Paris, Industrial Action and Za'atar Croissant


I am Paris on a training course this week. Yesterday we received the unexpected news that civil servants are on strike and the course is off for today as the venue is a town hall and the staff refused to break the strike. So instead of working on my drilling skills I am here in my tiny hotel room watching BBC news and reading last Sunday’s Observer. It is cold, cloudy and miserable outside. Not the most inviting weather to go sight seeing. The only highlight of my day was the excellent fresh croissant I had for breakfast.


On the breakfast table I remembered a conversation I had over a year ago with my best friend Tammam and his wife Rania regarding croissants and if the best ones come from Paris or Damascus. Both of my friends are big fans of Paris and extremely biased when it comes to anything French. So the discussion was partly genuine and partly to wind up Tammam. He is great fun when you wind him up. Sorry mate!


I know you must think it is totally bizarre even to suggest that Damascus makes better croissant than Paris but let me give you some background. Few years ago a patisserie shop called Parfait opened in our street in Damascus. The place is by far the best in the city and quickly it became so popular that we now have a constant traffic jam and a dedicated traffic warden to keep cars moving in our quite residential street. One morning I was in the shop when a French woman walked in and tried a warm fresh croissant. She loved it and she told the guy in a very heavy French accent “This is better than in France”. I loved this and I was simply repeating a French person opinion.


The main discussion point apart from the quality was what you can and can not put inside a croissant. In Syria we have the habit of “Syrianising” international foods from pasta to pizza ...etc. The most heavily adapted remains French pastry. Croissants come in the traditional plain and chocolate variety but the most popular are the local versions of Za’atar, olives and Kashkaval cheese.


Tammam was of the opinion that Za’atar should be no where near a croissant. And this bastardised version only ruins the authenticity of the original. Rania on the other hand didn’t see a problem of adapting food to local taste.


I personally didn’t know what to think. I am not too keen on the cheese version but both Za’atar and olive croissants tastes amazing. It is a wonderfully successful adaptation. If bought from a good quality shop you will get a beautiful marriage between the flaky buttery dough and a distinctly Syrian flavoured filling.


On the other hand, I get really annoyed when some chef comes on TV and declares he is making Fattoush then chucks in broccoli and asparagus with some toasted Pita bread and he calls it Fattoush. I get equally frustrated when someone tries to make Hummus with tofu or Tabouleh with couscous.


The French must be equally annoyed of the sight of some Middle Eastern herb mix inside their beloved croissant!


The Italians are big advocates of defending the authenticity of their cooking. They have endless rules of what you can or can not do. “Don’t cook with both onion and garlic”, “No fish and cheese in the same dish”, “Pasta to sauce not sauce to pasta” and the list goes on. Jamie Oliver in his Italian road trip show came to the conclusion that to make Italians happy give them food exactly the way their mothers used to cook it. Is that a bit over the top? I am not sure.


I still don’t have a firm opinion on this subject but I know for a fact I love Za’atar croissant. And the olive ones, even better!




P.S. I wrote this last Thursday but I couldn't publish as my internet was not working in my hotel in Paris.


24 comments:

Joy said...

A great post and a beautiful example of an issue that is played out in every country with every food that travels! I think I have to hold both truths in my hands (maybe one in each hand) the original is the best AND each countries adaption is wonderful!
I would like to try croissant with za'atar in Damascus one day!

Anonymous said...

Hey, I'd say that Syrians make very good crossaints, and I also like the plain cheese version. But I'm not d'accord with you when it comes to Tabouleh with couscous - that's simply the North African version, I'd say. Different, but good nonetheless.

Cheers, Sarah

tasteofbeirut said...

Kano
Thanks for mentioning this fabulous bakery in Damascus. Now I know where I will be headed while there!
I love zaatar croissants, to me they are better than the (plain) ones but I agree with you, fattoush should always remain fattoush, the authentic version, idem for tabbouleh.
I can't wait to try their olive croissant, I bet it tastes amazing!
No internet in the hotel? on strike too?lol

The London Foodie said...

Hi Kano,

We had our "Syrian Supper" @ the London Cooking Club last Saturday, and it was fantastic. Everyone was very happy with their dishes, and we had a great evening. I will post my review later in the week.

Thanks for your delicious recipes!

Luiz @ The London Foodie

Choclette said...

Interesting post and glad to hear you got back from strike ridden France! I like to know that a food stuff is what it is meant to be, so a croissant should be a croissant, but I have no issue with any culture or person adapting it to their tastes - just don't call it a croissant. National / local cuisines are constantly being adapted - lets keep it going. All Syrian versions sound as though they taste good to me.

shayma said...

i really enjoyed the issues you raised. what about the case when a dish is completely transformed? perhaps you can think of it as an innovation rather than a 'bastardisation' of the croissant? having spent a chunk of my life in italy, i know the rules well, and being a Pakistani-Afghan, we have similar rules as well- i cringe when i see people adding vegetables to dahl (lentils) or cream (call it Indian-style dahl, but we do not add cream or butter in dahl in Pakistan- dahl is a 'poor man's, rustic' dish, it doesnt contain butter or cream). but when a dish is taken and changed (innovation, perhaps?) as in za'atar in a croissant, or for eg, a restaurant in NY called Tabla, when it first opened back in the day they served samosas with rabbit meat- i quite like that....but i guess fusion cuisine is a controversial topic. speaking of italians, the worst food i ever had in my life was at a Michelin Star restaurant in Rome- where they served a pasta, with meat and chocolate sauce, a maexican mole gone incredibly wrong. i enjoyed very much this post- and for the record- i adore za'atar croissants!

Roba said...

Hey there!

Every year, the toot team goes around looking for the best Arab blogs, and we are happy to tell you that yours is definitely one of the best, which is why we are adding it to toot, the Arab blog aggregator.

Since toot started in 2005 to provide the blogosphere with a place to access the best Arab blogs, in either Arabic or English. We have been hand-picking the best Arab blogs to bring together intelligent voices from and for Arabia and present them to a wider community; where passionate readers and writers can share and communicate without filtering (http://itoot.net).

That's not all! Daily, we goes through the new posts published on our network, and we share with our readers the most interesting ideas and conversations of the day. A quick run down on what you will see on our homepage:

* "What’s tooting" features the best three-to-six posts of the day based on topic, quality, and diversity.
* "tootreads" are excerpts of the most interesting posts of the day. We do this because we, at toot, believe that excerpts make readers want to read more. Think of them as starters! The excerpt will of course lead back to your blog.
* "tootstream" is our home-grown online RSS reader. Freshly harvested posts!


Everything on toot, from the blogs themselves to the posts published, is handpicked to provide quality reading. If you are interested to be notified on when your blog posts are featured in "What's tooting", shoot me an email.

If you are not comfortable with the thumbnail being used for your blog, also send me an email with another one attached.

The good news is that all you have to do is enjoy the ride! You can let your visitors know that you are one of the best Arab blogs by placing an "I'm on toot" button on your sidebar or footer (http://itoot.net/on_toot). We would also appreciate a link somewhere! :)

If you have any questions or ideas, feel free to contact me. Looking forward to reading your blog daily.

Happy blogging!

Roba and the toot team
tooticator :)

roba (at) itoot.net


TootCorp projects include Ikbis, Watwet, and toot (which you're now a part of!).

Suffy said...

I grew up in Dubai where we had three main varieties of croissants, za'atar, cheese and chocolate. I remember yearning for a plain, butter croissant. I now live in Dublin, Ireland and of course all croissants are plain and how do I miss having a warm cheese croissant or a toasted za'atar one! I even saw turkey stuffed croissants in a middle eastern airport recently.
Love your blog with a capital L....
Suffy

Anonymous said...

btw, where exactly is this famous croissant place in damascus, parfait? I only know the one in aimarieyeh, where people used to queue up all the time till they raised the prices sometime in 2007 or so

sarah

Kano said...

@Joy
I hope you make it someday to Damascus. You will love the place. And you can sample all of these dishes direct from the origin.

@Sarah
Is the couscous "tabouleh" an authentic north African dish? Not sure. I thought it is a Western invention.
The place is in Mezzeh Eastern Villat. Not only a croissant shop but they do all kinds of cakes, ice creams, sweet and savoury pastry and party food.

@Joumana
Let me know next time you are in Damascus I will give you a full list of recommendations. This place Parfait is in Mezzeh as I mentioned above. First right turn when you reach Damascus if you are driving from Beirut.

@Luiz
I am so glad the evening went well and you guys enjoyed the food. Shame I missed it. Waiting to hear all about it.
Please give me any feedback. Any recipes that don't work. Any changes you would have made...etc

@Choclette
I think it is a good idea to call adapted versions a different name. You need some creative naming though. Any ideas for spaghetti bolognese we all cook?

@Shayma
I agree with you on the fusion cuisine. I was never a fan although I really like experimental cooking. Fat Duck style I mean.
I am glad you like Za'atar croissant. They are quite popular judging by the response I got.

@Roba
Thank you very much. I am honoured I manged to make it to your excellent website.

@Suffy
Welcome to my blog and thank you for the nice words. Glad you like the blog.
That turkey croissant sounds interesting. Something like the cheese and ham stuffed croissants you get here in London, I guess.

JenJen said...

Hi Kano

Sorry to spam you on this post's comments - I was at Luiz's Syrian Supper @ the London Cooking Club, wanted to say thanks for the Chicken Fatteh recipe! Cooking the chicken stock with cloves and cardomom was delicious - ended up eating all the onions from the stock, just as a snack =)

Out of interest, where would you recommend in (central-ish) London to buy Syrian ingredients? [Tried searching for a post on this, but didn't turn up anything =) ]

Thanks,

Jen

Kano said...

@JenJen

Welcome to my blog. I am so glad you liked the food and especially the Chicken Fatteh. Shame I couldn't make it to the dinner myself.

Best places to buy Syrian ingredients are Damas Gate in Shepherd's Bush and Green valley on Edgware Road.

I have actually published a post about essential ingredients and where to buy them in London and on the internet:

http://syrianfoodie.blogspot.com/2009/11/essential-shopping-basket.html

Hope this is helpful

Anonymous said...

@kano

I'm not sure, to be honest. I always assumed it was. What do you mean by "western" invention? If at all, it is a Tunisian rather than a European one, I guess. But the most important thing to me is that it tastes absolutely delicious ;) A tunisian friend of mine once even prepared it with shrimps and raisins soaked in rum, so in this case I am a big fan of adapting cuisine....

Kano said...

@sarah

This is couscous salad and I agree, it is absolutely delicious. I make some version or another all the time.

My point was, North Africans don't make East Mediterranean style tabouleh with couscous. They have their own version of couscous salads.

This couscous tabouleh you can buy in UK (and I suspect US) supermarkets is a Western invention. They used a widely available ingredient (couscous) instead of a not-as-widely-available one (bulgur).

That is what I think any way, keep in mind I am no expert on North African cuisine. I know one thing though, anything soaked in rum is not authentically North African ;)

Anonymous said...

@kano

I totally agree with you then - the stuff they make in Tunisia as in Tunisian style Tabbouleh prepared with couscous is yummy (and the way I know it, it's actually pretty similar to the East Mediteranean version, just with couscous and a bigger amount of that - but the vegetables and spices are pretty much the same; so no raisins and stuff in the "Traditional" tunisian version).

I don't think I'd ever eat the stuff you can buy in European supermarkets, though. And I don't even wanna think of ready-made couscous which you just mix with boiling water - that's simply disgusting.... couscous needs to be steamed! ;)

sarah

Tammam Aloudat said...

Ahm Ahm, now I feel under pressure to put my opinion (and defence) on the matter of Za'atar croissants.

First, you are absolutely right... I am fun (for others) to wind up and then watch :) the good news is that no one else can do it as well as you do mate.

Second, I am hardly a purist or a traditionalist in any sense, you know. However, I have 2 problems with Za'atar croissants from a purely practical stand point. What I absolutely love about French croissants is the butter... As if by magic, the pastry feels as if you are sinking your teeth in a block of melted aromatic butter that is held in a solid form by the paste. This is not the case in the Parfait croissants, whether with Za'atar or otherwise. Which leaves them much closer to a za'atar sandwitch and I actually much prefer such a sandwitch on Arabic bread.

Second, is exactly what you were mentioning. Somethings, the icons of food, might need to be left alone. I have had "tabouleh" for lunch yesterday from the supermarket here in Geneva. Ingredients: couscous, raisins, onion, chicken, and basil. The problem is people think this is what tabouleh is and that hurts when I think about the beautiful parsley tabouleh that I grew up with. While we cannot avoid the adaptations/bastardisations of our food (or other people's food for that matter) we can NOT encourage it. A great cook might come up with a great fusion that keeps the essence, but when the flood doors are open, you really cannot complain anymore about the supposedly middle-eastern corner in a cheap supermarket displaying tufo hummus, broccoli fatoush, vegan turkey, low fat shawarma, or any other of the madness that is now common place.

Your blog is getting great mate, I am really happy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kano,
I was also at The London Foodie's London Cooking Club dinner, where we made many of your dishes. I particularly enjoyed the Hummus with meat. We substituted venison fillet for beef fillet, and it was divine.
Best wishes,
Gerald

Foodycat said...

I think croissants with cheese or za'atar sound really delicious! I think those are small tweaks that are still OK. Taking normal puff pastry and sprinkling it with za'atar and calling it a croissant is not OK!

Kano said...

@Tammam
I think you have been very harsh on the Parfait croissant. I will have to totally disagree on this one. They are proper croissant and no where near bread. I accept that I have had better croissant in Paris but apart from that the Parfait ones are the best. Nothing in Syria or here in London can match it. I agree though on the iconic foods issue.

@Gerald
So glad to hear you guys enjoyed the evening and the food.

@Foodycat
They actually taste as good as they ound especially the Za'atar one.

SydneyCider said...

Kano, come on now, zaatar croissant is neither French nor Syrian. It's traditional Lebanese food, just like kibbeh :P

I think zaatar marries beautifully with croissants, and that there is no shame in fusing the ingredients. Adding broccoli to fattouch however is not right, if the name remains fattouch. It should then be called broccoli fattouch. Then it might be acceptable (though I don't see why you'd add broccoli to fattouch).

Kano said...

@SydneyCider

I managed to go on for 8 months writing this blog without mentioning the Syrian/Lebanese argument. Now you are trying to drag me into it from the first comment you wrote :) Anyway, I will keep my cool and use the politically correct word Levantine dish ;)

LebaneseMariam said...

Same thing happens in Lebanon. The best chocolate croissant ever is found in Tripoli, Lebanon.

Kano said...

@LebaneseMariam

Welcome to my blog! Next time I am in Lebanon I will try that Tripoli Croissant you mentioned.

Ranjeet said...

Zaatar tastes so yummy! A lovely food to have, wow!Did you ever had La Parisienne Almond Croissant?Its much better than zaatar.I ate this La Parisienne Almond Croissant in Paris during my trip.Never found that croissant anywhere in my country. I miss it!.

Eating cheap in paris

Post a Comment