I promised myself to keep this blog politics free zone. I refrained from expressing personal views on anything that goes on in the Middle East. I wanted it a place for all people. Even food politics stayed out of my blog. No comments on Hummus war. No arguments on who invented Tabouleh, kebbeh or any of the sorts.
As you all know I haven't written anything on the blog for almost three months now since these sad events started to unfold in my beautiful country. I tried to write few times but words were choked in my throat. How could I keep politics out of this blog while my brave country men are being killed everyday on the streets asking for freedom. How could write about the beautiful things of Syria while its people are being arrested tortured and killed.
After some thinking I decided I should start writing again. The least I can do for my country is to go on writing. It is still a beautiful welcoming place regardless of who is in government. Time will come again when Syria is as beautiful and as peaceful as ever.
This post is dedicated to the brave city of Daraa and all the martyrs.
Fifteen hundreds years ago in a tent in the middle of the Arabian desert a Bedouin man named Hatim had guests stopping at his door unexpected. The man and his wife got in a state of panic. They had nothing to feed their hungry guests. It was a tough dry year and they had no sheep to slaughter in honour of the guests. Hatim decided to slaughter his pride and joy, the most valuable possession a Bedouin man can own, his horse to feed his guests. The man was Hatim Al-Taiy a sixth century Arabic poet. Because of that incident and many similar stories he became an icon of Arab generosity up to our day.
Generosity, honouring your guests and hospitality is an essential part of the Arabic psyche. Showing your generosity is as important as generosity itself. With very little resources and few food choices in the desert those days, meat was the only way to showcase your hospitality. You couldn't be an honorable host unless you slaughter some animal and serve an extravagant amount of meat in honour of your guest.
This tradition survived the centuries. Up till this day nothing can show your generosity more than heaps of meat served over large trays of rice. Kabseh in Saudi Arabia, Majboos in Gulf countries, Quzi in Iraq and Mansaf in Jordan are modern examples of this centuries old tradition.
Syria is slightly different case from its neighbours. It is a more ethnically and gastronomically diverse country. Rich resources and food variability mixed with a variety foreign influences over the centuries resulted in a more sophisticated cuisine. Smaller portions, variety of dishes, generous use of vegetables and less meat are the hallmarks of modern Syrian food.
That doesn't mean we Syrians don't have the traditional Arabic generosity running in our veins (well, most of us at least. We Damascene are not famed for our generosity!). Bedouin and tribal areas especially at the East of the country are as Arabic as anybody else. They share a lot more in cuisine and costume with their cousins across the Arabic desert than they do with their country men in Damascus and Aleppo.
Daraa and the wider Houran region extended over the border between Syria and Jordan is another "proper" Arabic area of Syria. People of the region are very generous and kind hearted despite not being the richest in the country. This generosity is evident in their food.
Mlehy is Houran national dish. It is a ceremonial dish for great occasions, weddings and celebration. It is the way people of Houran show their generosity to their guests. The dish is very similar to the better advertised Jordanian mansaf but it uses Bulgur instead of rice.
Melhy is made by cooking lamb (or chicken in less formal occasions) in a broth made with a stone-hard sun dried yogurt called Jameed or Ketha as it is called sometimes in Houran. Of course I didn't have any Jameed here in London (if you know where to get it in London please let me know) so I used the driest form of yogurt I could find, Labneh balls. You can buy these in all Middle Eastern Supermarkets. They are great for breakfast, sandwich filling or a mezze dish.
Finally, if this recipe looks nothing like what your mum used to make please forgive me. I only tried Mlehy once in my life and this recipe is my interpretation of the dish.
Here is my Mlehy recipe:
(Enough for four people)
Four Lamb Shanks
One onion finely chopped
Course bulgur 2cups
Chicken stock 1cup (or boiling water)
Ghee clarified butter 4tbs
Four Labneh balls
One bay leaf
One stick of cinnamon
Pine nuts 30g
Start by mixing the Labneh balls and chicken stock in a food processor on high speed until you get a smooth runny mixture with no labneh lumps.
Melt two spoons of Ghee butter in a large pot and brown the lamb shanks on all sides. Remove the lamb shanks and fry the onion on medium heat till soft. Return the shanks to the pot and add the stock and labneh mixture. Top with hot water to cover the meat. Add the allspice, bay leaf, cinnamon stick and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a strong boil then turn the heat to medium and simmer for two hours or until the meat is fully cooked and almost falling of the bone.
Once the meat is ready start cooking the bulgur. In a pot add the bulgur, salt to taste and 3 cups of hot water and bring to boil. You can add a ladle or two of the meat broth to the bulgur for extra flavour. Turn the heat to medium and cook for 20 - 30 minutes stirring occasionally. Add more boiling water if required.
Fry the pine nuts in the rest of the ghee butter. Remove as soon as they turn golden as they burn very quickly. Continue to heat the ghee in the pan til it starts to smoke then carefully pour over the cooked bulgur and stir. The last step is optional and it adds a nice smokey flavour but few extra calories, your choice.
Serve the cooked bulgur with a sprinkle of pine nuts with the meat and broth on the side. The broth has a rich sour meaty flavours with a hint of fragrance from the spices. Pour some of it over the Bulgur to eat or simply sip it with a spoon. Delicious!