The first time I visited an actual butcher — the kind not inside a grocery store — was when I lived in Aleppo. I was 24. It took traveling halfway around the world to watch a professional meticulously break down an animal. It was both horrifying and intriguing. There were meat carcasses hanging around me while I struck up a conversation with Yasser, the head butcher, over a cup of freshly brewed Turkish coffee. It was such a surreal experience that I wrote about it on my blog. The irony, of course, is that this approach to butchery is much closer to the actual source of meat than anything we’re used to finding at a grocery store.
I used to love exploring Aleppo by cab. Occasionally I’ll catch myself daydreaming about these simple, ordinary memories: leaning forward from the sidewalk of a bustling street; hailing a cab in the ancient city. The experience made me feel like a local, like a halabi.
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.
There is something about making a dish completely from scratch that is wonderfully satisfying — a feeling of merited accomplishment. A mixture of happiness and relief. I’m sure this is true of most things, really, not just food. It comes with any craft you can pour your soul into. With food, you appreciate individual ingredients; you savor every ounce of effort that goes into preparing a dish. Something magical happens in the cooking process; a part of you, your essence, probably while you’re mixing ingredients and not particularly paying attention, dives into the bowl and adds that special something to the dish: warmth, brightness, love, something you can’t really put your finger on, but everyone knows it’s there.
Disclaimer: If you are squeamish about meat, this post is probably not for you.
A few weeks ago I made my first trip to an authentic butcher shop. The real deal; the kind with massive meat carcasses hanging in a cooler and a collection of knives that look like they belong in the set of a horror film. It was awesome (in the culinary sense); a-kid-in-a-candy-store experience. I had my DSLR around my neck and a grin that stretched from ear to ear.