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Archive for January, 2011

Mortadella, an Aleppan variation

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.

kaak (كعك)
Middle Eastern style breadcrumbs
middle eastern bread crumbs
mise en place
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.

seasoned mixing

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
cooking mortadella
Aleppan Mortadella (مرتديلا حلبية)
Aleppan Mortadella

Aleppan Mortadella

4-5 logs


  • 500g habra
  • 1/2 cup kaak, grated*
  • 1 egg
  • 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
  1. Prepare habra, the lean meat that comes from the top-round.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, mix together the habra, ground kaak (or breadcrumbs), minced garlic, sliced garlic, and egg, until well incorporated.
  3. Divide the meat mixture into 4 to 5 equal pieces.
  4. 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.
  5. Refrigerate until ready to blanch (can be done a day in advance).
  6. Prepare the blanching liquid by mixing 4 parts water to 1 part apple cider vinegar.
  7. Bring the blanching liquid to a simmer.
  8. Add the mortadella and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes or until the middle is no longer pink.
  9. Refrigerate until ready to eat.


hummus + muhammara + mortadella = best friends
muhammara hummus, and mortadella

rice pudding, a great start to 2011

First post of 2011. Here it goes:

On the first day of the new year my aunt and I were invited to her brother’s house for a traditional Aleppan New Years lunch, Kibbeh b’Labaniyeh (كبة بلبنية): kibbeh balls slowly cooked in a creamy yogurt sauce finished with a saute of minced garlic; the garnish: fragrant flecks of dried mint and a sprinkle of spicy paprika; the taste: heavenly. This is the mac-and-cheese of Middle Eastern food — comfort snuggled in a bowl. Its character is similar to that of a stew, hearty and satisfying. Kibbeh b’Labaniyeh is popular across Syria and Lebanon in the cold winter months, however, Christian families across Aleppo serve this dish as a traditional lunch on New Years to symbolize a clean, pure start to the year ahead. I blogged about it before and included a recipe. You must try it while the weather is still cold.

kibbeh blabaniyeh (كبة بلبنية)
kibbeh blabaniyeh

The festivities in Aleppo, however, continue well past New Years day. This is something I thought was interesting and worth exploring. It makes sense that not everyone gets to spend the holidays with their extended network on the day of the actual celebration. That’s why in Aleppo families usually host small, relatively informal gatherings days after the holidays, in this case Christmas and New Years, where they invite friends and extended family they didn’t have the opportunity to be with. I went to a few of these gatherings with my aunt. Regardless of how informal these gatherings are, you can rest assured food is involved; in Aleppo, it always is.

Coffee, assorted nuts, chocolates, cake, tea, and spreads like hummus are usually the common denominator; these are things that are almost expected at these gatherings. My aunt’s sister-in-law, for example, presented the usual spread of starters, and also offered her guests a variety of her homemade fruit preserves, which included preserved walnuts, a preserve that takes over a month to prepare. Very few people still know how to make it properly (I’m working on a recipe).

I became inspired by these gatherings; a wonderful way to celebrate with everyone you love, regardless of the day. Since my aunt has five children, two who live abroad, and each with their own families, I proposed hosting a gathering at her place, and insisted I would help setup. My aunt, actually my grandmother’s sister, usually gets invited by her kids to spend time at their homes; I had a feeling she missed having them over at her house. Like a typical Halabiye (Aleppan), the first question she asked was, what should we make?

We decided that the star of the occasion should be rice pudding (رز بالحليب) to go along with the white theme.

My first job for this gathering was to buy the milk for the rice pudding. My aunt sent me to a dukan, or “small shop” in Arabic. Think of a dukan like a convenience store minus the slurpees and abundance of junk food. The dukan I visited sells olives, shankleesh (type of Middle Eastern cheese–see picture below), yogurt, milk, eggs, and other pantry staples.

milk, cheeses and pantry items

When I asked for milk, the first question I got was “how many kilos?”. I have never bought milk in kilogram before, only liters and gallons.

I first asked for three kilos of milk, unsure of how many kilos my aunt needed for the recipe. The milkman opened a large stainless steel cooler against the back wall of the dukan and with a big ladle, began to pour milk into a plastic bag. It didn’t look like a lot, so I asked if he could fill me up another bag with three additional kilos. This is fresh, unpasturized milk, which, the milkman told me, had to be boiled before use. I paid 120 Syrian pounds, approximately $2.50, for what turned out to be a gallon and a half of unpasturized milk (1 kilo of milk is approximately equivalent to 1 Liter).

mise en place
mise en place

The debate between short grain vs long grain when it comes to rice pudding is endless. A shorter grain has more starch and will yield a thicker, almost risotto-like, rice pudding, while the longer grain rice will retain its texture more and not give off as must starch into the milk. My aunt uses medium grain or what they refer to in Aleppo as riz musry (رز مصري), or Egyptian rice.

medium grain rice
short grain rice
give it a good rinse
rinse rice

Once the milk comes to a simmer, you add the rice into the milk, along with about 1 cup of water. The extra cup of water helps cook the rice better, according to my aunt, who says that it is meant to replace the water that evaporates during the cooking process. I feel that the extra cup of water also helps cut the richness of the milk.

in goes the rice
add rice
one for everyone
individual bowls
rice pudding (رز بالحليب)
rice pudding

Rice Pudding

yields approximately 12 servings


  • 1 cup medium grain rice
  • 3 liters milk
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 Tbsp orange blossom water
  • 1 Tbsp rose water
  • ground cinnamon, garnish

Putting them all together

  1. Rinse rice under cold water until the water runs clear.
  2. Combine milk and rice in a large pot over medium heat. Stir constantly in a figure-eight pattern to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom.
  3. Reduce heat to medium-low once milk reaches a simmer. Continue stirring in order for the rice to release its starch.
  4. Cook for about an hour or until the milk reaches the desired consistency. Remember, it will continue to thicken in the refrigerator.
  5. Add sugar and continue to cook for 5 more minutes.
  6. Remove from heat and add rose and orange blossom water.
  7. Ladle into individual cups, garnish with ground cinnamon, and refrigerate uncovered for a few hours or until ready to serve.


eating rice pudding
Happy 2011*
shiny objects

*Photo Credit: Zaki Khanji