Advertisement Close

Syrian Yogurt Dishes – As Old as Time

posted on: Jan 16, 2024

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

 During my many visits to Syria every time that I had a meal in a village home, without fail, at least one yogurt dish would be placed on the table.  In that ancient land where civilization began, people through the centuries had developed healthy foods such as yogurt – called by some ‘the ‘food of the gods’ while others referred to it as ‘the elixir of life’.

The ancient civilizations of Syria all left a rich legacy in all areas of the country’s life, especially in its cuisine.  These influences continued through the ages culminating in today’s dishes with a bit of modern help.  The introduction of modern electrical kitchen gadgets have revolutionized the old tardy way of making things, now taking half the time of their ancestors.  Today, Syrian yogurt dishes are usually simple to prepare. The modern kitchen with its gadgets such as food processors and modern stoves is God-sent.

An important ingredient and staple dish, yogurt in the cuisine of Syria is possibly as old as the country itself.  With thousands of years of settlement and civilization, it is important to look and experience the culinary culture of a world that has been through it all.

Once when strolling through Bab Tumah, one of Damascus’s oldest sections, I stopped at a small people’s eating place for lunch.  While relishing my dish of shakreeya (yogurt, meat and rice), I asked the owner what made the dish so tasty.  He proudly replied, “Here in Damascus we make the tastiest food.  We have had a long experience.  This city is the oldest in the world.”

At another time, while dining at my wife’s relative’s home in Shahba, in the south ofSyria from where the Roman emperor Phillip the Arab hailed, her cousin, pointing to a steaming dish of yogurt oozing a tempting aroma, asked, “Do you like Sheesh Barak (yogurt dumplings)?  They say that the Emperor Phillip enjoyed this dish.”  I don’t know if that’s true but we always look forward to dine on Sheesh Barak whether it was an Emperor’s favourite or not.

These two incidents are only of the many that I encountered while travelling through the years to almost every part of Syria. Intending to write a book about the country and its food I ate in all types dishes – from peasant homes to five-star hotels. A good number of dishes that I relished were those with yogurt.

Of course, my background greatly helped in my appreciation of Syria’s cuisine, especially the country’s yogurt dishes.  My parents who hailed from that land had immigrated to homestead on the western prairies of Canada.  They had brought with them their love for yogurt dishes. 

For meals and snacks to lunches, all types of dishes containing yogurt were on a part of our family’s culinary life.  Everything we ate seemed , to revolve around it.   However, during that period of my life it was not my favourite food. That was to come later when I studied the health attributes of the food that we ate in my younger years.

All types of milk, ranging from goat to cow, can be used  in making yogurt. However, the fat and nutrient values vary depending on whether it is prepared from cream; whole or partly skimmed or skimmed milk; and if it includes additives like fruits or syrups.  

Besides it nutritious value, yogurt is a marvelously versatile and adaptable food.  It adds richness, flavour and an appetizing aroma to a myriad of dishes.  The possibilities of cooking with this tangy, cultured milk are infinite.  It blends well with cheese, eggs, grains, most types of meats, fruits, vegetables, and makes an excellent marinade.  Delicious when flavoured with syrups, nuts, herbs and spices, it enhances and is enhanced by other foods.  The gastronomic repertoire of this so-called `milk of eternal life’ is endless. 

These few recipes are only a minuscule sample of the hundreds of dishes made with yogurt from Syria.

Damascus Garlic Dip – Thoum

Serves about 6

From the mist of time, as new products were introduced – in this case the potato – the Damascenes took them as their own.  If you like garlic, this twin of French aioli is addictive, but simpler to prepare.

1 cup mashed potatoes

6 cloves garlic, crushed

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup plain yogurt

salt and black pepper to taste

8 black olives, pitted and sliced in half

4 medium radishes, sliced

Place potatoes, garlic, olive oil, yogurt, salt and pepper in a food processor, then process until smooth.  Spread on a platter then decorate with olives and radishes.  Chill then serve.

Cucumber in Yogurt – Khiyar bi Laban

Serves 4 to 6

We often had this dish on a hot summer day for lunch, chilled in a pail hung above the water line in our well – our Depression years’ refrigerator. 

2 cups plain yogurt

1 medium cucumber (6- to 8- inches), peeled and diced in very small pieces 

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

Place all ingredients in a serving bowl then thoroughly combine.  Chill then serve.

Burghul and Yogurt Appetizer – Kishke

Serves about 6

A simple dish popular with everyone, especially in Damascus, kishke is delicious and a healthy dish.  

1/2 cup medium burghul, soaked for 10 minutes in warm water; then drained by squeezing out water through a strainer

1 cup plain yogurt

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon finely crushed dried mint

4 tablespoons finely chopped peeled cucumber 

salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)

2 tablespoons olive oil

Combine all ingredients, except coriander and olive oil then spread on a platter.  Chill, then decorate with coriander and sprinkle with olive oil just before serving.

Yogurt-Potato Salad

Serves about 6

In my view, the use of yogurt in this somewhat different than the usual salad gives it its uniqueness.

3 tablespoons olive oil                                               

1 large onion, finely chopped                                              

4 cloves garlic, crushed                                             

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)                                           

1/2 small hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

3 large potatoes, about 1 pound, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch 


1 cup plain yogurt

Heat oil in a saucepan, then sauté onion over medium heat for 8 minutes.  Stir in garlic, coriander leaves and hot pepper, then sauté for further few minutes.  Add remaining ingredients, except yogurt then barely cover with water.  Bring to boil, then cover.  Cook over medium-low heat for 30 minutes or until potatoes are done then stir in yogurt and serve.

Dumplings in Yogurt –Sheesh Barak

Serves about 8

During my youth when the cold winter months rolled around, a steaming hot bowl of Sheesh Barak diffusing its rich aroma through our kitchen, has left a lasting impression in my culinary world.


1 pound fresh or frozen dough, thawed

1 pound ground beef or lamb

2 tablespoons butter

4 tablespoons pine nuts or slivered almonds

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 medium onions, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

Yogurt sauce

2 eggs, beaten

3 cups plain yogurt

3 cups cold water

2 tablespoons butter

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons dried crushed mint

Form dough into 3/4-inch in diameter balls, then cover with a tea towel and allow to rest for 1 hour. 

In the meantime, make a filling by stir-frying meat in butter until light brown, then add the remaining dumpling ingredients and stir-fry for 3 minutes.

Roll out dough balls to make circles 1/8-inch thick.  Place 1 level teaspoon filling on each circle, then fold dough over filling and pinch edges to seal.  Fold in half again to shape dumpling like a thimble and pinch to close.  Place dumplings on a greased tray and lightly brown ln a 350° F preheated oven, turning them over once, then set aside.

To make sauce, place eggs and yogurt in a saucepan, then stir until well blended.  Add cold water; then stir well.  Cook over medium heat and gently stir in one direction until mixture comes to boil, then reduce heat to low.

Place butter in a small saucepan and melt then add the garlic, salt, and mint.  Stir-fry over medium heat until garlic turns golden, then stir garlic mixture into yogurt sauce.  Place dumplings in sauce, then cover and cook for 25 minutes over medium-low heat.  Serve piping hot. 

Rice with Yogurt Sauce – Shakreeya

Serves 6

For lovers of yogurt Shakreeya is a God-sent dish. The sauce can be served with a series of cooked grains like burghal, rice and others. However, the sauce is work-intensive since the cook has to stir continuously in order that the yogurt will not curdle. On the other hand, once the sauce boils, the yogurt will be stabilized and will not curdle. At that point, one can add cooked meats and vegetables.  For many this sauce is an acquired taste, but westerners who spend some time in the Middle East usually get to love the dish. For me it is a gourmet dish.

Yogurt Sauce

1-pound round steak, cut into 1-inch cubes

8 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups yogurt

1 egg, beaten

1 tablespoon cornstarch, dissolved in 1/4 cup water

4 tablespoons butter

1 medium onion, sliced

4 cloves garlic, crushed

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Place the meat and water as well as 1/2 teaspoon of the salt in a saucepan. Cover and cook over low heat for 2 hours until the meat is done. Remove the meat and set aside. Reserve 3 ¾ cups of the meat broth.  If not enough broth add water to make 3 ¾ cups.

 In a processor, thoroughly mix together the yogurt, egg, and cornstarch then set aside.

In a saucepan melt the butter then fry onion over medium heat until limp. Add garlic, coriander, pepper and remaining salt then stir-fry for a minute and turn off heat, allowing the saucepan contents to somewhat cool.

Add the yogurt and cornstarch mixture into the saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat while stirring only in one direction to prevent from coagulating. Keep stirring, not stopping for more than a few seconds.  Stir in the meat and 1 1/4 cups of the reserved meat broth then simmer uncovered over low heat for 10 more minutes. Shut off the heat and cover to keep warm.

Rice Side Dish

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 cup long-grain white rice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2 1/2 cups of the reserved meat broth

In a frying pan, heat oil then fry onion over medium-low heat for 8 minutes. Add garlic and stir-fry for 2 minutes then add rice and stir-fry for a further minute. Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring to boil, then cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring a number of times then re-covering to make sure rice does stick to bottom of frying pan, adding a little more water if needed. Shut off heat and stir, then re-cover and allow to cook in own steam for a further 30 minutes. 

Place yogurt sauce in serving bowl and rice on serving platter.  Serve by spooning rice onto diners’ dishes then spoon sauce over rice.