The Foods of Aleppo -The Haute Cuisine of Syria
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributor
We had arrived in Aleppo, Syria’s gourmet capital, that afternoon and had settled down in Chahba Cham Palace Hotel, at that time the city’s top-class abode. However, we did not rest much. I along with my daughter were excited and we could hardly wait for the evening when we were to dine in one of the hotel’s fine restaurants. Sabbah, A friend of mine in Damascus, Syria’s capital and the oldest inhabited city on earth, had insisted that if we were to truly know the joys of Syrian cuisine, we had to try a buffet of Arab foods held on the weekend at Aleppo’s Chahba Cham Palace Hotel.
That evening, I thought of his words as I surveyed the dozens upon dozens of Arab-food dishes spread out before us in one of the hotel’s restaurants. For years, I had been proud of the fact that I was familiar with most of Syria’s dishes, but after dinner that day, I found out that I had much to learn. Among the countless gourmet foods, spread out before us, were many that I was seeing for the first time. It was a world of culinary splendor – to me, the mother of all Arab meals.
That evening meal in Aleppo was the culmination of a long culinary journey that began back in the 1940s, during the Second World War. At that time, I was in the Royal Canadian
Air Force and was stationed in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. On one of my leaves from the Air Force, I decided to visit my aunt and her family in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. During my stay, my aunt prepared many excellent meals, mostly consisting of Arab dishes.
I had been used to most of her foods since they were similar to the foods my mother had often prepared during my youth on our farm in southern Saskatchewan. However, one day, during an evening meal, one of the dishes that I was enjoying seemed heavenly. When I asked my aunt the name of the dish, she replied, “It’s called: Kubba Halabiya, meat, and burghul patties. One of my friends from Aleppo introduced me to this type of kubba.” She continued, “You know! The people in Aleppo make the best food in Syria.” In the ensuing years, I never forgot this dish – my first introduction to the foods of Aleppo.
Some 20 years later, I visited Aleppo for the first time and discovered that my aunt had been right. During this visit and my subsequent journeys to that city, called by many Arabs the ‘culinary mecca in the Middle East’, I found that its cuisine is the best food that part of the world has to offer.
During my first trip to Lebanon and Syria in 1961, my love affair with the foods of Aleppo began. As a young man with little money, I traveled for the first time to that city and I could only afford to dine in the peoples’ eating-places. Among the numerous dishes that I enjoyed during that visit, I will never forget the dish called kufta Halab (barbecued meatballs of Aleppo) that I often relished in the modest Armenian Hagob Restaurant.
Dining on bare wooden tables set over saw-dust-covered floors, I enjoyed every morsel of the tastefully spiced meatballs served with barbecued tomatoes. When I told the waiter how much I had enjoyed the kufta, he smiled as he quoted these words:
“Should you travel the whole world, you will never find,
Like the kufta of Aleppo, the best food of humankind.”
Like many of the young men in the Arab world, the young man was an amateur poet, and he left such an impression on me that I never forgot his ditty.
That true introduction into the Aleppo kitchen made me a devotee of that city and its fine food. Subsequently, during my numerous trips to Syria, I always made it a point to travel to Aleppo to relish for a while the city’s fine food – attested to by many travelers and even a good number of Syrians from other parts of the country.
The culinary art of Syria’s second-largest city did not develop by accident but took shape century after century as culture after culture flowed through the city. Aleppo is a very ancient trading center. Legend has it that the prophet Abraham paused in Aleppo to milk his cows on the spot on which the city’s Citadel now stands, hence its Arabic name Halab, which means ‘milk’. Located at the crossroads of great and historic commercial routes, it was for hundreds of years the terminus of the famous Silk Road. Its history is documented from the misty days of early civilizations until our times. Hittites, Akkadians, Assyrians, Eblans, Egyptians, Armenians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines all left traces of their foods.
However, only under the Islamic Umayyad and Abbassid dynasties, the 10th-century Hamadani state, established by Saif al-Dawla al-Hamadani, when the city acted as a very important medieval trading center, did Aleppo reach its pinnacle as a commercial and cultural center in the Middle East and, hence developed an haute cuisine. In later centuries, Mongols, Mamelukes, Ottomans, and the French ruled for a while, then departed, after further enriching the city’s culinary art.
Today, one has only to enter the old city, flooded with the aroma of exotic spices, to see a medieval world of action and color – a leftover from all the conquerors that once called Aleppo home. The labyrinth of 15th-century stone-roofed streets is a bewildering mixture of people at work or on the move. Artisans hand-pounding their brass, copper, iron and precious metals complement merchants offering their endless products. Men on donkeys and porters carrying heavy loads vie for space with the masses of shoppers searching for bargains.
The vibrant newer parts of the city today enhance this leftover from an ancient age. The signs of the evolvement of Aleppo into the modern age is everywhere. This trading city is again is fast becoming the meeting point between European investors eyeing a virgin market and an elite of well-connected local entrepreneurs. Close to the Citadel, the Sheraton, a large new building with a facade of rose and white marble, is being erected. Internet cafes and western-style clothing fill the shops, while car supermarkets are becoming a way of life.
This living picture of daily activity in the medieval world intermixed with the modern is reflected in the city’s larder of unusual recipes – many going back to the court cuisines of the past centuries, while others show the influence of Europe and the large Armenian community in the Jdeide quarter of the city.
However, Aleppo’s dishes not only draw from the wealth of history and ethnic composition, but also from the richness of the surrounding countryside. The herds of fat-tailed Awassi sheep and fields and orchards of olive, nut and fruit trees, produce a profusion of olives, pomegranates, a special of mild hot pepper, for which four parts sweet paprika and one part cayenne pepper can be substituted, and pistachio nuts – used in a myriad of pastries.
No one dining on food flavored with pomegranate syrup, grilled meat smothered in yogurt, kabab ma’ karaz, meatballs and cherries, a green wheat pilaf called firik, or on one of the 32 types of Kubba (ground lamb mixed with burghul and spices), will forget the world-class cuisine of that city.
The food of Aleppo is more heavily seasoned than in any other part of Syria. Yogurt is used with a good number of dishes and usually at each setting, a variety of meat dishes at one meal and, when serving the food, attention is paid to detail, the subtlety of flavor, and elegance of presentation.
Like the Aleppo Arab immigrants in Pawtucket, the sons and daughters of Aleppo wherever they traveled in the world took their dishes with them. In Toronto, a few years ago we were invited to dinner by Leila Krunful, a family friend who originally hailed from Aleppo. Her late mother, Hind, who was visiting, had promised to prepare for us a real Aleppo meal. “It’s real Aleppo food! I’m sure it will please you!” She said as she ushered us to our seats.
Soon we were relishing Muhammara, a red Pepper Dip/salad; Shawrabat ‘Adas ma’ Silq, lentil, and Swiss chard soup; Kufta Mabrouma, ground meat with pine nuts; and the best of all Kufta bil Karaz, barbecued meatballs with cherries. When I commented on how tasty that dish was, Hind replied, “It’s much more delicious in Aleppo where I use a special kind of bitter-black cherry, only found around that city. Here, I could not find that type, hence, I used regular cherries.”
“It can’t be much delightful”, I thought to myself as she set before us a delightful dish of
Maamuneeya, a semolina sweet, which is a specialty of Aleppo and can also be served as breakfast delight. Later as we sipped our tea and munched on Karabij Halab sweets, I thought to myself, “It is a meal to remember – a fine reminder of Aleppo and its savory gourmet cuisine.”