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!