It’s been a while since I’ve written anything on my blog — more than two months. I needed time to think. I needed time away from the place I had invested so many emotions into. I’m not sure if after all this thinking I know what to say, I just know I have to write what’s on my mind and in my heart.
I want to dedicate this post to the Syrian people. Not the anti-government or the pro-government camp. This post is not about taking sides or gaining political capital. Reports of what is happening in Syria are as conflicting as they are endless. I want to keep this post simple: this is about saying thank you to the Syrians who hosted me in their country with open arms. It’s about the friends I made and didn’t get to say goodbye to. It’s about the complete strangers who invited me into their homes to share a meal. It’s about remembering the Syria that is beautiful, kind, and loving. It’s about the Syria that gives endlessly without receiving.
I want to give special thanks to everyone in Aleppo, my home for seven months, and undoubtedly, Syria’s food capital. I will always keep memories of you in my heart, until forever.
لقد مرت فترة من الوقت منذ أن دونت شيئا، أكثر من شهرين.. احتجت الى الوقت لأفكر، وقتاً بعيداً
عن المكان الذي بذلت فيه الكثير من المشاعر، و لست متأكدا بعد كل هذا التفكير ماذا سأقول تحديدا، لكني اعلم أنني يجب ان أكتب ما يدور في قلبي و عقلي.
أريد أن أهدي هذه التدوينه للشعب السوري، ليس للموالاة او المعارضه -فقط الشعب- .. هذه التدوينه ليست للانحياز الى جانب ما، او نيل الرأسمال السياسي، التقارير التي تصلنا من سوريا متضاربه للغايه، لذلك أريد أن أُبقي الهدف من هذه التدوينة بسيطاً، هو القول شكرًا لجميع السوريين الذين استضافوني في بلدهم بأذرع مفتوحة، هو عن الأصدقاء الذين كسبتهم و لم يتسن لي فرصة وداعهم، هو عن الغرباء الذين دعوني الى منازلهم لمشاركتهم وجبة طعام، هو عن تذكر سوريا الجميلة، المعطائه و المحبه، عن سوريا التي أعطتني بلا حدود دون مقابل..
أريد ان أوجه شكرًا خاصا لحلب، التي احتضتنتي لسبعة اشهر، المدينة التي بلا شك عاصمة الطعام السوري..
I love to walk around for hours deep in the labyrinth of souks that interweave the old city in Aleppo. I lose myself in the crowds, chat with vendors, drink coffee with strangers, and take in my surroundings. It’s an exhilarating feeling. The chatter, the people, the sales, the merchandise–it’s all a very lively experience.
In Aleppo there are souks, or traditional Arab markets, for almost everything: clothing, gold, jewelry, food. Stores selling almost identical merchandise will all be bundled in one section of the souk. From an economics perspective, it’s wonderful; the competition helps keep prices low. The market I most often visit, naturally, is a vegetable souk that’s a convenient 10-minute walk from my house. I’ve posted pictures on my Facebook Page.
The first time I visited, I couldn’t help but think this is what a real farmer’s market feels like. Mountains of vegetables that look like they have just been picked, bargains belted by vendors at every stand, and amazing prices. The kids in the market love showing me around — they compete for my hand and pull me towards their favorite stands.
The Swiss chard at the souk caught my eye; its over-sized dark green leaves are hard to miss. Aleppo is known as the mother city of stuffed vegetables and kibab. It’s a popular saying here, “حلب أم الكبب و المحاشي”. This was my inspiration for today’s post.
Kibab, plural for kibbeh, are small torpedo-shape balls, pointy on both ends, made from minced meat and fine bulgur (cracked wheat). This is a classic preparation across the Levant and anything that slightly resembles this paradigm is dubbed, kibbeh. Aleppo is famous for its endless variations: with sour cherries or quince; carrots or pumpkin; yogurt or broth; raw or cooked; fried or baked; boiled or grilled. I can go on. This is a topic that, rightfully so, deserves its own blog post. Today, however, I want to focus on the first half of the saying–that is, the stuffed vegetables.
Like kibab, Aleppans are also known for their variety of stuffed vegetables: eggplants, zucchini, peppers, grape leaves, cabbage leaves, tomatoes, potatoes; I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot. As of lately, my favorite has been the stuffed Swiss chard leaves. I had them for the first time a few months ago on a chilly winter afternoon in Aleppo. My grandmother’s sister prepared a batch one afternoon for me to try. The stuffed chard leaves looked almost like over-stuffed grape leaves, but with a more pronounced dark green color. They also seemed softer in texture, as I noticed a few inside the pot had broken down in the simmering broth.
Before we sat down to eat, my grandmother’s sister asked me to mince some garlic; it’s for the sauce, she said. She added the fragrant garlic bits into a bowl of pearly white yogurt, sprinkled a small handful of dried mint, and stirred. It looked beautiful. The specks of bright green mint stood out in the creamy yogurt. As she carried the pot of stuffed chard leaves to the table she told me this used to be my grandfather’s favorite dish. “Allah yerhamo,” she said (May he rest in peace).
I took my first bite. I remember I wasn’t very excited. In my mind, it didn’t seem like anything could compare to the flavor and texture of stuffed grape leaves. “You have to eat it with the yogurt sauce,” she proclaimed. My grandmother’s sister took the liberty of adding a few large spoonfuls to the side of my plate. She instructed me, “dip, and then give it a try.”
I took another bite, this time with the yogurt. Had I been a cartoon character, this is when fireworks would be happening in my eyes. The difference is incredible. The sauce brings the dish to life. The garlic flavor is intense, but the yogurt helps round out its sharp edges–it also helps cool the palate.
I practiced making this dish on my own, and I think I finally got it right. I got excellent reviews from a couple expert Aleppan home cooks. This is one of those dishes that takes time, but is worth every minute of rolling. Invite friends who like to cook, put on your favorite movie and enjoy.
Swiss chard from the market
As I mentioned before, the vegetables from the souk feel like they have just been picked from the ground. Swiss chard leaves are particularly dirty and can have dirt stuck to the leaves. For this reason, I go through a thorough cleaning process. First, I fill my sink up with water and wash off as much of the dirt as I can. Next, I bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and prepare three separate bowls, or in my case buckets, of ice water. First, I blanch the leaves in the boiling water for a few seconds, and wash them off, in procession, three times, once in each ice bath. This helps me make sure the leaves are clean and ready for rolling.
rice, meat, tomato paste, salt, allspice
incredible yogurt sauce
sour grape water (ماءحصرم)
Sour grape water is harvested in late June/early July and lasts the entire year without spoiling — it is a staple in the Aleppan kitchen. When I can’t find “mayy husrom” back home, I use lemon juice, but the flavor is not exactly the same. I found this article in Arabic on how the young sour grapes are harvested, juiced, and preserved:
I bought this bottle from the souk, but I would like to write more about the process of preparing the water later in the summer.
stuffed chard leaves
yabraq silq (يبرق سلق)
yields 4-6 servings
1 bunch Swiss chard
1 lb ground beef
2 cups short grain rice
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 Tbsp allspice
3 cups sour grape water*, (mayy husrom)
3 cups plain yogurt
2 Tbsp dried mint
3 cloves garlic, minced
salt, to taste
Putting them all together
Rinse the rice under cold water 2-3 times and set aside.
Wash the Swiss chard leaves well, preferably in a deep sink so that all the dirt can fall to the bottom.
Remove the stem from all the Swiss chard leaves.
Fill a large pot with water and bring to a rolling boil.
Season the water with salt (not precise, a 2-3 teaspoons).
Prepare three bowls with ice cold water.
Submerge a handful of the Swiss chard leaves into the boiling water for 7-10 seconds or until barely wilted.
Quickly remove from the boiling water and transfer to the first ice-water bowl. Rinse, and move to the second bowl, and finally the third. This will ensure that the leaves are clean.
Strain the blanched leaves from the ice-water and set aside for rolling.
In a big bowl mix together the ground beef, rice, salt, allspice, and tomato paste.
To stuff the blanched chard you want to cut the leaves so they are approximately 3-4 inch long.
Align 2-3 of the shortened chard leaves side-by-side so they overlap a little–you should have something that resembles a wide rectangle at this point.
Form a horizontal mound of the meat mixture slightly above the base of the rectangle, but don’t go all the way to the sides.
Fold in the sides in, and roll the leaf from the base so that the meat mixture is enclosed.
Do this until the meat mixture is finished*.
Throw any leaf scraps in the bottom of a medium-to-large pot.
Arrange the stuffed Swiss chard inside the pot.
Season the sour grape juice (mayy husrom)* with salt, mix, and add to the stuff Swiss chard leaves.
Fill the rest of the pot with water until it completely covers the stuffed Swiss chard leaves by 1-2 fingers.
Press down the stuffed leaves with an inverted heat resistant plate and add a can of beans (or anything heavy) over the top–this will keep the stuffed leaves intact while cooking and prevent them from unravelling or breaking.
Bring to a boil then lower the heat to low and continue cooking for 40-50 minutes, or until the leaves are tender.
Prepare the yogurt sauce by mixing the yogurt, minced garlic, dried mint, and salt together.
Serve the hot stuffed Swiss chard leaves alongside the cool yogurt sauce.
Notes: Leftover chard leaves can be sauteed with olive oil, garlic, dried coriander, and salt; served with rice; and eaten as a meal. You can substitute the sour grape juice (mayy husrom) with lemon juice.
Something came up last minute and my grandmother’s sister has to travel; everything, though, should be fine. I spent the last couple of weeks looking at apartments and finally moved a few days ago.
I unpacked my things, tested the washer, took a deep breath, and made soup. Chicken noodle and rice soup. I learned this recipe from lunch at my friend Georgette’s house. Georgette, or Juju as everyone likes to call her, is one of those people you can’t not like. Not even if you tried. She possesses that tender grandmotherly spirit that loves and cares for everyone. She can’t help it. Georgette is in her sixties, is recently-widowed, and has a heart made of pure gold.
Tant Juju (Aunt Juju) invited me over for lunch several times while I was looking at apartments. Aside from being an angel, she is also an incredible cook. Her style is simple and homey. She makes the kind of food that you eat with gusto, and in generous servings. Whenever I say something too polite she tells me to stop acting like a stranger; she considers me family.
Tant Juju cooks out of a tiny kitchen that barely fits the two of us. While she cooks I usually stand by the doorway of her kitchen and keep her company. We chat, but mostly I observe from a distance. There are no measuring cups or spoons; no hesitation, no fuss. Her cooking reminds me of a good dance performance. Tant Juju is graceful, but assertive in the way she cooks. This is her domain. You could tell by the way she adds ingredients with confidence that she’s been doing this for a while.
The day Tant Juju invited me for over for soup, I actually went out of courtesy. I had already grabbed a quick bite to eat in the street, but you can’t say ‘no’ to Tant Juju. She won’t have it. It’s part of Aleppan hospitality: eat, eat, eat, then eat some more. So I went. And I ate. And I loved. And ate some more. It was perfect.
In celebration of Tant Juju’s amazingly simple and delicious soup, this was the first dish I made in my new home. Try this recipe before winter is gone. Like Tant Juju, it’s impossible not to like.
mise en place
Before adding any of the vegetables, try to remove as much of the scum from the surface of the stock as possible. This way the vegetables won’t get in your way.
skim off scum
in they go!
chicken noodle and rice soup
Chicken Noodle and Rice Soup
yields approx. 8-10 servings
1 whole chicken
5 Liters water
2 carrots, roughly chopped
2 onions, roughly chopped
10 sprigs parsley, bunched
2 cinnamon sticks
6-8 allspice, whole
2 bay leaves
1 cup angel hair noodles
1 cup short grain rice
Putting them all together
Rinse chicken under cold water. Make sure to remove the gizzards (they are usually in a bag inside the chicken).
Fill a large stock pot with water and add chicken.
Bring the water to a light simmer over medium heat and remove the scum as it starts floating to the surface.*
After removing the scum, add the spices and vegetables to the stock.
Continue cooking for another hour over low heat so that the stock barely simmers.
Remove chicken from stock and allow to cool for a few minutes.
Remove the meat from the bones, shred, and refrigerate until ready to use.
Return chicken bones back to stock and continue to simmer for another 2 hours.
Strain stock through a fine-mesh strainer.
Refrigerate until ready to use.*
Remove layer of fat from stock (optional).
Toast noodles in a dry pan until golden brown.
Bring stock to a simmer over medium heat, and add toasted noodles, rice, and chicken meat.
Ready to serve once rice has completely softened.
Notes: Make sure not to stir the chicken stock too much since that will produce a cloudy stock. If you’re in a rush, you don’t need to refrigerate the stock. Simply strain the stock from the bones and vegetables, and continue by adding the toasted noodles, rice, and chicken meat.
I don’t know why or when it hit me, but the other day, as I was laying in bed after lunch, I realized I had been struck with a case of homesickness. My stomach was in knots and my thoughts floated home, across the Atlantic. We were told by the Fulbright committee during our pre-departure orientation that this is common; I wasn’t worried. This period of longing, however gloomy, gave me time to clear my thoughts and get other work done. I took a trip with friends to the outskirts of Aleppo and also worked on programming — behind the scenes geeky stuff that secretly makes me happy.
sunset in the outskirts of Aleppo
As for my blog, I think it has also benefited from this period of thinking and rethinking. It has planted in me a new seed of enthusiasm and great ideas.
I consider my blog my baby. As of today, it is 3 years and 5 months old. It may sound strange to those who don’t blog, but I feel my blog has evolved over the years and has made me grow in ways I had never anticipated. My blog opened my eyes to web design and web development; it continuously fuels my immense passion for photography. My blog connects me to wonderful people and encourages me to try new foods and food techniques. It offers me a creative space to write and express my feelings in words, pictures, and videos. And although I have on-and-off spells where I feel unmotivated to produce, this is something I’ve realized is a part of life. I have learned to grow from these bursts of inspiration and grapple with the moments when my mind wanders and my stomach is in knots.
One of the things that makes food blogging so appealing, I think, is the community it is built on. When I write a blog and post it on this tiny corner of the internet, I feel I am sharing stories and experiences with friends gathered around my dining room table. It’s an amazing feeling. It is real and intimate and funny and mushy and I love it. This is a metaphor that has stuck with me from early on, and one that has kept me focused on what my blog means to me. Thank you, always, for your encouragement.
Today, in celebration of rethinking, I want to share with you a recipe that I’ve blogged about before: Muhammara, a rich and tangy Middle Eastern spread of red peppers and chopped walnuts. It’s a spread that should never be missing from your refrigerator. My aunt cleans red peppers and keeps them in a bag in her freezer for on-the-fly muhammara. It’s a spread that you can put together in 5 minutes and tastes better if you prepare it the day before. The flavors meld and food magic happens. In Aleppo muhammara is commonly served as a side platter as part of the mezze spread, but I put in on almost everything. Sandwiches being my favorite so far. Just a light smear on the bread does the trick. Try it, and let me know.
In the olden days, muhammara used to be considered a spread for royalty and the wealthy upperclass because of the ingredients required to make it. Walnuts and red peppers still aren’t cheap, but have become more accessible. Today the amount of walnuts you add to your muhammara has even become a pseudo status symbol.
Since we’re friends, and I know you won’t laugh (OK, you could laugh a little bit), I’ve also dug up this old video of me making muhammara for a Food Network audition. The video was filmed and produced by my very talented friend, Marilyn Rivchin, Senior Lecturer of Filmmaking at Cornell University. I didn’t get the part, but this clip reminds me of how much I love cooking.
The ingredients for this muhammara are mostly the same as the last recipe I posted, but my aunt taught me to add a dash of sugar to the spicy dip. It’s not traditional, but it works. It rounds out the spiciness of the pepper paste and balances the tang of the pomegranate molasses. I added it as an optional ingredient in the recipe.
mise en place
chopped walnuts + kaak (كعك)
clean peppers, inside and out
red pepper puree
extra virgin olive oil
typical mezze spread
yields approx 1 cup
3 red bell peppers
1 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
3/4 cup kaak, finely ground (3/4 cup breadcrumbs)
1 Tbsp cumin, ground
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
1/4 extra virgin olive oil
salt, to taste
1 Tbsp spicy red pepper paste, optional
1 tsp sugar, optional
Putting them all together
Process the kaak in a food processor until finely ground and set aside.
Process the red bell peppers in the food processor until finely chopped.
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients together, cover, and refrigerate until ready to serve.
To serve, spread the muhammara into a shallow dish, drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil and garnish with toasted walnuts. Plate alongside some pita bread and enjoy!
Notes: You can find kaak in most Mediterranean or Middle Eastern markets, but breadcrumbs serve as a suitable substitute. I recommend a tiny bit of red pepper paste for a kick, but feel free to adjust the quantity to your liking.
In my early days of experimenting with muhammara in Aleppo, I came up with this simple snack that I now eat on a regular basis. It’s simple and incredibly delicious: a slice of Aleppan Mortadella, topped with a dollop of creamy hummus, and a kiss of spicy muhammara seals the deal. Enjoy!
Almost every lunch, dinner, or formal event in Aleppo begins with an endless spread of mezze. Tabletops brimmed with plates of appetizers. Hummus and Muhammara. Labne and cured olives. Roasted nuts and homemade pickles. These are some of the popular ones. There is also yalanjii, vegetarian stuffed vegetables, which I still have to blog about. Every family has their favorites, their own style of hosting, but the common theme is abundance. The food should appear endless — this is the unspoken rule of Middle Eastern hospitality. You’d be hard pressed to find a gap between the plates.
A popular mezze in Aleppo is the Mortadella Halabiye, or Aleppan Mortadella. Not to be confused with the popular Italian cured meat, Aleppan Mortadella is much smaller in size and is blanched, not cured. Also, Italian Mortadella is made from pork, whereas the Aleppan version is made with either beef or lamb. On a couple of occasions, however, I’ve seen chicken varieties, as well.
Aleppan Mortadella is usually served as a starter as part of a spread of mezze — leftovers go into sandwiches. This is how my aunt taught me. You take fresh bread — pita or baguette — add a liberal shmear of hummus, cover with slices of Aleppan Mortadella, fanned out, and voilà. It’s that simple. If you add some muhammara to the sandwich, even better; it gives it a spicy contrast, not enough to make you cry though, just smile.
Now, to make Aleppan Mortadella, you want to start out with kaak (كعك), a Middle Eastern kind of bread stick that is incredibly crunchy and usually served alongside tea. Middle Eastern or Mediterranean stores should have it. If you can’t find kaak, however, you can use breadcrumbs; ultimately, its goal is to bind the mortadella.
Middle Eastern style breadcrumbs
mise en place
The next ingredient is the habra, which is basically very lean meat, essentially fat-less. A good habra should have no fat. I’ve blogged about it before. Habra is the basis of all kibbeh, which makes it readily available at any butcher in the Middle East. In the States, however, I usually ask my butcher to ground for me top-round beef, with all its fat removed. My butcher even goes the extra length to ground my meat early in the morning, before they ground any other meat, so that fat inside the machine doesn’t get into my habra. Then, once I get home, I process the meat in my food processor with a few ice cubes until a paste is formed — that’s all habra is.
The rest is mixing the ingredients together.
I noticed my aunt doesn’t mix the ground kaak with the meat all at once, only handfuls at a time. The reason being you might not need it all. The best mortadella, she told me, is made with as little kaak as possible. Only mix in as much as you need. The goal is a mixture that barely comes together and holds its shape.
oh, there’s garlic, too
add the pistachios into the center
The reason for not mixing the pistachios in the beginning is so that they remain in the center of the mortadella. This is for presentation purposes.
cover and into the fridge
some apple cider vinegar
Aleppan Mortadella (مرتديلا حلبية)
1/2 cup kaak, grated*
1/2 cup unsalted pistachios
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 Tbsp allspice, ground
1 Tbsp salt
8 cups water, for blanching
2 cups apple cider vinegar
ice water, for forming the mortadella
Prepare habra, the lean meat that comes from the top-round.
In a large mixing bowl, mix together the habra, ground kaak (or breadcrumbs), minced garlic, sliced garlic, and egg, until well incorporated.
Divide the meat mixture into 4 to 5 equal pieces.
To form the mortadella: flatten a piece of the meat mixture, sprinkle with pistachios, fold closed, and form into a smooth log. Use ice water to smooth the meat mixture if you feel that it is a bit sticky.
Refrigerate until ready to blanch (can be done a day in advance).
Prepare the blanching liquid by mixing 4 parts water to 1 part apple cider vinegar.
Bring the blanching liquid to a simmer.
Add the mortadella and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes or until the middle is no longer pink.