Recipes From the Syrian Kitchen
Even after years of brutal civil war, one thing that unites the people of Syria, whether they are in their home country or seeking a safer life abroad, is their food. I have been collecting recipes from Syrians living abroad. Food tells Syria’s story better than news reports or history books.
Credit Illustrations by Cari Vander Yacht
Kebab HalabiIbtissam Masto
“I’ve always been told I’m a great cook,” Ibtissam Masto told me as she shaped cylinders of ground beef mixed with raw almonds and spices to make kebab halabi. “I just didn’t think I’d be doing it for a living.” We met during her lunch shift at the cafeteria for the United Nations refugee agency in Beirut, part of a program for refugee women.
Ms. Masto, a 36-year-old mother of six, fled to Beirut in 2013, after a shower of shrapnel barely missed her toddler while he played at home. Life in Idlib, the city in northwest Syria where she lived, had become unrecognizable. “I used to go to weddings and stay out until 3 a.m. without any problems,” she said as she stirred a pot of tomato sauce. “But now, you sleep in fear, you eat in fear.”
Ms. Masto and her family were recently resettled in Cincinnati. The adjustment is difficult, especially because she and her husband don’t speak English. But that hasn’t stopped her from dreaming. Ms. Masto hopes to get into a professional kitchen again.
This recipe for what she calls kebab halabi, or Aleppo kebab, is a simple adaptation from her instructions. The dish is more widely known as kebab hindi, a simple ground beef kebab baked with a tomato-onion reduction. I add a little onion to the meat mixture, and sumac to the tomato sauce. It’s a great 30-minute meal, best served with rice.
Time: 50 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
FOR THE KEBAB
- 18 ounces (500 grams) 85 percent lean ground beef
- 1/8 cup (20 grams) raw almonds, roughly chopped
- ¼ cup finely diced onion (about half of a small onion)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon seven-spice mix (see note)
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
FOR THE SAUCE
- 3 large tomatoes
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons sumac
- One large bell pepper, cut into rings
Step 1 Prepare the kebab: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, combine the beef, almonds, onion, salt and seven-spice mix. Use your hands to massage the ingredients together until mixed, but not overworked.
Step 2 Lightly oil a 9-inch by 13-inch tray or Pyrex dish. Take a small handful of beef and roll into a 2 1/2- to 3-inch cylinder. Repeat until you have 15 little kebabs; set aside.
Step 3 Prepare the sauce: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Set up an ice bath next to the stove. Score an X into the bottom of the tomatoes and drop in the boiling water. Cook 30 to 60 seconds, or until the skin starts to wrinkle and peel back, then remove to the ice bath. Once cool, peel off the skins and dice the tomatoes.
Step 4 Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat and add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and salt and allow them to cook down 5 minutes. Stir in the sumac and set aside.
Step 5 Place the kebabs in prepared dish and bake 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and pour the sauce over the kebabs. Arrange the bell pepper slices on top. Return to the oven for 7 to 10 more minutes, or until the kebabs are cooked through.
Serve warm on top of rice.
Note: Seven-spice mix, available in Middle Eastern grocery shops, is a combination of spices commonly used in Arabic cooking. Although the proportions vary by country, and even by household, the basic ingredients remain the same: ground black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, cumin and coriander. Some cooks add paprika, ginger or white pepper. Syrians substitute ground allspice seeds for the similarly flavored cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.Rana Jebran
“When I have these cookies in the oven, I think, ‘This is the smell of Easter,’” Rana Jebran said as she carefully picked out ma’amoul cookies from a large clear plastic box. Walk through Damascus’ streets on Easter and it becomes clear where the city’s Christians have gathered.
Ms. Jebran now lives in Chicago, home to one of the largest Syrian communities in the United States. There, she founded HoneyDoe, a Syrian catering company, with her mother and her son.
Ma’amoul cookies are a semolina shortbread flavored with mahlab — a powdered spice made of cherry pits — and orange blossom water. They’re usually stuffed with date paste, crushed pistachios or crushed walnuts and stamped with beautiful geometric designs from special molds. “We can’t serve them if they’re not beautiful,” Ms. Jebran said.
The cookies are presented as gifts to neighbors and loved ones during high holidays of all religions, and best enjoyed with a cup of Turkish coffee or a glass of tea.
This recipe can be doubled, and is particularly delicious stuffed with dates if you have access to date paste or have time to make your own.
Time: At least 3 hours
Yield: 18 to 20 cookies
- 9 tablespoons (125 grams) unsalted butter, softened
- ¼ cup clarified butter (available as ghee in Indian shops)
- 1 ½ cups (250 grams) coarse semolina
- 1 ½ cups (250 grams) fine semolina (or all-purpose flour if you’re don’t have semolina)
- ¼ cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
- ½ teaspoon mahlab (available in Middle Eastern shops)
- ¼ cup orange blossom water
- ½ teaspoon instant yeast
- 1 to 3 tablespoons cold milk
- Powdered sugar, for dusting
FOR THE PISTACHIO FILLING
- 6 tablespoons (50 grams) shelled pistachios, finely chopped
- ½ tablespoon powdered sugar
- ½ tablespoon orange blossom water
FOR THE WALNUT FILLING
- ½ cup (50 grams) walnut pieces, finely chopped
- ½ tablespoon powdered sugar
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ tablespoon orange blossom water
Step 1 Prepare the dough: In a large bowl combine the butter and ghee and mix well with a spatula. In a separate bowl, combine the coarse and fine semolina, the sugar and the mahlab and mix well.
Step 2 Add the dry ingredients to the butter-ghee mixture. Use your hands to massage the ingredients together, rubbing it between your fingers without kneading or overworking the dough. Add ¼ cup orange blossom water and thoroughly mix with your hands again. Cover and set aside to rest for at least two hours and up to 10 hours at room temperature.
Step 3 Meanwhile, prepare the nut fillings: In a bowl, thoroughly mix the pistachios, sugar and orange blossom water; set aside. In a separate bowl thoroughly mix the walnuts, sugar, cinnamon and orange blossom water; set aside.
Step 4 Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, mix the yeast with 2 tablespoons warm water until it dissolves. Add it to the dough and mix using your hands (again, don’t knead). If the dough seems too dry to form into a ball, add cold milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough comes together. The dough shouldn’t be wet, just moist enough to stick together.
Step 5 Take a chunk of dough and roll it into a ball the size of a golf ball. Indent the center with the index finger of one hand and form a hollow by pressing down while turning the ball with your other hand. Spoon one of the nut fillings into the hole, then pinch the dough together over the filling. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.
Step 6 In the Middle East, ma’moul cookies are pressed into a mold to give them beautiful intricate designs. You can find molds online or at a Middle Eastern supermarket. Otherwise you could use a muffin tin to shape the cookies. Press the stuffed dough ball into an oiled mold and then gently smack the mold onto your hand to get the cookie out. Arrange the molded cookies on the prepared baking sheet and bake until golden brown on the bottom, about 14 minutes.
Step 7 Dust the cookies with a layer of powdered sugar as soon as they come out of the oven (the sugar will melt into the dough), then dust again once cooled. Serve with tea or Turkish coffee.
Harra bi isbaouUmm Ali
In Arabic, harra bi isbaou means burned finger. “They say it’s called harra bi isbaou because the peasants who invented it couldn’t wait for it to cool down to eat it, so they burned their fingers,” said Umm Ali, a masterly home cook from the Aleppo suburbs who fled to Beirut with her family in 2013.
Harra bi isbaou is a stew of lentils and small pieces of pasta-like dough (today, a small pasta variety is usually substituted for homemade dough). Flavored with a tangy-savory mix of tamarind and lemon juice combined with sautéed garlic and cilantro, the dish comes topped with crisp onions and bread.
The combination of sour, sweet and savory is mouthwatering, so much so that I got a package of it from a newly opened Syrian restaurant to take on my flight back home to Istanbul.
The restaurant manager, Eyad, refused to let me pay for it. “Now the next time you come we can say we have harra bi isbaou between us,” he said, riffing on the Arabic saying, “Let there be bread and salt between us” — the gesture establishing friendship.
Harra bi isbaou can be served at any temperature. It’s important that the dish is served with all its garnishes.
Time: 2 hours 40 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
- 2 cups (400 grams) brown lentils
- Vegetable oil, for deep frying
- 3 large onions, sliced (about 6 cups)
- 2 to 3 pita rounds, cut into ½-inch squares (about 3 cups)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 cup finely chopped cilantro (from 1 large bunch)
- 6 large cloves garlic, minced
- Kosher salt
- ½ cup (70 grams) of a small pasta (such as elbow macaroni)
- 4½ ounces (125 grams) tamarind pulp (or use ¼ cup pomegranate syrup)
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
Step 1 Place the lentils in a large bowl and cover with several inches of water. Let soak 2 hours.
Step 2 Meanwhile, heat 1 inch of vegetable oil in a deep pot over medium-high heat. Add onions in 1- or 2- cup batches (don’t overcrowd them in the pan) and deep- fry until golden to dark brown, about 5 minutes. Be careful not to burn the onions, or they’ll be bitter. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate covered in paper towels and let cool uncovered so that they don’t get soggy. Repeat with remaining onions.
Step 3 Add the pieces of pita to the oil, 1 cup at a time, and deep-fry until dark golden brown, about 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon to their own plate covered in paper towels and let cool uncovered. Repeat with remaining pita.
Step 4 Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the cilantro, half the garlic and a dash of salt and cook, stirring constantly, until the cilantro becomes a deep green and the mixture is fragrant; remove from heat.
Step 5 After the lentils have soaked for 2 hours they should be slightly tender. Drain them and transfer to a heavy-bottomed pot. Cover with 4 cups (960 milliliters) water and add 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in the pasta and cook until tender, 5 to 8 more minutes.
Step 6 Meanwhile, put the tamarind pulp in a small bowl and add 6 ounces (177 milliliters) water. Massage the pulp with your hands to dissolve the tamarind in the liquid. Strain the mixture through a mesh sieve to remove any seeds, using a spoon to push it through. You should have ½ cup liquefied tamarind. Once the pasta and lentils are tender, add the tamarind and lemon juice and stir well. After about 5 minutes, stir in the remaining crushed garlic and half of the fried onions. Simmer until the mixture is a thick stew — not dry, but not watery either, about 5 more minutes. Season to taste with salt.
Step 7 This dish can be served hot off the stove, at room temperature or cold. Distribute lentils to bowls and divide the garlic-cilantro mixture among them. Sprinkle with fried bread and top with crispy onions.
Note: If you don’t have two hours to soak the lentils, then cover 2 cups lentils in 8 cups water and bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer and keep on stove until tender. It’ll take 45 to 60 minutes to cook the lentils this way, so you’ll still have time to prepare the garnishes while the lentils are on the stove.