On October 26, 2011, a few months after I got back from my Fulbright in Syria, I noticed a new email in my inbox. From: Alan Janbay. Alan is Syrian American. He has extended family in Venezuela. And, like me, is also a food blogger. The coincidences seemed uncanny. I remember thinking, this guy is my digital doppelgänger!
While I was living in Aleppo, I became the de facto ambassador to the city. I was never shy about expressing how much more interesting I thought Aleppo was than Damascus. As the capital city, Damascus always felt formal relative to Aleppo. Walking down the narrow streets of the old city in Aleppo felt like you were stepping back in time. The old buildings showed age, but also splendor. The hidden culinary gems in tucked away neighborhoods packed some of the most magnificent flavors I have ever experienced. I quickly gained a reputation among the US embassy staff and the Fulbright scholars in Damascus. Anytime anyone planed a trip to Aleppo, I was more than happy to show them around my favorite city. I knew my way though the historical sites, but most importantly, I knew where to find all the best food.
There are no words to articulate how delicious, decadent, and versatile qashta is. Qashta, if you haven’t experienced it before, is Middle Eastern clotted cream. You typically see it used in Arabic desserts, but in Aleppo, they even have it for breakfast (because why not?). One of my favorite breakfasts in Aleppo was zlebiye (paper-thin fried dough) stuffed with qashta topped with cinnamon sugar and chopped Aleppan pistachios. This is not the kind of breakfast you have every day.
Like all immigrants, when my grandparents moved from Syria to Venezuela in the late 1950s, they brought a piece of Aleppo with them. To this day, I associate the scent of fresh mint with my grandmother, Marine, Allah yerhama (may God rest her soul). As kids, we used to play around her vegetable and herb garden in Venezuela. My grandmother grew a disproportionate amount of mint. I would occasionally pluck a couple leaves, rub them between my fingers, and press them up to my nose. The scent of fresh mint always reminds me of her.
When the bomb cyclone hit the New England area a few days ago, I was prepared. The cyclone may have packed bitter cold wind chills and the ability to crush my soul like a popsicle, but I had soup. Specifically, Fadi’s red lentil soup. The bomb cyclone didn’t stand a chance. Before I get to the soup though, let me tell you about Fadi.