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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


  • 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.


the perfect bite
the perfect bite

Sweet Cheese Rolls

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.

One of my last tours was in April of 2011 when my friend Tom, a fellow Fulbright scholar living in Damascus, visited Aleppo with his family. I teamed up with my cousin Zaki who lives in Aleppo and wanted to practice his English. We crammed into tiny Syrian cabs and ate our way through the city.

Anne (Tom’s mom), Tom, and Zaki
Aleppo cab ride
Aleppo’s Souks
Aleppo's Souks
Aleppan dinner at my apartment
Aleppan dinner at my apartment

One of the stops we made that evening was at a famous sweet shop called Salloura. If you’re from Aleppo, you know Salloura. Salloura evokes sweet happy memories. The original branch was founded in the 1870s by As’ad Salloura’s great-grandfather in the city of Hama about 140km south of Aleppo. There’s a wonderful series by Dalia Mortada and Lauren Bohn titled Salloura: an Epic of Sweets. It chronicles the history of Salloura and current state of Salloura in a series of articles.

The dessert that made Salloura famous in 1870 was As’ad Salloura’s great grandfather’s sweet cheese rolls, halawet al jiben (حلاوة الجبن). He sold them in the streets of Hama carrying a tray of these fluffy, chewy rolls over his head.

mise en place
mise en place

Halawet al jiben, or sweet cheese rolls, is a comforting dessert. It’s a soft, chewy dough infused with the fragrant essence of orange blossom and rose water. It gets its name from the sweet cheese (mozzarella curd) that gets melted into the chewy semolina dough and filled with creamy qashta.

If you have a Mediterranean store close by, the best cheese to use for this dessert is sweet cheese or mozzarella curds. You can also use Akkawi cheese, but you need to steep it in fresh water to remove some of the salt content. The goal is to use a cheese with little salt. If you can’t find “sweet cheese” at your local market, you can substitute regular mozzarella, too.

mozzarella curd

The dough comes together in a matter of minutes. Start heating up water and a little sugar in a large pot. Once the sugar dissolves and the mix begins to bubble, add the cheese that’s been cut into small pieces. Stir until the pieces melt together and form a stringy mass.

melted mozzarella

Once the cheese has melted, mix in the semolina making sure to stir constantly using a wooden spoon. There are many grades of semolina that correspond to different thicknesses from fine to coarse. For this dessert, it’s important to use fine semolina.

fine semolina
fine semolina

This is when the dough will start to thicken up. Make sure to keep stirring to make sure the cheese completely dissolves into the semolina dough.

cheese-semolina swirl
cheese-semolina swirl

Once the dough comes together, you’ll want to add the fragrant orange blossom and rose waters right as you remove the dough from the heat. This will help preserve the intense flavor of the waters. If you’re successful, you’ll be rewarded with a soft, billowy cheese dough.

soft cheese dough
soft cheese dough

Home cooks in Syria roll the dough out on plastic bags that they’ve opened into sheets. Since the dough is hot, I recommend using silicone baking mats instead. Once you transfer the dough to the baking mats, use your fingers to carefully open the dough into a rectangular shape. Then use a rolling pin to continue rolling the dough out into a thin rectangular sheet.

thin sheet of cheese dough
thin sheet of cheese dough

With a sharp knife, cut the edges of the sheet to form a perfect rectangle.

cutting edge
cutting edge

Line the bottom edge of the halawet al jiben dough with qashta and carefully roll the dough around the qashta to form a cylinder.

stuffing with creamy qashta
stuffing with creamy qashta

Cut the cylinder and continue filling rows of qashta until you run out of dough. Cut the cylinders into individual portions. At this point, the halawet al jiben can be plated and tightly covered with plastic wrap until you’re ready to serve. Once your guests arrive, you’ll want to top each piece with crushed pistachios.

pistachios (فستقحلبي)
pistachios (فستق حلبي)

If you recall from the qashta post, the cream filling isn’t sweetened. Serve the plated halawet al jiben with a side of ‘atar or simple syrup so that each person can choose how sweet they would like their dessert.

orange blossom infused simple syrup
orange blossom infused simple syrup
halawet al jiben (حلاوةالجبن)
halawet al jiben (حلاوة الجبن)

Halawet Al Jiben

yields ~24 pieces


  • 1 cup fine semolina
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 2/3 cups water
  • 500g mozzarella curd, cut into small pieces*
  • 2 tsp orange blossom water
  • 2 tsp rose water
  • 4 cups qashta

‘Atar (Simple Syrup)

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 Tbsp orange blossom water
  • 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice

Putting them all together

  1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, prepare the ‘atar (simple syrup) by mixing the sugar and water together.
  2. Simmer for ~5-7 minutes until the mix begins to thicken.
  3. Add the orange blossom water and lemon juice. Turn off heat and allow to cool. The ‘atar can be made days in advance and stored in a mason jar in the refrigerator until ready to use.
  4. In a large pot over medium heat, mix the water and sugar until the sugar dissolves and the mix begins to bubble.
  5. Lower heat to medium low and add the cheese. Stir until the cheese is dissolved.
  6. Slowly pour the semolina while constantly stirring with a wooden spoon. Continue stirring vigorously until the mix becomes a dough. It’s ok for some of the dough to stick to the sides of the pan.
  7. Turn off the heat and stir in the orange blossom and rose waters.
  8. Line a counter with silicone baking mats. Move the hot dough to the baking mats and form it into a rectangle shape with your hands (making sure not to burn your fingers). Use a rolling pin to roll it out to a thin sheet (~1/16 inch).
  9. Using a spoon, run a line of qashta down the long edge of the dough.
  10. Roll the dough over the qashta to form a cylinder. Use a knife to slice down the edge and repeat until there’s no more dough left.
  11. Slice the cylinders into individual pieces. Sprinkle with crushed pistachios and serve on a large tray with the ‘atar or simple syrup on the side.

Note: This recipe makes more ‘atar (simple syrup) than needed. No need to use all of it. Allow guests to make their serving as sweet as they’d like.


gushing qastha
gashing qashta

Lahme B’ajeen

Aleppan Meat Pies (Lahmeh B’ajeen)

yields approximately 24 pies



  • 1kg flour*
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1/4 tsp dry active yeast
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 2 tsp sugar or honey
  • lukewarm 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

garnish (optional)

  • eggplant pulp
  • plain yogurt
  • mint leaves
  • arugula
  • 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 in the lukewarm water into the dough. Stop adding water once a smooth dough is formed.
  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 36 hours).
  4. Add all the ingredients except the meat into the food processor. Pulse until you have a a pulpy mix. Mix the processed 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 (I use a large plate). Open the dough by pressing on it with your hands until you reach an ultra thin disk.
  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 low oven to keep warm.
  8. Continue forming the pies in this manner until the meat mixture is done.
  9. Serve the meat pies with the option for guests to add some of the garnishes.

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 hot water until the dough comes together.


France challenge: Tarts

The first leg of our Mediterranean excursion starts in France. Not a bad place to start, don’t you think? Home to the Eiffel Tower, Les Champs-Elysées, The Lourve, yes; but let’s not forget about the food.

I still remember the first time my family took me to a local French patisserie as a child. My parents love to tell me the story of how I stood in front of the glass case mesmerized by all the pretty sweets on display. It’s amazing how, within a single memory, the mind can recreate the scent of freshly baked baguettes or the image of sweets perfectly aligned on display.

I like to think that that memory played a pivotal role in me wanting to pursue cooking, but who knows. One of the things I remember most from that shop growing up is the array of tarts, sweet and savory, that the head chef was known for. Seeing as this is the first installment to A Taste of the Mediterranean and we’re on our way to France now, I thought we could make tarts for the first challenge.

The tarts could be sweet or savory, it’s up to you! Probably many of you (with exception of the kiwis and aussies) are wondering where you can find fresh berries like these this time of year without having to pay an arm and a leg for them.

The simple solution is to not limit yourself to summertime berries! Luckily, one of my favorite French food bloggers, Fanny from Foodbeam, is not only our lovely co-host for this month, but she also has a couple of amazing posts for some tart inspiration.

On her blog, Fanny has a milk chocolate passion fruit tart with roasted pineapples inspired by Pierre Hermé – of course in French that all rolls off the tongue as as simple as Tarte chocolat au lait et fruit de la passion, ananas rôti. How’s that for inspiration? Not only that, but Fanny also offers a beautiful step-by-step tutorial on how to make your very own pâte sucrée at home, here.

The first challenge for A Taste of the Mediterranean is to create your own tart, sweet or savory. The blogger with the winning tart will receive a $50 gift certificate to igourmet.

Submission Deadline: January 31, 2009

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A Taste of the Mediterranean

The start of a new year is always exciting. Whether you buy into resolutions or not, there’s something special about starting anew with a clean slate. The holiday season certainly take its toll on foodies and I hope everyone survived alright – I got away with only a couple minor scratches and a miserable 16-hour stay at the airport (but that was so last year). I’m finally back and ready to talk food.

For those who know me (by now that should be most of you), you’ll know that I have an slight affinity for Mediterranean food. My dream would be to travel and get to know every single region that makes up this culinary paradise, but I doubt that’ll fly with the jefe. In the meantime, I thought we could all go together. Shall we?

A Taste of the Mediterranean is a contest I’ve been putting together for the past few months. Of course this itinerary would’ve never become a reality without the help of some pretty amazing people (names to follow). The premise of this culinary excursion is to virtually travel to the different regions of the Mediterranean through food and our blogs. Hold on, it gets better. Each month a traditional dish of the region we are visiting will be presented. The goal is to then blog about your own spin on that dish for a chance to win that month’s prize.

Whether you turn regular pesto into basil, sun dried tomato & hazelnut pesto or doctor up traditional hummus with some special scotch bonnet pepper sauce, the possibilities are endless. These are two of the winning entries from a pilot of the contest launched last summer. Now some sweeter prizes have been added to the mix, courtesy of igourmet, and a awesome panel of Mediterranean bloggers are determined to make this trip the best thing in 2009.

igourmet has agreed to sponsor the contest by offering prizes from their extraordinary selection of fine foods. And of course, a trip to the Mediterranean is also not complete without friends waiting to greet you at your final destination. For this I’ve asked a few of my favorite Mediterranean bloggers to help host this delicious journey to the Mediterranean.

Mediterranean Panel

Stay tuned for January’s challenge – it will be posted by tonight!


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