Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tabbouleh and Other Salads

Baba is adamant that my stomach can’t handle the local parasites after such a long absence. Apparently Parsley and Watercress are “water processors” which means that if there is infected water (cholera, typhoid, “the local stomach bug”) they hold it inside rather than outside, so no amount of soaking them in 'precept' or 'milton' will make them safe for a non-native. Or at least that's the gist of what I've been told.

The worst temptation was when we went to a friend's house and they served the biggest, most beautiful plate of tabbouleh I've seen since grade school and I couldn't eat a single bite. It was the torment of tantalus to have my very favorite dish so close and not be able to eat it. I considered throwing caution to the wind, just suffering the consequences, but I was flying back to the states soon after. I can’t imagine anything worse than flying while you have “the local stomach bug.”

 Tabbouleh. Sorry it’s blurry, my hand was probably shaking: I wanted to eat some so badly!
Tabbouleh 101
It’s pronounced tabboolae. It’s a long a sound on the end, not a short i. I don’t know where that other pronunciation comes from. In the west, the US especially, people focus on the cracked wheat in tabbouleh far too much. Authentic tabbouleh, is mostly chopped parsley. There are other key elements as well. If there isn’t enough lemon juice or diced tomatoes, it just isn’t right. Then there’s the lack of dried mint in the dressing. If the proportions aren’t right, you miss an important and delicious experience.

You really are missing out if you’re eating tabbouleh that isn’t made right. Put it this way: if your reaction to a spoonful is “hmmm, interesting. How different,” the proportions aren’t right. If, however, your reaction is, “wow, can I have more, please,” you probably had the real thing.

Still, every family has their own recipe. I’ve seen one recipe that called for a whole cup of cracked wheat (burghol) and four bunches of parsley and another recipe calling for three tablespoons of cracked wheat and six bunches of parsley. I’ll add a note when I find a recipe that suits me.

 Cucumber and tomato salad.
Here’s a tempting favorite from my aunt's feast (featured in the post "I Ate An Ouzie. Two, Actually"). The juice from the diced tomatoes is captured and used with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, salt and water to make the freshest tasting dressing you can imagine. Fresh chopped or dried mint and some parsley are also mixed in throughout. It’s like the taste of summer in a bowl!

If you add Arab watercress, green onions, garlic and fried pita bread chips, it would be fattoush which rounds out my top three favorite salads.

Radishes, green onions, fresh mint and sometimes fresh tarragon are on the table to munch between dishes to clear your palate, or to add to whatever you are eating: as you wish.

The wonderful thing about living in the “fertile crescent” is that produce tends to be locally grown and therefore fresh and ripe. If you go to the market rather than a government cooperative, you will likely buy produce that was harvested early that morning before the farmer drove his cart - horse, donkey, or motorcycle engine powered - into town. You’re often putting money into the hands of the very person who grew the produce. Yes, there are produce sellers, but if you want the good stuff, you get up early and go out to the source.

NOTE: When I returned in 2010, I did throw caution to the wind early and often with no ill effects. Somewhere in my system, I must still have some immunities from my childhood. Of course, I only ate salad in family houses where they had washed the greens and at the Four Seasons Hotel complex, where they cater to a foreign crowd. If you are in Syria and are dying for some greens, my top pick is Shakespeare and Co. in the Four Seasons complex. They serve a large Caesar Salad that is wonderful, and you can get the dressing on the side. There are also good greens at the terrace dining in the same complex, not to be confused with the café in the southern courtyard, where the food was either unmemorable or bad: I can’t remember which.


I Ate An Ouzie! Two, actually.

I got to eat ouzie at my aunt's house the other day. She had the usual spread of EVERYTHING, but also had ouzie, which is one of my favorites. Ouzie is rice, mutton or lamb, pistachios, and peas wrapped in a filo dough crust. Because of the rice and peas, it tastes a bit sweet even though it is basically a meal in a filo dough shell. This is one of those wonderful Arab dishes that use cinnamon as a savory spice. Cinnamon goes really well with lamb and mutton.

Baba had already refused to serve ouzie at our end of school party earlier in the summer because ouzie are often used for funeral banquets. So I had resigned myself to not having any ouzie on this visit. Instead of ordering them from a caterer, my aunt made these herself, so they were particularly good. They were less greasy than catered ouzie can be and probably made with lamb rather than mutton. My aunt also made them small enough to be a regular helping (a small fist). Catered ouzie are usually meant to be a whole meal on the go, so they are about the size of a large tea saucer. My aunt did another unusual thing and actually gave me a doggy bag. Normally, in Syria, when you eat at someone’s house, you're expected to stuff yourself within an inch of hospitalization and leave the rest there. This time, I got to eat two ouzie at home a few days later. Yummy!

Here are some of the more standard dishes at the same feast:

Boiled mutton over steamed barley, topped with almonds and cashews.
I have to admit that I haven’t had this one before. Baba was surprised by that. I guess it’s usually not included in feasts but eaten frequently in the home. Apparently no one taught it to my mom.

Two Kinds of Baraq (meat, and cheese), Spinach Fatayer (tricornered with ridges), and Kibbeh Balls.
Baraq are sometimes made with filo dough. They are just pillows with a little bite of filling. The cheese ones have goat cheese and parsley inside. The meat ones have a similar filling to the Kibbeh Balls: minced lamb, onion and pine nuts. The Kibbeh Ball itself is made from cracked wheat. Sometimes, as a treat for children, some of the Kibbeh Balls will be stuffed with boiled eggs, whole boiled eggs if the cook is skillful enough. The Spinach Fatayer, are one of my favorites, with enough lemon juice to give the spinach a little bite, while the dough crust is sweet.

 Koosah Mhshi 
Stuffed zucchini are practically a staple. The variety of zucchini in Syria is larger and the skin more tender, not to mention lighter colored, than we grow in the US. It’s closer to a Magda Squash. Each one is hollowed out by hand (using a special tool) and then stuffed with a filling of spices, rice, lamb and an occasional chickpea for a surprise. Our family boils the stuffed zucchinis in a tomato based sauce, which is to spoon over the rice filling once you slice the zucchini open with your spoon. Yes, I said spoon. The zucchini is very tender.

Women in my family usually fill at least a four quart pressure cooker with rolled grape leaves when they make yebra’ or yalangi. For a large banquet, the entire cooker is over turned to form a tower of neatly stacked cylanders. I think these are yebra’ which are usually served hot as opposed to yalungi which are served cold (similar to dolmas, but less oily). In our family, yebra’ is usually served with a tomato lemon broth for dipping and pita bread. But not at banquets. I’m told only children eat yebra’ with the broth and bread, but I prefer it that way

No matter how much you like them, only take a couple yebra’ onto your plate at one time. Forcing food onto a guest is a required show of hospitality in Syria. Your hosts – this can sometimes include everyone at the table – will insist on adding items to your plate once you have eaten your first serving, sometimes sooner. Pace yourself. Take the smallest portions possible and eat slowly. Tell your hosts that you want to savor each dish by itself. If they see helpings of every dish on your plate at the same time, they will later claim you only had a taste and must have a proper helping.

It’s considered rude to refuse, but eventually you must. That is usually when the hostess busts out the “from my hand” trump card. Just when you are bursting at the seams, your hostess (the cook, presumably) will beg that you eat one last portion “from my hand.” This does NOT mean that she wants to hand feed you. It means that you must eat one last serving that she dishes up for you, personally, to honor the cook/hostess. This is truly the rock and the hard place, when you’ve already been force fed three helpings of everything on the table. Generally this is when I eat stuffed grape leaves. As portions go, they are smaller. When the hostess begins to dish me up that last morsel, I say, “just some grape leaves, please, they are my favorite.” They are, actually.

Salads were also served at this meal, but the entry got so long that they are posted separately as “Tabbouleh and Other Salads”

 Damascene Baklava #1

In the west, many people think of baklava as a walnut treat, but in Syria, walnut baklava is just a junior member of a family of treats using filo dough crusts and pistachios. In Damascus, if you speak of baklava and you are not specific, people will think you are talking about shredded filo dough that has been stuffed with fresh cream (almost like a pudding), quickly deep fried, drizzled with rosewater syrup and topped with cream and pistachios. If you haven’t left room for this dessert, you’re in trouble! More pictures of baklava in an upcoming post.

I didn't get a picture of this but did you know that you can stuff turkish delight with fresh cream pudding and pistachios...? Yummy...I doubt anyone could eat more than two. They are small, but, wow, how rich!

Good luck. I’ve gained several pounds in a single afternoon while being shamed into eating one last bite of this or that. I think of it as the price I have to pay for not visiting more often. If you are invited to more than one feast, try to space them out no closer than one in three days and fast in between.

The meal is finished with fruits and tea or coffee, depending on the time of day and your intimacy with the hosts. If it’s afternoon and you’re like family, the fruits and tea may be served after everyone has a nap!


Monday, July 1, 2013


A few days ago Baba took me to a couple of malls. This is a new phenomenon in Syria. Apparently, after 9/11, when countries in the west penalized all Arabs by freezing their private bank accounts, Arabs looked for more hospitable places to invest. They found that Bashar’s Syria had become trade friendly. Add the fact that the local middle and upper classes were hungry for products and that many wealthy Gulf Arabs frequently vacation in Syria, and investors had the perfect recipe for a booming economy.

The malls vary from clusters of stores that were already located in one spot to full scale western style malls complete with food courts, game arcades, and escalators. Keep in mind that Damascus has been a center for trade for over two millennia. Souk Hamidiyyeh, and Straight Street are part of a labyrinth of markets that could easily be called the ancestors of malls. Of course there’s a difference. The old markets are adjacent to or inside khans (caravanserais), and therefore the street beneath your feet is dirty even if it is paved and you share it with whatever livestock was used to haul the goods to and from market. In today’s malls, the floors and walls are marble or look like it, and they usually have a parking garage too. Something most Americans will find unusual is that many malls here feature a supermarket (grocery store), some more super than others.

Cham City Center, a five story mall, is the nicest mall I've seen, here. Old Navy and Gap are out at another mall, and Kickers (mostly for kids) seems to pop up a lot. If you have the money, you can dress nicely and pretty fashionably without hitting the boutiques near Abou Roummaneh, or the comparative downmarket of Salhiyeh. It’s a big change from the plastic slippers and double knit polyester of my childhood, when quality “ready-to wear” clothing was hard to find.

I was tempted to Syrianize my look with this suit, but ankle-length skirts in 100º weather was too much for me to contemplate.
This is more my style.

Lost in translation, considering 99% of the people in the mall speak Arabic.
The other mall that is popular with my family is Towncenter, ironically located outside of town. It houses a giant supermarket and some clothing, electronics, and bedding stores. There is also a car dealership, and then an Arab style bakery named “Apple” in an adjacent lot.  

On cooler days, the shades in the windows of the bakery can go up, allowing patrons a view of the city.

That’s an elevator for cars! It’s a little creepy if you know the unreliability of regular people elevators in Syria.
Wow, can you tell it’s an election year?

By the way, there is no p or ch in Arabic. Vowels are different too. The Arabic equivalent of u, called wow, sounds like oo or w. The schwa sound is usually represented by a (alef). So, Punch translates to Arabic as "Bansh."

 In case you start to think everything in the west has been duplicated for your convenience, look closer. The Dairy case isn’t turned on; it’s just lit.

The freezers are turned on, but the boxes aren’t all labeled, so you won’t really know what you’ve baked until you bite into it.

This isn’t your typical corner market. So, rather than cartons or flats of eggs – flats are the norm in Syria – you can buy baskets of eggs. Really swank, but so expensive that they are likely to be rather old.

But, it wouldn’t be a SUPER market if it didn’t have everything, including things you can’t identify.

This is supposed to be for wine, or maybe tea? It would make for an interesting conversation piece, but if I bought this, I’d have to think for the rest of my life that I had better things to do with my money.

So, Syrians have put their own twist on the super market and the mall. I’m glad. As much as I like my western comforts, I’d feel robbed if I stepped into a real American grocery store in the middle of Damascus.