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Archive for the ‘Syria’ Tag


The Secret for the Best Yalanji

The best recipes I learned in Aleppo were from home cooks. They have all the secrets. They taught me how to touch and feel food. They chided me for measuring ingredients. They always had the best stories.

Before the internet, this is how secrets were passed around. Person-to-person. Only the best tricks survived the test of time. During Lent, my grandmother’s sister, Aunt Kiki, invited me to prepare yalanji with her. Yalanji is originally a Turkish word. It means “liar” or “fake.” In the food world, yalanji refers to vegetarian stuffed vegetables or dolmas. That’s because dolmas are typically stuffed with a fragrant meat and rice mixture, whereas yalanji dolmas are “fake” because they’re vegetarian.

The star of yalanji is really the filling. The vegetable on the exterior is merely a vehicle for the delicious, vegetarian stuffing. You typically find yalanji made from stuffing grape leaves and even tiny baby eggplants, but my grandmother’s sister loved the delicate, silky texture of Swiss chard. I’ve had yalanji at many restaurants and homes, but none come close to Aunt Kiki’s recipe.

Yalanji takes time, preparation, and lots of effort. The day Aunt Kiki taught me her recipe, I remember we woke exceptionally early to go to Aleppo’s main vegetable market (سوق الخضرة). This was a real farmers market. The vendors were all local farmers selling what was plentiful and in-season. The vegetables were overflowing, freshly picked, with dirt still on the surfaces. Prices were competitive, too. As we walked past the carts, vendors belted their best prices. It was like walking into an auction hall of produce. It was loud and exciting. I drew a lot of attention with my big camera. Kids followed me around posing with their family’s produce.

Aleppo Vegetable Market, 2010
Swiss Chard with a Smile

In order to make the best yalanji, you need to pack lots of flavor into the stuffing. Unlike meat-based dolmas, yalanji don’t have the benefit of fatty meat. That’s where Aunt Kiki’s secret comes into play. Once we washed our produce from the market, I remember she asked me for Turkish coffee from the pantry. I assumed she wanted to re-energize. I reached for the brik (Turkish coffee pot) and handed her a couple of demitasses. She chuckled; I was confused. That’s when she revealed that the coffee was for the filling. At first I thought she was joking. I had tasted her yalanji before. It was amazing. Delicious. Full of flavor, but it didn’t taste like coffee. That’s because a spoonful is all you need. The coffee adds depth that’s satisfying, yet barely noticeable.

mise en place
mise en place
sweat yellow onions
sweat yellow onions
rinse rice
rinse rice
vegetarian stuffing
vegetarian stuffing
wash Swiss chard
wash Swiss chard
remove stems
remove stems
blanch chard leaves
blanch chard leaves
shock in ice bath
shock in ice bath
prepare to stuff
prepare to stuff
stuffing: step 1
stuffing: step 1
stuffing: step 2
stuffing: step 2
stuffing: step 3
stuffing: step 3
stuffing: step 4
stuffing: step 4
stuffing: step 5
stuffing: step 5
potatoes to prevent sticking/burning
potatoes at the bottom of the pot to prevent sticking/burning
yalanji, organized
yalanji, organized in pot
heavy plate
heavy plate
yalanji (يلنجي)
yalanji (يلنجي)
yalanji (يلنجي) with lemon
yalanji (يلنجي) with lemon

Yalanji Dolmas

yields ~32 pieces

Components

  • 16 large Swiss chard leaves
  • 1 cup medium grain rice
  • 3/4 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 3-4 medium yellow onions, diced
  • 1 bunch flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • 1 Tbsp red pepper paste
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 Tbsp Turkish coffee, ground
  • 1 tsp dried mint
  • 1 tsp granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 potato, optional
  • 2 lemons, for garnish

Putting them all together

  1. Wash Swiss chard leaves in cold water. With the chard leaves vein side up, flat on a cutting board, remove the stems by running your knife along both sides of the stem (do not discard stems*).
  2. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Season with salt.
  3. Blanch the Swiss chard leaves submerging them in the boiling water for 15-30 seconds, then removing them to a bowl of ice water to halt the cooking process. This preserves the leaves’ vibrant green color and makes them easier to stuff. Drain leaves and set aside.
  4. Rinse rice under cold water. Drain and set aside.
  5. In a large sauté pan over medium low heat, add olive oil and diced onions. Season with salt. Sweat onions until translucent. Make sure not to brown or caramelize the onions.
  6. Add the rice to the onions. Cook over medium-low heat for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally to give the rice a head start.
  7. Mix all the stuffing ingredients together (everything except for the Swiss chard, potatoes, and lemons). Season with salt (taste and adjust accordingly).
  8. Lay one strip of blanched Swiss chard leaf on a clean work surface. Add a tablespoon (Tbsp) of filling to the base. Fold in a triangular pattern as shown in the photos (like folding a flag) until the filling is securely tucked inside the leaf. Continue until all the leaves and stuffing are complete.
  9. Line the bottom or a medium to large pot with sliced potatoes* to protect the yalanji from burning.
  10. Arrange the triangular yalanji in the pot in a way that minimizes the space between them, like a game of Tetris.
  11. Add 3/4 cup of water to the lemon juice. Season with salt (to taste). Pour lemon mixture over the yalanji. Add more water until it the top row is covered by about 1/2 an inch.
  12. Insert a heavy, heat-proof plate over the yalanji to keep them submerged and prevent them from moving while cooking.
  13. Place the pot over medium high heat until the water comes to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer (low) and cook for 45 minutes.
  14. After 45 minutes, taste a yalanji from the top to make sure the rice is fully cooked. If not, continue cooking until rice is slightly al dente.
  15. Drain excess cooking liquid from the pot. Allow yalanji to cool to room temperature. Gently remove the yalanji from the pot and store them covered in the refrigerator until ready to eat. Yalanji taste better the following day, once they’ve had a chance to cool and the flavors have married.

Notes: Make sure not to add Turkish coffee infused with cardamom, otherwise that will throw off the flavor of your yalanji. If you don’t have a potato, you could also use the leftover stems from the Swiss chard. If you line the bottom of the pot with potatoes, do not discard the Swiss chard stems. Chop them up into large chunks and cook them with thinly sliced onions and minced garlic in a bit of extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt, ground coriander, and serve over a bed of rice. You can finish off with a fried egg or serve it alongside a creamy, mint-garlic yogurt sauce.

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the perfect bite
the perfect bite

Abu Abdo’s April “Ful”

One of the most popular and iconic restaurants in all of Aleppo was Abu Abdo’s— a tiny fava bean parlor tucked away in the city’s historic Jdaydeh district. There was only one item on the menu: ful (fava beans). Fava beans for breakfast is to Arabs what steak and eggs is to Americana. It’s the beloved breakfast of champions. One bowl of fava beans packs enough fuel to keep you going all day.

Abu Abdo’s dad, Abdo, opened the iconic shop bearing his name in 1885. Everyone from celebrities and high-ranking politicians to the poorest in the community have eaten at Abu Abdo’s. Wealthy entrepreneurs have tried to convince Abu Abdo to sell his shop or open a franchise, but Abu Abdo always turned down these offers. He has worked behind the counter, serving the community, since he was twelve years old.

Abu Abdo
Abu Abdo

Photo credit: Emily Smith Chammah

Abu Abdo’s shop has a couple tables, but most patrons pick up their fava beans to-go (سفري) in small plastic bags. Abu Abdo is always the one behind the counter, greeting customers while frantically filling orders. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

Unfortunately, Abu Abdo’s has since closed due to the ongoing war in Syria. The historic Jdeydeh district has sustained substantial damage from fighting between rebel and government forces.

The secret to Abu Abdo’s success though was never tied to his fava beans. He was successful because of the way he greeted and interacted with his community. He was honest, kind, and never turned away a hungry visitor, regardless of how little money they had. Kids would sometimes ask how much ful they could buy with 5 Syrian pounds (the equivalent of a few cents), knowing Abu Abdo would take care of them and their families.

Abu Abdo was committed to his craft, as was his father before him. He never let fame get in the way of his work. While you can find ful in a can these days, it’s a treat to pay homage to this hard working Syrian legend by recreating his classic fava beans from scratch.

mise en place
mise en place
soaked fava beans
soaked fava beans
cooked fava beans
cooked fava beans
tahini-lemon-garlic sauce
tahini-lemon-garlic sauce
ful in tahini sauce (فولبالطحينة)
ful in tahini sauce (فول بالطحينة)

Ful in Tahini Sauce

yields 6-8 servings

Components

  • 2 cups dried fava beans
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • 1 tsp cumin, ground
  • 1 tsp Aleppo pepper, ground
  • diced tomatoes
  • chopped parsley
  • fresh mint
  • fresh pita bread

Putting them all together

  1. Rinse dried fava beans. Soak beans in cold water with 1/4 tsp of baking soda* for 36-48 hours.
  2. Rinse soaked fava beans in cold water. Fill a large pot with cold water and cook fava beans for 4-6 hours or until they are soft. Do not add salt until the very end.
  3. Prepare the sauce by mixing freshly squeezed lemon juice with garlic, cumin, Aleppo pepper, and tahini. Season with salt (to taste).
  4. While the beans are still warm, drain (don’t worry about removing every drop of water) then toss with the tahini-lemon-garlic sauce. Serve alongside, diced tomatoes, chopped parsley, chunks of raw yellow onion, fresh mint, and plenty of extra virgin olive oil. You can eat the ful with a spoon or with pita bread.

Notes: Soaking the beans in water with a little baking soda helps yield a more tender, creamier bean. You can add a spoon of red pepper paste to the top of your ful for a spicy kick.

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ful bite (لقمةفول)
Ful bite (لقمة فول)

In Syria, Aleppo Pepper is King

One of the ingredients I miss the most from Syria is the famous Aleppo pepper. It’s the culinary ambassador to Aleppo around the world— a relatively long and slender pepper with bright, fruity flavor. It packs moderate heat: less than cayenne, but more than jalapeño. It’s the goldilocks of peppers. You can usually find dried and ground in most speciality spice stores or Mediterranean markets, but finding fresh is almost impossible.

Towards the end of pepper season, usually late summer/early fall, farmers and home cooks in Aleppo convert their surplus pepper into the most magnificent red pepper paste called debs flefleh (دبس الفليفلة) or “pepper molasses.” Molasses in Arabic refers to any fruit/vegetable pulp that is reduced low and slow. Home cooks dry the leftover peppers on their rooftops until most, but not all, the moisture has evaporated. You don’t want the peppers to be completely dry otherwise it will be difficult to process them into a paste. The final consistency is similar to tomato paste.

Unlike the rest of Syria or other cities across the Levant, Aleppo’s cuisine is famous for bursts of heat from using Aleppo pepper in all its forms (fresh, dried/ground, paste). A lot of recipes on my blog call for “red pepper paste” (e.g. muhammara, lahme b’ajeen, white bean salad). Unfortunately, most of the store-bought varieties of red pepper paste are packed with preservatives. If you buy it from a Mediterranean market, try to find a reputable brand that only uses only high quality peppers and salt as their ingredients. Make sure not to confuse red pepper paste with shatta, which is a hot sauce used more as a condiment, as opposed to red pepper paste, which is used as an ingredient in cooking.

I’ve received many recipe requests for a red pepper paste. Since it’s difficult to find fresh Aleppo peppers, I’ve come up with a recipe that uses fresh red bell peppers mixed with a handful of spicy red peppers, like cayenne. The process of making your own is fairly simple, although it does take time. You can adjust the spiciness of your paste by adding more or less spicy peppers, depending on your preference.

a bushel of peppers
a bushel of peppers
wash peppers
wash peppers
arrange cut peppers on baking sheets
arrange cut peppers on baking sheets
slightly moist, not dry
slightly moist, not dry peppers
salt paste to taste
salt paste to taste
optimal consistency
salt paste to taste
debs flefleh (دبس الفليفلة)
salt paste to taste

Red Pepper Paste

yields two small jars

Components

  • 25 lbs of red bell peppers
  • 15-20 cayenne peppers
  • salt, to taste
  • olive oil, to seal the jar

Putting them all together

  1. Wash peppers and roughly cut them into flat chunks. Align them across multiple baking sheets so the peppers do not overlap.
  2. Cook for 4-6 hours on your oven’s lowest setting (mine was 170°F/77°C). If your oven can go lower or has a dehydrate option, I recommend using that. Be sure to rotate the trays a few times during the cooking process so that the peppers reduce evenly. You want them to turn a dark red flavor (avoid browning) and slightly moist and soft to the touch, not dry.
  3. Process the reduced peppers in the food processor until a smooth paste is achieved.
  4. Season with salt, to taste.
  5. Store the red pepper paste in clean jars. Finish with a cap of olive oil on top to help keep the paste fresh until ready to use. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Notes: You should only prepare red pepper paste during pepper season (late summer to early fall), when there is a surplus of peppers. Work with local farmers. This recipe is for a medium-heat paste. You can add/reduce the number of cayenne peppers to adjust the overall heat. You should store your red pepper paste in the refrigerator unless you preserve it using canning techniques.

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cap of olive oil for freshness
cap of olive oil for freshness

Marlene’s White Bean Salad

Lately, I’ve been reading The Aleppo Cookbook by Marlene Matar. The book has a permanent spot in my living room. When I’m feeling nostalgic, I pick it up and read through some of the recipes. It’s a beautiful tribute to Aleppo’s legendary cuisine. The photography is simple and elegant, with a focus on the natural beauty of ingredients and the finished dishes. The cover is a wonderful close-up shot of pomegranates, which are quintessentially Aleppan. It reminds me of the day trip I took to Basouta, a Kurdish farming village outside of Aleppo. Basouta is famous for its pomegranates.

Basouta, Syria–outskirts of Aleppo (November 2010)
pomegranates in Basouta

Tucked away on page 103 of Marlene’s book, under salads and vegetable side dishes, is a simple recipe for a white bean salad. I almost missed it had it not been for the reference to red pepper paste, which makes everything taste amazing! Red pepper paste, which is made from Aleppo peppers, is another quintessential Aleppan ingredient. A couple weeks ago, after an intense workout and with no energy left to cook, I remembered Marlene’s salad. I decided to give it a try. I always have cans of cannellini beans stashed away in my pantry for situations like this. The combination of creamy cannellini beans with the spicy red pepper paste dressing and earthy cumin is sublime. Best of all, the salad comes together in less than 10 minutes and can be made the day before. In fact, it’s one of those dishes that tastes better the next day once the flavors have had a chance to marry. I know because I photographed this dish yesterday and I’m enjoying a bowl of the leftovers as I write this post.

mise en place
mise en place
simple prep: parsley, lemon juice, and garlic
simple prep: parsley, lemon juice, and garlic
lots of olive oil <3
love of olive oil
white bean salad (سلطةفاصوليابيضاء)
white bean salad (سلطة فاصوليا بيضاء)

White Bean Salad

yields approximately 6 servings

Components

  • 2 15oz cans white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2 Tbsp red pepper paste
  • 1.5 tsp ground cumin
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds, optional
  • 1-2 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. In a bowl, combine the beans with the rest of the ingredients.
  2. Mix well, taste, and adjust seasoning. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Notes: Slightly modified from The Aleppo Cookbook by Marlene Matar.

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bright flavors
bright flavors

Not your baker’s lahme b’ajeen

I grew up eating lahme b’ajeen (لحمة بعجين), meat pies, from my grandmother Muna’s kitchen. It was a painstaking work of love, care, and devotion. Sitto Muna always prepared the dough and meat mixture the night before. She would then wake up before anyone else to begin forming the pies one by one. I often woke up to the scent of meat pies sizzling on her griddle. The process took a long time, but my grandmother went to great lengths to make sure my brothers and I connected with our heritage.

When I traveled to Syria for the first time in 2007, I was surprised to learn grandmothers don’t prepare lahme b’ajeen at home. They prepare their own meat topping at home and would often send a young family member to deliver it to the local furn, or bakery. Most neighborhoods in Aleppo have a small, modest furn outfitted with a commercial oven. Ours was a block away, tucked away in an alley. For a nominal fee, the neighborhood baker would form and bake the individual meat pies using the homemade meat topping and their own dough.  This exchange was more about social cohesion than anything the baker profited from. By the time lunch was ready, someone would walk down to the local furn to fetch the freshly baked stack of meat pies.

Every country in the Middle East has their own version of meat pies. Most Middle Eastern recipes call for sautéing meat and diced onions with a variety of fragrant spices. In Aleppo, the recipe is influenced by the Armenian community in the city. The Armenian version of lahme b’ajeen (lahmajun), makes use of fresh mint, a bunch of parsley, onions, red bell peppers, lots of garlic, and vine-ripe tomatoes. It’s a celebration of spring and summer. With a couple weeks left of winter, this is the perfect recipe to kick off the warm weather. It’s a great dish to prepare with friends. If you don’t have a griddle that fits over your stove, you can use an electric griddle or bake them in the oven on a pizza stone.

mise en place
mise en place
rough chop
rough chop of all the vegetables
remove the stems
remove the stems
meat & vegetable topping
meat & vegetable topping
basic dough
basic dough
individual dough balls
individual dough balls
thin dough/thin topping
thin topping
heaven
cooking lahmajun on griddle
golden brown crust
golden brown crust
work of love
lahme b'ajeen tray
lahme b’ajeen (لحمة بعجين)
lahme b'ajeen

Lahmeh B’ajeen

yields approximately 24 pies

Components

Dough

  • 1kg flour
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1/4 tsp dry active yeast
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 2 tsp sugar or honey
  • 3-3.5 cups warm water*

Meat mixture

  • 500g ground beef, ~85% lean
  • 1 bunch of parsley
  • 5-7 sprigs of mint
  • 2 red bell pepper
  • 500g tomatoes, ~2-3 large tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp red pepper paste
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 2 Tbsp Aleppo pepper
  • 2 tsp allspice, ground
  • salt, to taste

toppings (optional)

  • eggplant pulp
  • plain yogurt
  • mint leaves
  • arugula, baby kale, or your favorite greens
  • Aleppo pepper

Putting them all together

  1. Mix together the flour, yeast, salt, and sugar until well combined (if you’re using honey, add it with the oil in the next step). Add the canola oil (and honey) and begin mixing the warm water into the dough. Stop adding water once a smooth dough is formed. Kneed for 5-10 minutes.
  2. Cut the dough into individual balls slightly bigger than golf balls but smaller than tennis balls (~65 grams each).
  3. Brush some oil to prevent the dough balls from drying, cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rest overnight or until you’re ready to make the meat pies (no more than 24 hours).
  4. Add all the ingredients except the meat into the food processor. Pulse until you have a a pulpy mix. Mix the chopped vegetables with the meat mixture and refrigerate until you are ready to make the pies. The meat mixture can also be made the day before.
  5. Add a touch of canola oil to a clean working surface. Open the dough by pressing on it with your hands until you reach a very thin disk. Be careful not to tear the dough.
  6. Add a very thin layer of the meat mixture.
  7. Carefully transfer the meat pie onto a hot griddle. Cook for 3-4 minutes or until the bottom is golden brown. Transfer to a baking sheet in a warm oven.
  8. Continue forming the pies until the meat mixture is done.
  9. Serve the meat pies with a variety of optional toppings for rolling into the meat pies.

Notes: The amount of water you use for the dough will vary on the flour, the season, and how dry the weather is. This dough isn’t fussy — gradually add the warm water until the dough comes together.

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lahme b’ajeen with homemade yogurt, fresh mint, and baby kale
lahme b'ajeen with homemade yogurt, fresh mint, and baby kale