Shawarma Al-Jazeera, a taste of my childhood

If you are one of the handful of people still reading my blog after couple of years of only occasional posts you might know I was born and lived most of my childhood in Saudi Arabia. I hope this would not offend any of my Saudi readers but I really hated the place. We used to live in Abha. It was at the time a small town high up in the mountains close to Yemen. The nature and weather were stunning but that is where the beauty stopped for me. I didn't like anything else about the place. I hated the lack of freedom compared to our summer holidays in Syria. I hated the constant feeling of being a foreigner, and as you might expect being a foreigner in Saudi Arabia is not fun.

The highlight of my life in Saudi was our frequent visits to Jeddah, Saudi's second city on the Red Sea. We used to visit frequently because of dad's work or to sort out some paperwork from the Syrian Consulate or simple to spend the weekend. Jeddah at the time was such a cool place for a young boy. It had an Ikea, massive shopping centres, smoked turkey meat, Levi's Jeans, Authentic Syrian Halawet el-Jeben, and above all Shawarma Al-Jazeera.

Shawerma Al-Jazeera or as became known later Shawerma Shaker Al-Jazeera is allegedly Jeddah's first Shawerma place. A small hole-in-the-wall places with massive beef shawarma skewer. It was perfectly normal for a guy to park his GMC Superban and come to the window to order 40 shawarma sandwiches. In fact most of the orders were in double figures and there was a constant stream of costumers from early evening to early hours in the morning. To cope with the demand the place adopteded a conveyor belt operation. You place an order in one window and the process start. One guy cuts the meat, another mixes it on the hot griddle with the vegetables, the third put the meat in the bread, the next down the line add the sauce and wrap the sandwiches and finally the last guy hands you over your food from a second window. This process continued non-stop, I kid you not. 

The Shawarma itself is nothing like the Syrian or Lebanese variety. The meat has a lot more "Arabic" taste with more spices adapted to the local palate. After the meat is shaved of the massive skewer it was cooked on a flat griddle with onions, parsley, tomatoes and chillies. The sandwiches were made with small white subs and served with nothing but tahini sauce and chilli sauce.

Here is my attempt to recreate a taste of my childhood:

Sirloin or similar tender cut of beef 350g
One onion
One large tomato
One or two green chillis
Garlic 3 cloves
Parsley two handfuls
Yoghurt one tbs
Tahini one tbs
Olive oil 2 tbs
Spices 1/2 tsp each (feel free to improvise) I use black pepper, paprika, allspice, ground ginger and ground coriander

Slice the meat and the vegetable as thin as you can. Take your time. It makes a lot of difference. It allows the vegetables and meat to cook at the same time without losing much liquid and give authentic shawarma feel to the final product (and it is also therapeutic if like me you had a s**t day in the office).

Mix all the ingredients together and let marinade for half an hour at room temperature. 

Heat a large skillet or other heavy-bottomed pan until very hot. Add the meat mixture and cook on high heat for 10-15 minutes until very little liquid is left. The secret to success is to use a hot very large pan. The meat mixture needs to spread evenly in a thin layer. If you don't have a large enough pan cook in patches.

Serve the meat in Arabic flat bread, pita pockets or sub rolls for an authentic experience. Serve with tahini sauce and a chilli sauce of your choice.

Sochi, a dark legacy

Up to and including the infamous Olympic rings incident, the Sochi games have been a complete PR disaster for Russia (On some level I am disappointed things didn't go spectacularly wrong in Sochi. Nothing would have made me happier than seeing Putin’s Russia the laughing stock of the world). While most of the column inches where directed at the discriminatory homophobic laws another dark secret of the place failed to grab the world attention, the Ethnic Cleansing of Circassians from their motherland and its historic capital, Sochi.

Being ethnically half Chechen I have always been interested in the North Caucasus. Despite never visiting, knowing the language and cultural differences I feel strong connection to the region mostly because of my great admiration of my late grandfather. Like the Circassians, Chechens and other East Caucasus people have suffered a great deal at the hands of Russians.

After defeat in the Caucasian War in 1864 at the hands of Russia, Circassians were expelled en mass from their homeland. Hundreds of thousands of people were dragged from their villages to ports on the Black Sea to be transported to the Ottoman Empire. Unknown number of people perished of diseases or killed at the hands of the victorious Russians. Most of those deported settled in Turkey or moved further south towards Syria and Jordan. Their descendants today make a community of a hundred thousand or so in each country.

In Syria most Circassian settled in The Golan Heights. They were the majority ethnic group of the region up to the 1976 war. Most Circassians along with other Caucusian people and Arabs fled the Israeli occupation and resettled in and around Damascus or immigrated to Europe and the US. In the late Nineteen Seventies few hundred Circassians returned to Beer Ajam and Breeqa, two Villages closed to the seize fire line that lay abandoned for over ten years.

Beer Ajam is one of my favourite places on Earth. The nature of the place is breathtaking. The hills covered in green all year round mixed with black basalt volcanic stone makes a wonderful back drop to the beautiful villas built in a traditional Golan black stone style. I always thought to myself that one day I willI will buy a small plot of land in the village and build myself a nice summer villa. Needless to say this dream is further away than it ever was.

Although increasingly assimilated in the Arabic population, Circassians have preserved their identity and culture. Some still speak the Adyghe language and traditional music, dance and costumes are present in weddings and social occasions till this day.  

Circassian cuisine, similar to the rest of the North Caucases , is a simple hearty affair. The cuisine is heavy on meat, dairy, grain and flour influenced by the availability, or lack of, ingredients high in the Caucasus Mountains. Cheese and meat stuffed dumplings and various other pastries are the heart of the cuisine.

Today’s recipe Chipse Basta (شبس باسطة) is a Circassian dish served in Weddings and special family occasions. The dish is a simple chicken and Bulgur pilaf served with a garlic and walnut flavoured sauce.  Chipse is the sauce and basta is the bulgur. The dish has special costume to serve and eat. Traditionally the dish was served in communal large tray where all the guests sit around. The meat is arranged in a special way where the breasts and wings of the bird is placed in front of the older person with legs and thighs arranged on the sides. The host or the older person will say few words then take a bite of the wing. He will split the breast in two and pass it to the guests to his left and right. Then everybody dig in. The elder at the top of the table will remain seated and eating until everyone is finished, so no guest feels embarrassed and leaves the table before completely full.

This is my take on Chipse Basta based on my distant child hood memories, my Mum recipe and my dear friend “Maysaloon” family recipe.

One chicken cut to quarters or four chicken legs
Chicken stock 700mls (use cold stock)
Bulgur wheat 300g (you can use 2/3 Bulgur and 1/3 short grain rice)
Walnut 100g
Garlic 5-6 cloves
Ghee purified butter 3 tbs
Flour 3 tbs
Olive oil 3 tbs
Coriander powder 1 tsp
Paprika 2 tsp

Season the chicken with salt and pepper, half the paprika, a spoon of olive oil and one crushed clove of garlic. Let marinade for an hour or so if you have time.

Wash the Bulgur and soak in cold water for 30 minutes.

Cook the chicken to your preferred method; grill or roast. I like to start the chicken skin side down on a hot griddle pan to mark the skin and give a nice BBQ flavour. Flip the chicken over then continue to cook in the oven for 30 – 45 minutes at 195C depending on the size of the pieces.

While the chicken is cooking drain the Bulgur and cook in 3 cubs or so of water. Add salt to taste. The bulgur needs to be cooked properly, almost over cooked.

In a separate pot start by frying the flour in the clarified butter on medium heat until the mixtures turns light brown. Add the clod stock slowly to make a roux stirring continuously with a whisk to prevent the flour clumping. Once all the stock is incorporated bring to a boil then turn down the heat to medium and let the sauce thicken. Add Salt to taste, the rest of the crushed garlic and the coriander.  Crush the walnut in a pestle and mortar or a food processor and add at the end.

Stir the cooked Bulgur with a wooden spoon to mash it slightly. Press in a cookie ring on the serving plate. Alternatively press the cooked Bulgur with the wooden spoon in a roasting tray and cut to squares to serve. Arrange a piece of the Bulgur, a piece of chicken and small ramekin of the chipse. Just before serving heat the olive oil in a pan and add the paprika. Remove of the heat immediately. Spoon on top of the chipse sauce.

Paralysis Cheese and other dodgy translations

Syrians have an inherent inability to finish anything right (see Syrian Revolution). They start a wonderful piece of work or a nice project then they ruin it on the final details. Nowhere is that more apparent than restaurants menus. You can hardly see a restaurant menu around damascus without a bleeding obvious spelling mistake or dodgy translation.

The paralysis part of the name comes from the fact the spelling of the word  شلل could refer to a wool hank or paralysis. Needless to say the cheese is named after a wool hank it resembles not after paraplegia. 

To be fair the above picture was not in Syria but it is so funny I couldn't resist. However, Baked Aborigine (baked aubergine) and Jordanian Heater (Jordanian Musakhan) are true menu items in a couple of high end Damascus restaurants.

Harra' Esbao'o (Harra' Esba3o or حراق اصبعو), is possibly the most frequently mistranslated dish ever. It is not really a mistranslation but rather a very literal translation. Harra' mean burning hot and esba3o is his finger. However, no matter if you call it "Finger burner", "Burns his fingers" or any variation of these three words it still doesn't make any sense to the non Arabic speakers trying to order some lunch. In fact it doesn't make any sense even to an Arabic speaker who is not familiar with the dish.

Modern take on presentation. Picture by @Tammamo

Hara' Esba3o is my all time favourite vegetarian dish, hands down. In essence the dish is a simple lentil pasta stew. It is made special with all the extras; crunchy fried croutons, garlic and coriander topping, pomegranate molasses and lots of citrus juice. I am drooling just writing these words! The traditional recipe requires making dough, rolling it thin and cut it into half inch squares, a very time consuming process. Nowadays most people use pasta instead. In Damascus you can actually buy special Harra' Esba3o pasta. Alternatively, you can use shell pasta (Conchiglie), orecchiette, or even lasagne sheets broken into pieces. My favourite however is pappardelle broken into inch long pieces. 

Historically this dish was associated with all-women occasions. It was the brunch of choice to serve in Sobhiyeh (صبحية), a late morning gathering of women usually in the house of a high class house wife. In early twentieth century Damascus, Sobhiyeh would have been an elaborate occasion with with singing, entertainment and a lot of Hara' Esba3o. It was a way of showing wealth and affluent. In modern day Damascus these large Sobhiyehs are all but gone. The name now refers to housewives morning gossip sessions, Turkish coffee and reading fortunes in empty coffee cups. 

My more traditional presentation and iPhone picture!

Here is my version of Harra' Esba3o 

Dry green lentils 200 g
Pappardelle pasta 300 g
Olive oil
Garlic 5 large cloves
Coriander leaves 50 g
Arabic bread 2 medium loaves
Corn starch 1 tbs
Pomegranate molasses 2 tbs
Juice of one lemon
Vegetable oil for frying
One onion 
Pomegranate for decoration (optional)

In a large pot start by cooking the lentils in 4 cups of water until half cooked, roughly 10-15 minutes. Break the pasta into one inch pieces and add to the pot. Season with salt. Cook for further 10-12 minutes depending how al dente you like your pasta.  

While the pasta and lentils are cooking. Heat 4 table spoons of olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Crush the garlic and chop the coriander. Add the garlic first then the coriander to the hot oil and remove from the heat immediately. You just want the leaves to wilt. Avoid burning the garlic.

While the pasta is cooking add half the garlic and coriander mixture, juice of a lemon and the pomegranate molasses. Check seasoning. You can change the lemon/molasses ratio according to taste. 

Just before the pasta is done, dissolve the cornstarch in a little cold water and add to the pot. Let the pot boil for few minutes to thicken the sauce. It needs to be fairly loose at this stage as it will get thicker as it cools down. Add more boiling water if necessary.

plate in a glass oven dish or individual shallow bowls and let cool down. The dish is best served luke warm or room temperature.

While cooling, Cut the bread using kitchen scissors into 2 cm squares.  Heat the vegetable oil in a pot and deep fry the croutons. Keep an eye as they burn very quickly. Drain on a kitchen towel.

 Slice the onion thinly and fry in the same oil after the bread until dark brown. Drain. Onion is almost always served as a topping however I am not a fan so I don't.

When ready to serve, spoon the rest of the garlic and coriander on top. Sprinkle with the onions, croutons and few pomegranate seeds. 

Viva La Zaatar Croissant

Over the last week, the most reported story from Syria wasn't the hundreds of people killed by Assad gangs nor was it fighter jets bombing civilian homes in Aleppo. It was an alleged ban on eating croissant by a religious committee in rebel controlled Aleppo. 

Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? It must be a joke.

Not according to the Time, CNN, Washington Post, Huffington Post and every other news paper in the four corners of the Earth who decided to jump on the bandwagon. The story usually starts with a factual statement such as "A fatwa has been issued by a religious court in Aleppo banning Muslims from croissant". Then the story gets more and more ludicrous when they get into news analysis of the French mandate colonial symbolism of croissant or its relation to Ottoman empire defeat at the gates of Budapest. 

But where did this story come from? All these article referred to a story published on Al-Arabiyah news network. Al-Arabiyah in turn referred the story to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. The latter didn't make any factual statements about croissant in their religious courts story. It was merely "reportedly" and "published on social networking sites".

Reportedly, the authority also recently issued a fatwa prohibiting eating croissants, a buttery bread roll, for their “colonial” implications. Copies of the fatwa were published on social networking sites with the official seal of Sheikh Abu Muhammad, a member of the authority.
So, where is this fatwa and what is this "official seal of Sheikh Abu Muhammed"?

Huffington Post was the only news paper out of all these major news networks who decided to bother with some "research" into the background of the story. They did a search on twitter and found a copy of the alleged fatwa published by a Thabet_UAE. Not the actual page of the Aleppo religious committee. Not the many Syrian opposition news networks. Not any of Aleppo LCCs. No, a random guy fro UAE! And what happened when somebody questioned this guys Croissant document? He stated receiving it from "a reliable news network". That line of the investigation is dead.

Since the start of the revolution in 2011, Syrian resorted to humour and satire to laugh their daily pain and sadness away. Of recent months one of the most popular pages has been Brother, Please!. Every few weeks they run with a joke that get replicated in many other copycat pages. And although they were not responsible for the croissant fatwa, they had their fare share of fake fatwas.

Due to security reasons, we ban the use of Mujahideen real names. If needed, refer to them by the word "Brazar" (brother). For example:

Barzar, please! Where did you hide Father Paolo?

They even made a joke of how common this joke has become. This one is the Arabic Facebook status update with the words " Insert anything that comes to your mind".

So what about the "official seal of Sheikh Abu Muhammed"? It doesn't take a CSI expert to discover that the Croissant Fatwa is Photoshop-ed into the same document with the exact same stamp and signature with the exact same ink smudging.  

I am not trying to defend Islamic Committee of Aleppo. They had their fair share of offensive fatwas and decrees that goes against the moderate Syrian social fabric. I was and I will always be against Sharia law and religious courts. However, I am fed up with lazy simplistic reporting about Syria. Googling few words and copying and pasting is not journalism. Sorry!

Now back to Croissants. Syrians love the stuff. They adapted them to local taste using local ingredients of Zaatar, olives and Kashkaval cheese. If you still have energy and would like to read my philosophical post on the morality of Zaatar Croissants then read my previous post about it.   

In the mean time if you want a taste of Syria, mix some Zaatar with olive oil to a thick paste and spread over a triangular shaped butter layered dough. There are a lot of recipes on the net. If you want to be lazy like me go for some puff pastry. Not as good but ... hey!

How not to make Shawerma!

When Yalla Yalla restaurant first opened in Soho it created a lot of buzz in the foodies quarters and it became an instant hit with the über crowd (I am so sorry for using that word but the option was the equally annoying in crowd). It had all the right ingredients to create a buzz; trendy location, no booking policy leading to long queue at lunch hour, small menu, communal tables and wooden benches, and the list goes on.

Despite wanting to go, mainly to try their pomegranate molasses chicken livers, I never got around to do it until last week. I had an hour or so to kill between work and a colleague leaving drinks. I was really in the mood for Shawerma so I was delighted when I discovered they have a pop-up branch in Shoreditch. A short bus ride from where I was.

I got there around five thirty in the evening to a fairly empty mini food court in what appears to be a converted building site.  The place was cleverly designed to fit in with the trendy nature of Shoreditch. Food is prepared and served from what looks like a converted burger van topped with an over sized sign with theatre style lights.  It wasn't particularly peak time so there was me and three Shoreditch-arty-type couples complete with the compulsory Pete Doherty hats.

I hesitated for a second when I ordered as I wanted to try their supposedly excellent mezze however I couldn't see chicken liver on the menu so I went for a lamb shawerma wrap and a Coke.

On the van display there were stacks of ready made Arabic bread wraps ready to be reheated in a sandwich press. I assumed these were the chicken shish and kafta sandwiches they have on the menu. All pre prepared since there was no sign of a charcoal grill or smoke indicating freshly grilled meat. 

P.S. I absolutely hate this recent trend of serving Lebanese food. Whoever popularised this style needs to be banned from the restaurant trade (see the equally mediocre Comptoir Libanais).

I felt sorry for the poor soles, knowing no better, who would end up eating pre-cooked reheated sandwiches. I, however, will enjoy a freshly made delicious Shawerma sandwich. After all the shawerma was being cooked on site. The meat looked nice a crispy on the rotating spit. 

Or that what I thought!

Not in a million year I would have imagined somebody would actually pre-prepare shawerma sandwiches and stack them on the display to be heated and served to paying costumers.

One of the best things about shawerma is the contrast between the meat and the other component of the sandwich. Crispy meat with smoky over caramelised edges against the cool tahini sauce and sharp pickles. Needless to say this was completely lost in Yalla Yalla crime against shawerma. meat was stodgy with uniform bland texture. Tomatoes were completely cooked. And to top it all up, cucumber pickles were hotter, much hotter, than the meat.

For the life of me I can't understand why they decided to serve shawerma this way. There is no excuse apart from laziness to explain it. The meat was there cooked and ready to go, the chef was hanging around doing something or the other, and I ended up eating such an awful sandwich made from meat cooked the morning or a week earlier. Who knows!

To give credit when credit is due, the Toum sauce served with the shawerma was great. Absulotely spot on.

For a place that describes itself as achingly hip (double cringe) it needs to do a lot better. London has some of the best street food in the world. Yalla Yalla doesn't need to look so far for clues. The fantastic Big Apple Hot Dogs is just up the street. Or may be pay a visit to White Cross Street market to see how its done. Hundreds of people descends on the food market at lunch hour. All happily fed freshly made food despite the queues going around the corner.

Yalla Yalla Shoreditch pop up restaurant doesn't belong to the vibrant London street food scene. It belongs to food court at Lakeside shopping centre.

Eat for Syria

The team behind Syrian Supper Club are running a huge fundraising event in support of UK registered charity Syria Relief. Specifically the money will go to support two projects, a field hospital in Northern Syria paying for three doctors, two nurses and two porters and "Bread" where flour is bought in Turkey, transported to Syria, baked and distributed free of charge to those in need.

To read more about the evening, Hands up for Syria

Buy your ticket here.

You can donate here

One Humndred and One Mezze: 30. Batersh

30 years ago Syria's Assad regime committed one of the worst massacres in the twentieth century. 20000 people of the city of Hama lost their lives at the hands of the regime army. They didn't spare anyone, man, woman or child. Men and boys dragged out of their houses, lined against the walls and killed by fire squads. 

30 years on, the Assad junior regime is committing the same massacres. This time all over the country and in slow motion. 7000 of my country men and women lost their lives over the last 11 months with no end in sight. 

Sorry for the depressing words but this is how I felt for the last 11 months and this is how my beautiful Syria is being killed every single day.

This post is dedicated to Hama, the bravest of all Syrian cities.

Batersh is a speciality of the city of Hama. It is, in a way, Mutabal topped with Syrian Bolognese sauce. 

I know what you think, very odd combination. It might sound odd but in fact it is very moreish and very satisfying.

In Hama, Batersh is mostly served as a supper main dish which is my favourite way to eat it. However, I also like to serve it as a warm Mezze dish.

Here is my take on Batersh:

Two aubergines
Tahini 2-3 tbs
Yoghurt 2-3 tbs
Garlic 1 clove, crushed

For the topping:
Minced lamb 200g
Ghee clarified butter 2 tbs
One large tomato pureed in a food processor.
Tomato paste 1-2 tbs
Pine nuts 30g
Parsley 1 tbs chopped
Salt and pepper

Start by placing the aubergine whole and skin on directly on open flame and cook it till it is charred on the outside and soft on the inside. Turn around every few minutes so it is charred all over. This method gives the dish its characteristic smokiness. No other way of cooking can give you that exact flavour. Grilling under a hot grill in the oven is not bad. You can also put your aubergine directly on electric or halogen hub. The cooking process should take 15-20 minutes.

After you cook the aubergine, cover with cling film for 20-30 minutes. Remove the charred skin. It should come off easily. Mash the aubergine with a fork. Mix the rest of the ingredients and add to the aubergines. Season with salt to taste. 

To make the topping start by frying the pine nuts in the Ghee butter to a nice golden brown. Be careful as pine nuts burn very quickly. Remove from the butter with a slotted spoon and keep aside for later.

In the same Ghee fry the minced meat until it start to brown. Add the processed tomato and the tomato puree. Use more or less puree to your taste. I don't like my sauce too sour. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for twenty minutes until the meat is tender and the sauce thick and concentrated.

Spread the Mutabal in a plate. Spoon over the meat sauce and sprinkle the pine nuts and chopped parsley.

Serve with Arabic flat bread.