Mlehy, food of the brave.

When I started this blog two years ago I had two aims in mind, firstly to share my love of food and secondly, and most importantly, to show my beloved country Syria in all its beauty. To share with all of you everything good about the great Syrian people, about their cuisine, their life and their history. A propaganda website, not for a regime or government but for a land and city I love so much.

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)
Boiling water
Ghee clarified butter 4tbs
Four Labneh balls
Allspice 1tsp
Salt
Pepper
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!

29 comments:

Maysa said...

Sound delicious, i wish there was a way i could honor all the brave men women and children going out in Syria too. Thank you for this post and more importantly thank you for supporting your people

Amanda said...

I am so glad to see you back and posting. You have been in my thoughts when I watch the tv news in the evening. This is a lovely recipe and perfect for the cold winter nights we are in the midst of here in Australia.

yasmeen said...

i'm glad to see you're back - i've been reading your blog and loving experiencing your cooking (we have shared culinary histories... i'm Palestinian). this recipe is gorgeous - tastes like home!

my heart goes out to you, to Syria, to the Middle East for all its beauty and for the circumstances unfolding in many of our countries. no politics, no belief systems, just appreciation for a wonderful part of the world.

Anonymous said...

glad you are back..sorry but your post slights other arab countries when you say your cuisine is more sophisticated..I think spiced lamb and rice/ nut pilafs are exquisite and sophisticated .... ie maqlooba,mensaf.kabsi,mandi are exquisite when prepared properly......liquid jammeed is available in the us

zeki said...

this dish is similar to Shaqriyeh right? which i love!!

Kano said...

@Maysa
Thank you very much for the nice words. Tomorrow will be a better day for our beautiful country, I am sure.

@Amanda
Thank you very much. You should try it. Really nice comfort food.

@Yasmeen
Thank you very much for the nice thoughts.

@Anonymous
No offence intended. Please don't get me wrong, Rice pilaf type dishes are absolutely my favorite food. Sophisticated, in my view, relates to portion size, complexity of flavours, unusual mixing of flavours ...etc. Sophisticated doesn't necessarily mean better. Sorry for any offence.

@Zeki
It is close enough to Shakriyeh. Mlehi is more of a ceremonial big occasion dish. Shakriyeh is more of home style comfort food.

coleen~ said...

I hope that peace and freedom soon comes to Syria and also to the other N.African and Middle Eastern countries who want it.

This looks like a lovely dish to try....I will look for the Labneh balls as they sound critical to making it.

Rambling Hal said...

Dear Kano, I'm so glad to see you back to posting, you have no idea how much I rely on your recipes!
My mother is Syrian and to me, the world's best cook. I have grown up helping her out in the kitchen, but that means fetching ingredients or washing dishes as she cooks, not doing the actual cooking. When I got married a year and a half ago, I tried to sit down with her and get her to be specific in relaying recipes that I would write down, but I could only manage a few easy ones. You blog is invaluable in providing a database of authentic Syrian cuisine, cooked just like our mothers and grandmothers cook it, written out in English and with precise directions so I can make these dishes myself at home. You are one of my most valuable resources and I am one of your biggest fans, so THANK YOU! :)

simon said...

Very happy to see you back. I have the same policy about politics on my blogs and the events here in Japan post tsunami/nuclear disaster have made me blog less.
Your blog is wonderful and I hope to try some authentic Syrian hospitality in the future.

kestypes said...

Indeed, it is great to see you back, Kano. Syria has been through many trials, and will rise, better and healed. Unfortunately due to work commitments we needed to postpone our trip, and probably won't go for a little while yet, but we know we will get there and experience the hospitality you talk about. A Palestinian friend of mine said to me recently that god has two kitchens ~ one in morocco and one in syria. Take care.

Kano said...

@Coleen @simon @kestype
Thank you very much guys. I hope situation will improve soon in Syria and you can all come and vistit.

@rambling Hal
Thank you very much for the nice words. I am extremely flattered.

beyondbagot said...

Hi Kano

It was almost exactly this time last year my wife and I were enjoying your food tips for Damascus. It was the best of times for us - in no small part to the joys al mouselli shwarma!
Anyhow thank you for this brave post and wonderful recipes.

Linds

Joy said...

Kano it did my heart good to see this post. I can hardly bear to listen to the news, but your posts about the beautiful food and hospitality give the context of a long history and humanity. I hope you post again soon.

Maya said...

Great to see you back on your blog :) The situation in Syria is upsetting for all of us.. My husband and I travelled to the middle east in April hoping to visit my family in Syria, but seeing the current situation, we decided not to risk it, especially that we had our 1 year old with us. I pray to God to help our families there and give the Syrian people the strength they need to get through these tough times.
Nonetheless, please keep sharing your awesome recipes, after all, us arabs can't live without the comfort that great food brings! :) God Bless

Alépine said...

Thank you for sharing this recipe and for the tribute to the free Syrian people. I have also dedicated my ma2loubeh to Dar3a.

tasteofbeirut said...

I applaud your effort to get back to blogging; I have been confronted with this very same issue, when events back home were so upsetting it was hard to focus on food; but as they say, the show must go on. Our people are going through hard and tragic times but this too shall pass in the grand scheme of things. Still heart-wrenching to think about.

Kano said...

@beyondbagot

Thank you very much. I just read your Syrian post for the first time. I loved the French test :)

@Joy

Thank you for your kind words as usual.

@Maya

I hope the situation will improve in our beautiful Syria soon. I will keep writing.

@Alepine

I loved your Ma2lobeh post.

@tatsteofbeirut

I really hope to see a free, stable, happy and democratic leveant and the wider Middle East in the not-so-far future.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you're back, and so sad for your country. I've missed cooking your recipes, and am hoping for peace and happiness for Syria.

Anonymous said...

I asked about dried yogurt at Phoenicia, a Lebanese run shop in Kentish Town Road. They told me that due to the stringency of controls on importing animal based products from outside the EU, it is hard for them to stock the dried yogurt you speak of in your recipe. They do however have sheets of dried yogurt with bulgur for the cypriot dried yogurt soup (trakana)that might be in some way useful. thanks again for your recipes.

Anonymous said...

Would kishk powder be an appropriate substitute?

Victor E. Sasson said...

Welcome back, Kano. We've missed you.

Kano said...

@anonymous 1
Thank you very much for the kind words

@anonymous 2
I never came across this Cypriot product but from what you described it is a similar product to Syrian Kishk. It might actually work.

@anonymous 3
I think kishk might work. Thank you for the suggestion.

@Victor E. Sasson
Thank you very much for the nice words.

bdr said...

Much respect brother. God bless Syria and its brave people risking their lives daily or a better,more dignified future.

Kano said...

@bdr

Thank you very much and welcome to my blog! God help our Syria

BlondeBomber said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your efforts and kind words towards the brave people of Syria.

I would like to ask two questions regarding this recipe:
1.) Can we use normal labneh instead of labneh balls?

2.) What exactly is the allspice made of? Is it a mixture of cinnamin, cloves, cumin, tumeric, etc? Could garam masala be an equivalent?

thank you!

Kano said...

@Anonymous

Thank you for the nice words.

I never tried to use normal Labneh but I am sure it will work fine.

Allspice is not a spice mix. It is a spice in its own right. Check my post on allspice:

http://www.syrianfoodie.blogspot.com/2009/10/making-my-peace-with-allspice.html

Arabic mixed spices is usually called Baharat. It is very different from garam masala to be honest.

Bettina said...

I have the same problem as you do, I do not follow recipes very well, I always have to put my own spin on everything I do in the kitchen. and so I did this time as well :)

My (syrian) hubby loves my cooking but lately my inspiration has run a bit dry so started googling around and found ur brilliant blog! I only know a few arabic dishes so wanted to impress my husband. - and impressed he was!!
I changed a few things with boiling the meat but not too much. I cooked the bulgur in the broth only and i also had a tomato and some mushrooms that started to look a bit tired hanging around in the fridge so i chopped up the mushrooms and fried them in olive oil and a hint of salt and lemon juice then threw in the chopped tomato just before turning off the heat and mixed with the bulgur. hubby didn't want the broth, ate it together with plain yoghurt. It was a big hit and i have to thank you for giving me so much inspiration. i want to try everything you've got on here!!!

Bettina said...

I have the same problem as you do, I do not follow recipes very well, I always have to put my own spin on everything I do in the kitchen. and so I did this time as well :)

My (syrian) hubby loves my cooking but lately my inspiration has run a bit dry so started googling around and found ur brilliant blog! I only know a few arabic dishes so wanted to impress my husband. - and impressed he was!!
I changed a few things with boiling the meat but not too much. I cooked the bulgur in the broth only and i also had a tomato and some mushrooms that started to look a bit tired hanging around in the fridge so i chopped up the mushrooms and fried them in olive oil and a hint of salt and lemon juice then threw in the chopped tomato just before turning off the heat and mixed with the bulgur. hubby didn't want the broth, ate it together with plain yoghurt. It was a big hit and i have to thank you for giving me so much inspiration. i want to try everything you've got on here!!!

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