Thursday, June 16, 2011

S is for Syria: My Last Meal

Damascus market place

The other day my a few of my sorority sisters and I somehow got on the subject on what our last meal would be if we were soon to be executed (I’m really not sure how our conversation became so morbid). My sister’s recounted their childhood favorites, foods like Mac and Cheese and fried chicken. Foods that basically reminded them of their youth, of their homes, back when life was easy, and figuring out where you were going to ride your bike was the hardest decision of the day. At the time of the conversationg I said I couldn’t choose one. But now as I sit and write, I know exactly what I would choose…something earthy, wholesome, that reminds me of my childhood…Syrian food!

Confused? Let me explain…

Yam and Gaea
A few of my post have touched on the amazing diversity that I grew up with.  For most of my childhood, I also grew up Syrian. If I wasn’t at home, or in school, as a youngster I could be found at Yam and Gaea’s house, two Syrian twin girls that are basically family to me. After school I would go to their house, eat Syrian dinner,  sometimes listen to them argue with their parents in Arabic, and then get into some harmless trouble. I grew up on hummus, rice with toasted pasta, Syrian bread, lebneh, a soft cheese made from yogurt, and my favorite, yebra, better known as stuffed grape leaves. Now, even the mere smell of Arabic spices spurs feelings of nostalgia.

The cuisine in Syria is absolutely fantastic. It really has something for everyone. You can eat lamb and chicken, or choose from an array of vegetarian dishes. There are cold, fresh salads, tangy yogurts and cheeses, and of course the sweets and cakes. The food is wholesome, earthy, and most of the time, really healthy. Their food culture has been refined for thousands of years. Damascus, Syria’s capital (and where Yam and Gaea were born) was founded around 1000 BC and is thought to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Needless to say, they have had some time to practice their cooking techniques.

Just like Lebanon, Syria’s national dish is kibbeh (see Lebanon). Syrian food in America is often referred to as Mediterranean, but the flavors are very distinct. The kibbeh of Syria is not the same that I made in my blog. In Syria the ingredients are more or less the same as the Lebanese dish, ground beef or lamb, mixed with burghul, and roasted pine nuts. However Syrian kibbeh is molded into a fancy Syrian meatloaf shape, baked, and sliced, like a delicious meat,  cake, instead of being deep fried.

Essential to Syrian cuisine is saj and baharat. Saj, Syrian bread, are light, airy pitas that are eaten with just about everything. They are a far cry from the traditional pita found it grocery stores that are thick, flaccid, and sweet. Saj can be found in the Arabic grocery stores, and are much larger than traditional pitas. Baharat, on the other hand, can be easily made. Known as the “seven spice mix”, baharat goes in basically everything. When cooking with Gaea and her mom for my blog I was going through their spices and found a jar of spices encrypted with Arabic. When I asked my very unhelpful cooking buddy Gaea what is was she answered oh-so nonchalantly “Oh..just some Arabic spice..”. Thanks Gaea. I now realize it was baharat, a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, pimento, black pepper, and cumin. 

Another major ingredient is burghul, but I gave the run down on it in my post on Lebanon, thus I want to introduce a super special, traditional Syrian grain that I learned in my research. Freekeh is an ancient grain prized for its high protein, vitamins, and fiber content. What makes this grain so awesome, other than being super nutritious is that way it is prepared and harvested. The wheat is harvested while the grains are yellow and seeds are still soft. The wheat is soaked, piled, and then sun-dried…but, right before they are completely dry, it is char grilled (basically set on fire) to give it a beautiful, smoky flavor. The wheat then does some more sun bathing in the sun, with the end result being a nutty, smoky grain with a bite. It is a unique and healthy substitution to rice.

I am newly addicted to this great Australian food show, Food Safari. Each episode explores the foods of immigrants in Australian (brilliant!). Speaking of Syria, the host Maeve O'Meara said t” “the concept of hospitality in Syria is so strong that every family is ready to cater to an army at a moments notice”.  Everyday after school I can clearly remember Yam and Gaea’s quaint kitchen beautifully decorated with an array of foods. As soon as walked through their glass sliding door her mother showered us with the most delicious meals. The food was new, fresh, and exciting, and to this day, it still is. Syrian cuisine is famous for a love of eating; therefore, it's not a surprise that the International Academy of Gastronomy in France awarded Aleppo its culinary prize in 2007. So before you turn your nose to Syrian cuisine, just known it was a food capital long before Paris.


No resturant in Columbus has come close to the food that Yam and Gaea’s mom makes, so why pay for some mediocre “Arabic” food when I can have the real thing for free? One beautiful, sunny day my sister Jennifer and I took a trip back to the area where we grew up. Granted, it’s only like 15 minutes from our campus homes, and it isn’t the same apartment we spent our childhood, it is very close to our high school alma mater. When we walked in food was already on the table….oh, how I sometimes wished I lived at home (well, their home). Yam’s new baby, the cutest thing known to mankind, was only a quick distraction to the assortment of food that surrounded the table. Hummus, okra stew, grilled meats, lebneh, saj, rice, and salmon…what a feast! Shortly after, Gaea and I, under the lead of her mother, began the process for yebra, aka stuffed grape leaves, aka my favorite meal. I always order them at restaurants, and while I have had some “okay” ones, I have never had any as delicious as the one their mom makes, thus it was time for me to learn.  The process was long, intricate, intense, and sooooo worth it.  Like a good Arabic girl, I ate the grapes leaves with Gaea all while smoking hookah (I was taught well).

makes about 50 rolls

  • a jar or can of grape leaves
  • 1 cups of rice, cooked
  • 2 lbs ground beef
  • baharat, or your own personal choice of spices, a few tablespoons
  • like 10 cloves of garlic (more or less depending on how garlicy you want it), peeled
  • 1/4 cuplemon juice
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • salt
1.Wash grape leaves with cold water, and strain in a colander

2.Mix the rice, meat, and spices together to form a "meat paste".

3. Assemble grape leaves. This is super complicated so I made a video to show you how its done. Thank you Gaea for the narration. 

4.Place the stuffed leaves tightly in a large pot. Place garlic 6 cloves between leaves. 

5. With a mortar and pestle grind the rest of the garlic into a paste.
6. Add the lemon and oil and pour over leaves.
7.Add water to pot just enough to cover leaves. 
8.Put a small plate on top of leaves to prevent unwinding, and put a rock (yes a rock) or something heavy on top of the leaves so that the plate doesn't move. You want your plate to be inside of the pot.
9. Cover pot and simmer on a low flame for about 45.

Eat warm or cold with yogurt. 

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