Chocolate Bar for Syria

Almost a year ago I was contacted by Paul, the man behind Cocoa Hernando, asking for ideas to develop a Syria inspired chocolate bar. I quickly surveyed my Facebook friends for the most "Syrian" flavour to go into a chocolate bar. We came up with a variety of flavours from pistachio nuts to rose petal jam. However the clear winner flavour was orange peel.

I fed these back to Paul but he had a much better idea than our collective twenty Syrian brains, milk chocolate with pomegranate molasses. Genius! I couldn't wait to taste it.

Unfortunately it wasn't meant to be. Although the initial experiments tasted good, I was told, the chocolate bar didn't work for a variety of reasons and ended up being replaced with dark chocolate with Damascene rose. The final product is a beautiful bar of chocolate. The rose smell and flavour is subtle and marries beautifully with some of the best dark chocolate I have ever had. Just the right amount of sweet and bitter.

This post has nothing to do with the fact my name has made a cameo appearance on the back cover of the bar as an imaginary stall holder from Damascus. I genuinely love this chocolate bar. Those of you who follow my blog know I hardly ever endorse a commercial product. I have a two fold test; the product need to be related to Syria somehow and I need to personally love it. This bar meets both. 

The second reason I am writing this post is that 10% of the profits of the Syria chocolate bar will be donated to a Syrian Humanitarian Appeal in association with the Philanthropy Club 

Now to the negatives, and they are small in comparison. This is a premium chocolate bar and it is priced accordingly, £5 for 70 grams of chocolate. Also there is a slight whiff of Orientalism about the whole thing which might rub some people the wrong way. Having said that, I would still happily spend the five pounds. In fact I will buy the whole range to try the next time I am in Selfridges. 

Syria bar is available to order online or can be purchased from Selfridges, Harvey Nichols or from Cocoa Hernando pop-up market stalls.

Potato Makmora, my style

Lamb shanks were a revelation the first time I tried them. Believe it or not  that was only 5 years or so ago. 

In Syria we don't cook Lamb shanks the way God intended. Instead we take the meat off the bone cut it into cubes and use it to cook stews. The cut is called Mozat (موزات). I assume it is from the Arabic word Mozeh which means banana. I assume because the the shape of the muscle resembles a tiny banana. (The last three sentences are completely made up. Most likely it has nothing to do with Banana)

I never tasted Mozat until I cooked that lamb shank for the first time.

My mum, bless her, hates meat. She would have been a vegetarian without a doubt if vegetarians were invented at that time. She can't touch raw meat of any form. My dad does all the meat handling and prep at our house. My mum would just push the stuff into the pan with spoon. Once cooked it doesn't get any better. She would only eat red meat if it is in its purest form without any sinew or any trace of fat, preferably without meat flavour or texture! 

I don't know if you have seen a boiled lamb shank. It has a gelatinous connective tissue that holds the muscle together. If my mum ever see this on her plate she wouldn't eat for a week. So needless to say we never ever had lamb shanks in our house.

Enough about that and back to the recipe. This is a simple dish of lamb, potato and onion. I add carrots for extra sweetness. Cooked nice and slow in a clay pot with salt, pepper and allspice. Melting in your mouth tender. It is by far my favourite lamb dish and a stable on my dinner party menu.

Here is my recipe for four:

Four lamb shanks
Two potatoes
One onion
Four carrots
Chicken stock 150 mls
Salt and pepper to taste
Allspice  1tsp

Start by roughly chopping the onion. Peel carrots and potatoes and cut into one inch cubes. Then into the clay pot. Onions at the bottom, lamb shanks, carrots and potato. Pour the chicken stock season generously with freshly ground black pepper and rock salt. Generously sprinkle the allspice over the meat and potatoes. Cover and into a cold oven.

I start the oven on 200c. After twenty minutes I turn in down to 165c and cook for three and a half hours. 

If you want to follow standard culinary procedure then brown the meat before adding to the pot. However I don't bother when I am cooking in a clay pot. The meat browns nicely as you can see in the picture.

Ramadan special: Iftar - Revisited

I first published this post five years ago. I read it today for the first time since then. It brought a tear to my eye remembering a time of peace and happiness in my Damascus. 

I decided to republish it as traffic to my blog triple in Ramadan form hungry readers looking for food inspirations. Since first posted I have cooked a lot of the dishes listed so I thought it will be helpful to update the post and embed all the links to save you the hassle. 

Ramadan is a month of peace and manic at the same time. The first day of fasting hits Damascus and the city goes into this form of transformation I find fascinating to watch. To understand what I am talking about all you need to do is watch Damascus over the period of 10 minutes around the Iftar meal. 

In the best of times driving in Syria is a risky business, so imagine being in the streets with a million or so drivers, all hungry, tired, severe nicotine deprivation, all trying to make their destination at the same minute. Ten minutes later and not a soul in the street. Millions of people around the city sitting with their family around Iftar tables. The atmosphere couldn't be more of peace, celebration and family.

Iftar (or Futoor as we call it in Syria) is the evening meal in Ramadan. Muslims fast during this month every day from sunrise to sunset. They refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex during these hours. Come the evening, they wait around tables full of all kinds of delicious food for the call to the evening prayers. Millions of hands move simultaneously to reach for that glass of water to break their fast.

Juice is a stable on any Iftar menu especially when Ramadan comes in Summer when you really need something to kill your thirst. Dates is another essential, it is the first thing Muslims should eat according to Islamic tradition.

After an empty stomach all day long you would want something soft and light to start your meal with. Soup (here and here) and Fatteh are the perfect starters to warm up your stomach in preparation for the delicious grub that coming its way.

Main dishes in Ramadan are no different to the usual food cooked outside the month but what make Iftar meal special is the wide variety of side dishes that line up the table. Salad and especially Fatoush is a must, so is Foul (broad bean salad) which is usually breakfast or supper dish outside Ramadan. Other sides on the menu are pastries (here, here and here), Sambosek and one of the many vegetarian cold dishes (here, here, here and here) we love in the Levant.

Sweets are more important in Ramadan than any other time. You really need some sugar to boost your blood glucose levels after a day of starvation. Filo pastry of some variation with Eshta (Arabic clotted cream) stuffing form the basis of most Ramadan sweets. Another Ramadan special is Na'eem (ناعم), a very large fried cracker (somewhat similar to Poppadoms) with a drizzle of sweet grape molasses.

Manic rush is done. Food is done. Syrian people then goes into their peaceful mood. They cosy up on sofas to enjoy a family night watching their favourite TV serial drama, Bab Al-Hara.