Many new to the concept of mezza mistake the generous amounts and endless array of dishes as the meal itself rather than a prelude to even more food! Amidst the social bustle and conversations of family and friends, it’s food to be tasted over an hour or two and reflects the Syrian culture of hospitality and generosity, where everything to do with food is presented on a large scale.
Smokey baba ghanouj and creamy hummus, both well known in the West, are key elements of a traditional mezza. Another favourite in Syria is muhammara, a spicy capsicum and walnut dip made with pomegranate molasses. Popular salads include tabouleh, the well-known parsley and burghul salad; fattoush, a crunchy mix of fresh cucumber, radish, tomato and herbs topped with toasted or fried pieces of bread; and fateh, a salad with chickpeas, yogurt, tahini and garlic. Other finger foods are golden baked pastries filled with minced meat and spices called sambusic or spinach and baked lamb pies called sfeeha. Kibbeh is the national dish and comes in many varieties (raw, baked or fried) with the core element being the very fresh, finely ground lamb or beef that is seasoned and spiced and mixed with burghul (a type of cracked wheat).
The Syrian palate prizes salty, tangy and sour flavours. Apart from the generous use of salt in cooking, cheeses like labneh, feta, shankleesh and jibne baida satisfy some of the salty cravings. Lemon juice is widely used, as in all Mediterranean cooking, as is sumac, a deep red spice that adds a lemony taste to salads and meats. Another distinctive ingredients is freekeh, young wheat that has been harvested and roasted to add a smoky flavour. It has a chewy texture like brown rice and is delicious served with meat or poultry. Syria also boasts truffles, which are found in the desert and have a wonderful earthy flavour and aroma, though nowhere near as strong as those found in France.
Many Syrian expatriates miss the variety of food available on the streets of Damascus and especially the sweets filled with nuts, clotted cream (ashta), sugar syrup and hints of rosewater and orange blossom water. Rose of Damascus (baked filo pastry filled with ashta, a Syrian-style ice-cream, drizzled with syrup and crushed nuts), is just one of the many Syrian sweet delights.
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Similar to the popular dish riz a’djaj (poached chicken served on rice), this recipe uses toasted freekeh wheat with its distinctive nutty taste. The wheat is cooked slowly like a risotto with chicken stock, minced meat, spices and onion until it is soft and flavoursome. The dish is then piled high onto a serving platter and served with poached chicken pieces, Syrian truffle (if available), pine nuts and almonds.
After taboulleh, fattoush is the most well-known salad of Syria, and for many, the sharp flavour of the sumac in the dressing, the crunchiness of the chunky cuts of tomato, cucumber and radish, and the thin baked pieces of bread to soak up the dressing, make it the county’s favourite salad. Syrians often eat fattoush by spooning a manageable amount into a lettuce or vine leaf, wrapping it up into a little parcel and eating it with the fingers.
The sound of the hot syrup as it’s poured onto the hot pastry is one of the best things, only surpassed by the sound of your first crunchy bite into this golden delicacy. Yum! This is a fantastic recipe for baklava.
Syria’s national dish of minced meat and burghul is so deeply loved that over the years its fans have found many different ways to prepare it. The secret is using fresh, very finely minced meat. This is carefully spiced then served raw, baked or fried in endlessly varying shapes, often with delicious fillings (that often include more minced meat). This recipe is for a kind of kibbeh sandwich: a layer of cooked, spiced meat and pine nuts is pressed between two layers of fine kibbeh, then baked and served in wedges like pieces of cake. Serve with salad and drained yoghurt (natural yoghurt that has been drained in muslin until thick).