness. The grains are then thrashed and rubbed by hand (hence the name) to separate the chaff. The final step is drying the grains in the sun.

In Syria, freekeh is cooked as a pilaf with cooked chicken or lamb. Shanks (or
Mozat as called in Syria) is a favourite cut to serve with freekeh. However Mozat is of-the-bone cut and it is served braised rather than roasted.

You can buy freekeh in London from Middle Easter supermarkets. Try Green Valley in Edgware Road or Damas Gate in Shepherds Bush.

Today's recipe is my take on the traditional
Freekeh with Mozat. I cooked freekeh the traditional way but I roasted the lamb shanks in the oven with Arabic style flavours. I also like to raost some vegetables with the meat; potato, caroot... anything you like really.

Here is my Freekeh with lamb shanks recipe:

4 Lamb shanks
One potato
Two Carrots
Mushrooms 200g
Olive oil 2-3 tbsp
Black pepper 1tsp
Salt 2tsp
Paprika 2tsp
Chilli powder 1tsp
Allspice 2tsp
Juice of half a lemon

For the freekeh:
Freekeh 2 cups
Chicken stock 2 cups (stock cube are a good alternative)
Boiling water 2 cups
Green peas 200g
Pine nuts 30g
Ghee clarified butter 2-3 tbs (leave out for a healthy version, it adds a great flavour though!)

Heat the oven to 200C.

Mix the oil, lemon juice and all the spices to make a spicy rub with Arabic flavours. Rub the mixture into the shanks to cover completely and get some of the mix into the muscle fibres. Arrange the shanks in a deep roasting tin bone side up. Cut the potato and carrots into chunky cubes and add with the mushrooms to the tin around the shanks. If you have any spice mix left drizzle over the vegetable. Otherwise season with salt and pepper. Add a little water to the tin to prevent the spice mix from burning.

Cover the tin with foil and roast on the high heat for 30 minutes. Turn the oven down to 170C and continue cooking for another 120 - 150 minutes. Take the foil off for the last 45 minutes. After you take the foil off paste the meat with juices from the tin every 15 minuets or so to stop it drying.

Wash the freekeh in a large bowl. The burnt grains and any residual chaff will float on top. Pour away with the water. You don't need to get rid of every floating grain. You need the smokey flavour they give. Soak the freekeh in cold water for 30 minutes.

In a heavy bottom pan add the freekeh, water and stock. Bring to hard boil then turn the heat to medium and cook for around 30 - 45 minutes. Taste the freekeh to make sure it is fully cooked. The texture should be a bit al dente. If the pot is getting too dry add a little bit of boiling water. Add the peas 5 - 10 minutes from the end (I cooked them for longer than I should in the picture above).

While the freekeh is cooking fry the pine nuts (and some almonds if you wish) in the Ghee butt till golden brown. Remove the nuts quickly before they burn. Preserve the butter for later.

Once you are ready to serve heat the butter until smoking hot. Pour very carefully over the freekeh put and mix through.

Serve the shank on a bed of freekeh with the vegetable on the side. Sprinkle the pine nuts on top.

Serve with some yogurt or Syrian style Tzatziki.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 29. Shanklish Salad

This post and my previous one on shanklish were supposed to be one post but when I started writing I discovered I have a lot to say about shanklish. It is a delicious ingredient and almost unknown outside the Levant. It definitely deserved its own post.

Today's recipe is the best way to enjoy shanklish. It works great as a light supper dish or as a mezze. As I mentioned previously, shanklish is not a native cheese to Damascus but as time went by it became more and more popular. You can find this mezze dish served in some of the upper end restaurants around the city.

Here is my Shanklish Salad recipe:

One Shanklish ball
Small red onion (or few spring onions)
One tomato
Olive oil

Finely chop the tomato and the onion. Crumble the shanklish and mix. Drizzle with a generous amount of olive oil.

Serve with Arabic flat bread. This salad is eaten with bread like you do with hummus, mutabal and other dips.

Yogurt, Tahini or both?

Yogurt in Syria is used in a total different way to that of England. We use yogurt in its unprocessed form. We don't eat it as a desert or a snack and never sweet or mixed with fruits. Yogurt for Syrians is a savory ingredient that is served next to food or used as a base ingredient of many dishes. We use yogurt by the bucket load quite literally! Traditionally Damascenes bought their yogurt from local shops in small plastic buckets. These were reusable. You eat the yogurt, you take them back and get yourself a new one. Of course this way of buying yogurt is almost extinct these days and you now buy it in small plastic pots like the rest of the world.

Tahini is another essential ingredient in the Syrian kitchen. Actually it is one of my all time favourite ingredients. It adds a unique earthy note to food and marries beautifully with lamb and white fish.

Both tahini and yogurt are used to create a variety of sauces served on the side of Syrian dishes. This post aims to explore all the different combinations created from these two ingredients and the different ways to use them.

Tahini Sauce: (theneh طحينة)

This is a classic sauce served next to kebab, lamb shawerma and falafel. it works perfectly well with fried aubergine and fried cauliflowers.

Tahini 4tbsp
Juice of half a lemon

Add the tahini, lemon juice to a bowl and start mixing with a spoon. The mixture will become stiff and light in colour. Add a little water and mix again. Add the water small amount at a time until the mixture loosens to the consistency you want. It needs to be fairly loose but not water-runny. Add salt to taste.

You can add some crushed garlic if you are serving it with shawerma or similar type recipes.

Yogurt and Tahini sauce: (Laban wa theneh لبن و طحينة)

This combination is mainly used as a base of many Syrian dishes; Mutabal, Ful bi Laban, Fatteh to name a few.

I occasionally use this combination as a side sauce instead of the pure tahini sauce described above. It is easier to eat as yogurt adds a nice tangy flavour that balance the heaviness of the tahini. I always serve this version with Lahmeh bil saniyeh.

Greek style yogurt 300g
Tahini 3tbsp

To make the sauce whisk together the yogurt and tahini. Add salt and lemon to taste. If the sauce is too thick, loosen with some water.

Taratour: (طرطور)

This sauce is the ideal complement to white fish cooked deep fried, grilled or roasted. One of my best childhood food memories was in a sea front restaurant in Tartous with a big plate of fried fish, Arabic bread and a bowel of Taratour, a perfect lunch.

To make taratour all you need is tahini sauce slightly thinner than usual and loads of chopped parsley

Yogurt and cucumber:
(Laban wa khiyar لبن و خيار)

Every country of the Levant and all the neighboring territories have their own version of the famous Tzatziki. This is the Syrian one. In its native countries Tzatziki is usually used as an accompaniment unlike the Western interpretation of serving it as a dip.

In Syria we serve Laban wa Khiyar as a side sauce for "dry" rice and Bulgar pilaf. By dry I mean dishes with the grains as the main ingredient without a vegetable stew on the side. Riz bi Bazalia (Peas rice pilaf) Riz bi Ful (Broad bean rice pilf) and Burgul bi Ful (Broad bean Bulgar pilaf) are some delicious examples.

Yogurt 300g
One cucumber
Garlic one clove
Dry mint 1tsp

Peel and finely chop the cucumber. Add the yogurt, dry mint and crushed garlic. Mix well and add salt and lemon to taste. Thin the mixture with some water if required to get the right consistency.

Yogurt: (Laban لبن)

Yogurt can be served in its plain unprocessed form as an alternative to Tzatziki. It goes well with the same type of dishes but it work especially well with Mujadara and Maqluba (literally translated, Upside-down) an upside down rice aubergine and meat pilaf.

Yogurt and garlic sauce: (Laban wa toum لبن و توم)

This one is for the garlic lovers. We Syrians (and Lebanese) are not only used to the taste of raw garlic, we absolutely love it!

This sauce is served next to Mnazaleh bi aswad and couple of similar dishes made with fried minced lamb and pumpkin or courgettes.

Finally, yogurt and garlic can be used to make the classic Syrian pasta with yogurt.

Yogurt 300g
Garlic 2-3 cloves

Crush the garlic and mix in the yogurt with salt to taste.