Lemon, Garlic and Olive Oil

If you have been following my blog for some time you must have noticed that Syrian cuisine, especially in Damascus, is very light on the spice side. In many many dishes salt and pepper, or allspice, is the only seasoning. We make up for this by using fresh strongly flavoured ingredients. We love lemon for example and we use it quite a lot in our food. Olive oil, fresh coriander and garlic all feature heavily in our cuisine.

These ingredients are often used in combinations. The most obvious example is green coriander and garlic. These are usually fried very gently in warm olive oil and used in an endless number of dishes.

Today's recipe uses one of these classic combination: lemon, garlic and olive oil. The three flavours matches perfectly together. They work very well with grilled chicken. You can use them as a marinade or to drizzle over your spatch-cooked barbecued chicken or even a dipping sauce.

Today's dish is one of my all time favourites and regular dish on my big family dinners. We always called this dish in our household
Oven Potato with Lemon, Garlic and Oil. Although chicken is the main ingredient in this dish for some reason we always ignored its presence in the name. May be because the main flavour is not the chicken but the strongly flavoured potatoes. Anyway, if you don't like the name call it Lemon Chicken Roast or Oven Chicken and Potato or any other name you like.

You can use any cut of chicken you like. Thighs, legs, breasts, on or off the bone, with or without skin all works fine. I even used chicken wings only on occasions. Today I am using cubed chicken breast purely because this is what I had in the fridge. The only thing to keep in mind that you need to adjust cooking times depending on the cut and the size of chicken pieces you are using.

P.S. this dish is heavy on lemon , garlic and olive oil so if you don't like any of these ingredients this dish is not for you. Similarly if you are looking for a dish to cook for a romantic dinner and you are planning some bed-time activity then again this garlic infused dish is not for you.

Here is the recipe:

Chicken Breast 500g (or any chicken cut you like)
Potato 1kg
Garlic 8-10 cloves
Two lemons
Olive oil 100mls
Preserved chopped chillies (or Syrian red pepper paste) 2tbsp
Chilli powder (optional)
Salt 1tsp
Pepper 1tsp
Vegetable oil

Put the chicken in a freezer plastic bag. Add the crushed garlic, lemon juice, salt, pepper, olive oil and the chillies. Mix well and let marinade in the fridge for few hours.

Heat the oven to 200C.

Peel the potatoes and slice into 5mm slices. Deep fry the potato and vegetable oil till almost done.
Drain and layer the potato in the roasting dish. Arrange the chicken on top of the potato. Add all the marinade juices to the roasting tin. Top with hot water up to the level of the potato.

Bake in the oven till the chicken is fully cooked. You will need 25-30 minutes for chicken breast. If you are using thighs or chicken breast whole on the bone you will need 45-60 minutes and you will need to turn the chicken for the skin to brown on both sides.

Serve with Arabic bread.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 16. Sujuk

Today's main ingredient is Sujuk, Lebanese style this time as opposed to the Damascene version I posted a recipe of couple of months ago. I talked a lot about sujuk at that time so I will not repeat the whole thing to avoid boring you away.

Sujuk is a spicy sausage introduced to the Levantine cuisine through the Armenian community in Syria and Lebanon. The classic way to use sujuk is fried with eggs. Alternatively it can be used in a variety of stews. As a mezze I like to slice the thick sausages and grill or fry them.

You can buy Lebanese style Sujuk in London from Green Valley on Edgware Road.

Alternatively you can buy them from Omnia Deli. I highly recommend this place. It is a nice deli, butcher, bakery and a small food counter with couple of tables to eat in. They serve all kind of Fatayer (pizza-style pastry with different toppings), the usual grilled meats sandwiches and a selection of mezze. They have a new chef (I forgot the name, Abo Abdo, I think! sorry) who joined from the previously very popular Middle east Food Market in Acton. The best thing in the shop is their beautiful sausages and pastirma. All home made and all really good. The only down side to this place is their location in Park Royal. It is out of most people way and you need a special trip if you don't live close by.

Here is how to prepare sujuk for mezze:
Three Sujuk sausages
Rocket leaves

Slice the sausages diagonally to get long pretty strips. Grill on a very hot griddle pan till slightly charred on the outside. Serve on bed of rocket leaves and tomato slices.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 15. Beetroot Mutabal

This dish is not a traditional Syrian mezze. It made its way onto the menu of few Damascene restaurants in the last few years. Travel guides favourite, Lailas, serves a version of this dish that was much appreciated by ABC reporter on her visit to Syria.

I will have to admit that I never tried this dish in a restaurant so I don't have a reference point. I just made up this recipe the way I like it. It is essentially the same recipe I use for
Mutabal but I use beetroot instead of aubergine. The combination of the sweet taste of the beetroot, sour yoghurt and the earthy flavour of tahini works surprisingly well together. This dish works very well served next to lamb kebabs.

Here is my Beetroot Mutabal recipe:
Cooked Beetroot 250g

Tahini 2tbsp

Yoghurt 2tbsp



In a food processor start add the beet root tahini and yoghurt. Process till fine and well mixed. Add a squeeze of lemon and salt to taste.

Spread in a plate. Decorate with pine nuts and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve with Arabic flat bread.

30 Minutes BBQ!

The other day I finished work quite late and my wife was working from home and very busy. We were starving so I wanted something quick but I wasn't in the mood for a take away. I wanted something that tastes of home.

So on my way back
I went to tesco for some inspiration. In the meat isle I found chicken breasts ready cut into cubes. Nothing could possibly cook quicker. Perfect choice but what to do with it? I walked into the vegetable isles and I found these most beautiful Ramiro peppers. I love these peppers, sweet and delicate, I especially like them grilled. I got an idea. I am going to make a barbecue!

Not a full barbecue at seven in the evening in the middle of winter of course, but one Syrian variety, Shish Tawook.

Shish Tawook is a chicken breasts kebab very popular in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey were the name originates. There are many different recipes on marinading the chicken but they all share an essential ingredient, yoghurt.

In Syria Shish Tawook is always served with Toum, a delicious garlic sauce/dip that marries beautifully with all grilled chicken varieties. Due to time restrains I didn't make a proper Toum (I will post a recipe sometime in the future) but I made my super-fast Toum instead. Shish tawook is either served as a part of a barbecue platter with bread, mezze ... etc. or, quite often, as a sandwich in a flat bread roll or a bun.

Shopping is done. Now I am walking home, almost seven, and I set myself 30 minutes target from start to finish.

Walked through the door, stop watch started. Oven turned on to 200 degrees, Arabic bread out of the freezer.

Started to marinate the chicken, yoghurt, paprika, salt .... etc. Red onion and red pepper chopped.

Griddle pan on the cooker on maximum temperature. Meat and vegetables started to go onto the skewers.

Pan still not hot enough. I should start preparing the salad.

Finally, chicken is on the griddle pan. Salad chopping still going.

Chicken nicely charred on one side. Turned to the other side and the pan into the oven. I am still on time, chicken needs 12-13 minutes in the oven.

Vinegar, sumac, olive oil, lemon juice ... salad is ready. Now to the garlic sauce.

Chicken still needs another minute or so in the oven. I will slice the cucumber pickle and get the sandwiches ready.

Chicken out of the oven. I only have a couple of minutes to take a decent photo for the blog.

Photos taken. Sandwiches ready. Salad in the plates. 45 seconds to spare.

Here is my home made shish tawook recipe:
Chicken breast cubes 400g

Red onion

Red pepper

For the Marinade:
Yoghurt 2tbsp
Vinegar 1tsp
Paprika 1tsp
Chilli powder 1/2tsp
Garlic powder 1tsp
Black pepper 1/2tsp
Olive oil

Super-fast Toum sauce:

Mayonnaise 4tbsp
Greek style yoghurt 2tbsp
White wine vinegar 1tsp
Garlic 3-4 cloves, crushed

Mix all the marinade ingredients, add the chicken and ideally leave in the fridge for a couple of hours. Cut the red peppers and the red onion into 1 inch squares. You can use green peppers or mushrooms if you wish. Once the chicken is marinated start to put it on the skewers alternating between a pieces of vegetables and chicken.

If it is summer cook on a coal barbecue in the garden. Otherwise heat a griddle pan till very hot. Put the chicken skewers and don't turn till one side starts to char to give the beautiful barbecue flavour. Once one side is ready turn the skewers and put the pan in a 200C hot oven to finish cooking for around 12 minutes. You can cook it fully on the griddle pan if you wish but I find the meat becomes too dry this way.

Mix all the ingredients of the Toum sauce with Salt and lemon to taste.

Serve the shish tawook with Arabic bread, toum, salad and whatever mezze you like. Or simply spread some of the toum sauce on the Arabic flat bread, add pickles and tomatoes if you wish and roll. In Turkey they serve the shish tawook with white rice and salad.

Vermicelli Rice, A Table Essential

When I was a young child I was such a fussy eater. Nothing I liked more than a warm plate of vermicelli rice with some yoghurt. My mum ,understandably, was not that keen on such a diet and she kept trying with me to eat different stuff. I am so glad she did as some of the things I hated as a child I can't live without now.

Vermicelli rice is by far the most common dish cooked in Syria. It is served almost on a daily basis in any Syrian house hold. It is not a meal on its own right but it accompanies main dishes. The rice is served next to vegetable stews, yoghurt based dishes and some oven baked ones.

Rice is not a native product of Syria or the rest of the Levant. And although some rice is grown in eastern parts of the country around the Euphrates, most of the rice consumed in Syria is imported. Historically speaking, apart from bread, the main forms of carbohydrate in Syrian diet came from bulgur and Freekeh (roasted green wheat grains). Although both are still widely consumed, nowadays rice is by far the most popular.

The perfect rice to use is a hotly debated issue. Long grain is the easiest to get right (hence the most popular) but short grain is the most tasty. That was my mum argument, so you know which type of rice I grew up eating. I used short grain rice to make vermicelli rice till I moved to London when I started using Basmati. Now I am totally converted, Basmati is the way to go.

Final note before the recipe; Is it Gordon Ramsay who appoints chefs based on their ability to cook boiled eggs? In Syria, the perfect cook is judged on his or her ability to cook this dish. The perfect rice should be well cooked; not over and not under. The rice grains should not be sticky but sticky enough if that makes any sense.

I truly believe this is the most difficult way to cook rice especially if you are using short grain. It could be very challenging to get it right the first time. You need to estimate the exact amount of water needed for the dish to cook beforehand as there is no bar boiling or draining excess water as with many rice dishes. Perfecting vermicelli rice comes with experience so don't be disappointed if you tried it and it didn't come out right, try again and you will get it perfect.

A couple of tips to help cook the perfect rice. First wash the rice properly before soaking to get rid of all the excess starch to prevent the rice coming out sticky. Secondly don't over-stir the rice. I always say you are only allowed to stir the rice twice; once at the mid point when you turn the heat down, and the second when you turn the heat off.

Here is my recipe:

Rice of your choice 2 cups
Vermicelli pasta a good handful
Ghee clarified butter 2 tbsp
Hot water

Wash your rice and soak in cold water for 20-30 minutes.

Start by melting the Ghee butter and add the vermicelli pasta. Stir continuously to prevent the pasta burning and get an even browning. You need to fry the pasta till dark brown.

Take the pot of the heat and add the hot water. The amount of water required varies depending the type of rice. Follow the packet instructions. As a general rule 2 cups of rice will need 3-3.5 cups of water. "Easy cook" rice will need less water.

Please be very careful not to burn yourself. Adding water to very hot butter will cause small melted butter droplets to fly out of the pot.

Return the pot on the cooker and add salt. Taste the water and don't worry if it is a bit salty as the rice will absorb the salt. Drain and add the rice to the boiling water and bring back to boil. Turn the heat to medium, cover and cook for ten minutes. Check the rice at this point and stir it very gently. Add a bit of boiling water if necessary.

Turn down the heat to as low as you can, cover and let the rice steam and finish cooking for another ten minutes. Stir for the second time and serve.

Moghrabieh, Couscous of the other end of the Mediterranean

One of the misconceptions I come across when I speak to people about Syrian cuisine that we must eat loads of couscous. When I mention that Syrian cuisine is a Mediterranean cuisine, some people here in England automatically assume that we share the rolled semolina with the North Africans. Many get surprised when I say that couscous doesn't exist in Syria. The majority of Syrians didn't even hear of couscous, let alone cook with it.

Having said all of that, we kind of have couscous after all. Our own version that is.

Moghrabieh is another form of rolled semolina but considerably larger grains. It is more popular in Lebanon than it is in Syria. The name Moghrabieh means Moroccan which indicates, unsurprisingly, its Moroccan origin. I don't really know if Moghrabieh grains where originally brought from North Africa in its current format, or did we import the concept of rolling semolina and adapt it to our taste.

The grains themselves vary in size, so they don't always cook evenly. They retain a chewy starchy consistency when cooked. More dumplings than couscous.

Moghrabieh is available in London from Damas Gate in Shepherd's Bush or Green Valley in Edgware Road.

The traditional way to cook Moghrabieh include chicken, lamb or combination of the two. The cooking process is long and a bit complicated so I tried to simplify it here. The dish needs fragrant spices. I like to use a combination of caraway seeds, allspice and cinnamon.

Here is my recipe:

Moghrabieh 350g (two cups)
Lamb cubes 400g (and/or chicken)
Shallots 6 - 10 depending on size
Chickpeas 1 can drained
Flour 1tbsp
Cinnamon 1tsp
Caraway seeds 2tsp crushed in a pestle and mortar to release the flavour.
Allspice 1tsp
Salt to taste
Stock cube (optional)
Olive oil

Start by browning the meat in some olive oil in a heavy bottom pot or a casserole dish. Remove the the meat from the pot. Peel the shallots whole and brown in the same pot. Return the meat and add all the spices, salt stock cube and the flour to thicken the stew. Cover with boiling water. Bring back to boil then reduce the heat and let simmer till the meat if fully cooked. Be generous with the water as you will need some of that stock to finish cooking the moghrabieh later. Towards the end add half the chickpeas.

In another pot boil some salted water and add the moghrabieh. Cook as if you are boiling pasta. It will need to cook for 30-40 minutes. Taste the grains every once in a while till cooked to your taste. Drain and return to the pot. Add the rest of the chick peas and couple of ladles of the stock. Cook on medium heat till the moghrabieh absorbs most of the stock.

Spoon the moghrabieh in a serving dish with the some of the meat arranged on top. Serve the rest of the stew on the side.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 14. Barasia

Barasia is Syrian for Leek. Baby leek to be precise as large leek as we know it in Europe is almost non-existant in Syria.

Today's dish is one of a large group of vegetable based "in oil" dishes. In Syria and the rest of The Levant, most vegetables are cooked two ways. One with meat, mostly as a tomato-based stew, served as a main dish with vermicelli rice. The alternative is vegetables cooked in Olive oil without meat and eaten with Arabic bread. They are served as a side dish or part of a mezze spread. They could be eaten hot, cold, room temperature or at their best slightly warm.

Barasia is almost always cooked in Olive oil. To be honest with you, I am not sure if a meat version does exist. I never tried such a dish. So, If you know a Syrian or Lebanese recipe for leeks cooked in meat please let me know and I will give it a go.

This recipe is adapted from a recipe given to me by fellow Syrian blogger, Maysaloon.

Here is my Brasia recipe:

Three large leeks (or a bunch of baby leeks)
One carrot
Olive oil 4-6 tbsp
Cumin 1/2 tsp
Coriander 2tbsp
Salt to taste

Clean the leeks by cutting the green ends and peeling the outer layer. Chop the leeks into 1 cm pieces. Slice the carrot very thinly to make sure it cooks at the same time as the leeks.

Heat the olive oil in a pot and add the leeks and carrots. Cook on high heat for 5 minutes. Add the cumin and salt to taste and turn down the heat. Cover and let cook on low to medium heat for 20-25 minutes or till the leeks fully cooked. Add the coriander few minutes before the end to keep maximum taste.

Drizzle with some olive oil if you wish and serve slightly warm with Arabic flat bread.

Meat in a Tray!

Today's dish is Lahmeh bil Saniyeh, which literally translates to Meat in a Tray. The dish, surprise suprise, is meat spread in a tray and baked in the oven. Very imaginative naming on our behalf! Some people have another equally creative name for this dish, Lahmeh bil Sahen. Which means Meat in a Plate.

In the old days, late ninteenth, early twentieth century, most people didn't have ovens in their homes. Lahmeh bil Saniyeh was usually prepared by the family butcher and then sent to one of the city's many communal ovens to be baked. You can still get that today in Damascus especially in the old city and traditional old neighbourhoods.

The dish is made from minced lamb meat mixed with spices and spread in roasting tin with slices of tomatoes on top. Sliced potato and or sliced green peppers are optional toppings. The meat is usually eaten with Arabic flat bread and served with tahini yoghurt sauce.

Lean meat doesn't work for this dish as the cooked meat will come out dry like a piece of wood. Choose a fatty mince or add a big knob of butter. For the waist-size-watching lot, don't worry! You will have a chance to drain all the excess fat towards the end of the cooking procedure.

Here is my recipe:

Minced lamb 1kg
One medium onion
White bread 2 slices
Two large tomatoes
Black pepper 1tsp
Allspice 1tsp
Salt 1-2 tsp

For the sauce:

Greek style yoghurt 300g
Tahini 3tbsp

Heat the oven to 200 degrees.

In a food processor, chop the onions till very fine. Soak the bread slices in some milk (use water instead if you wish) and add to the onion. Process further till you get a smooth paste. Add the onion mixture, salt and spices (you need to add soft butter at this stage if you are using lean meat). Work the meat mixture with your hands till well combined.

Spread the meat mixture into a medium roasting tin and press into 1.5 - 2 cm thick layer. Slice the tomato into thick(ish) slices and arrange on top. Sprinkle the tomato with salt and cracked black pepper for a nice rustic look.

Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes. Check the meat 10 minutes before the end. At this stage the meat would have shrunk and pulled away from the edges of the tin. Most of the fat and some of the meat juices would have melted. Drain all of the fat and the excess meat juices. Return to the oven for the last tin minutes to finish cooking and brown on top.

While the meat is cooking, whisk together the yoghurt and tahini. Add salt and lemon to taste. If the sauce is too thick, loosen with some water.

When the meat is ready, serve a slice of meat with a big dollop of the tahini sauce. Eat with Arabic bread and some salad on the side.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 13. Allspice Tomato Salad

Although the salad market in Syria is dominated by Tabouleh and Fattoush, many others are making presence. In restaurants in Syria people will order one of the many other options available on the menu. Olive, rocket and zaatar salads are as popular as Tabouleh between punters. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't mean the demise of the famous two. You will still get at least one of the two as a matter of default on your mezze spread. At home Tabouleh and Fattoush still dominate the table by a long way.

Today's recipe is a simple tomato salad. Needless to say, you need good quality tomatoes to get a decent tasting salad. The allspice dressing brings an extra depth and warmth to the simple flavour of tomatoes.

This salad can be a great mezze dish especially if you are serving grilled meats and kebabs. Another way I like to serve this salad is as a side to dry(ish) rice based dishes like Riz bi Bazalyah (peas rice) or Riz bi Foul (broad beans rice). These dishes are traditionally served with cucumber yoghurt sauce (tzaziki), but a bit of tomato salad could be a nice alternative.

This recipe is adapted from Po0pa Dwick's excellent book Aromas of Aleppo, The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews.

Here is the Recipe:

Three ripe tomatoes (or good quality cherry tomatoes)
Allspice 1/2 tsp
Aleppo peppers 1/4 tsp (chilli flakes)
Juice of 1/2 a Lemon
Olive oil 2 tbsp
Salt to taste
Parsley (optional to add some colour)

Chop the tomatoes and sprinkle with some chopped parsley leaves. Whisk together all the dressing ingredients. Dress the tomatoes and serve.

Essential Shopping Basket

The most common question I get asked on my blog is "Where can I buy such and such ingredient in London?".

Another common theme of discussion is "I want recipes with ingredients I can buy from my local supermarket". Fair enough but it is not possible all the time. Some recipes have simple common ingredients and some recipes have ingredients that can be omitted or replaced. Some time you will have to make this extra effort. You can't make hummus without tahini!

For all of those people and for every one who wants to try some Syrian/Lebanese cooking, here is a list of some essential ingredient and where to buy them in the UK.


Sumac is a tangy, lemony flavoured spice. It is made from grounding dried sumac berries to produce a purple or deep red coarse powder. In the Levant sumac is mainly used in salads, fattoush and sprinkled over falafel. It adds a wonderful sour flavour that can even replace lemon all together. In Aleppo sumac is used in few dishes, most famously Kebbeh Sumakieh. The most famous dish cooked with sumac remains by far Musakhan, a Palastenian dish that has been adapted into local versions in every Levantine country.

In London you can buy sumac in all large Arabic, Iranian and Turkish supermarket. Damas Gate in Shepherd's Bush and Green Valley on Edgware Road are your best bet for all Arabic ingredients. You can buy it on line from The Spicery and The Spice Shop although the price is considerably higher. Alternatively you can buy it from Comptoir Lebanise on Wigmore St.


Nuts are an essential ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine. The most commonly used are pine nuts, walnuts, almonds and pistachios roughly in that order. There are endless ways to use them, sprinkled on rice, in koftah-based dishes, in mezze, hummus topping, sweets, kibbeh, sauces, drinks ..... the list goes on and on. We pretty much use them in everything.

Nuts are widely available from all supermarkets. You don't have to make a trip to get these!

Bulgur Wheat

Bulgur wheat (or Burghul as we pronounce it in Syria) is a healthy grain made from parboiled then dried and ground wheat. Main stream UK chefs discovered bulgur in the last few years and you can see it now on menues, cooking shows and supermarket shelves. There are two varieties: coarse used in cooking pilafs and fine used in Tabbouleh and Kibbeh.

You can buy bulgur from all Middle Eastern shops. You can buy it as well from high street supermarkets but the grain size is somewhere between the coarse and fine. It is not ideal but perfectly usable.

White Cheese

All our native cheeses in the Levant are fresh white cheeses. They are made from cow or sheep milk and preserved through the year in brine. The most common are Baladi, Halloumi, Nabulsi, Akkawi and Shelal. We eat white cheese as part of breakfast and supper. It matches perfectly with cucumber, fresh mint leaves, sweet black tea or water melon in summer months. In cooking we mainly use it in fatayer and sambousek. Akkawi is the cheese of choice for sweets.

Halloumi is available in all supermarkets. The rest need a trip to a Middle Eastern shop. You can freeze white cheese if you are going to use it in cooking or sweets.

Arabic Flat Bread

Arabic bread (Khobez or Lebanese bread as it is some time called) is the more sophisticated and higher quality brother of Pita bread. The bread is thinner, softer, easier to handle and way more tasty. In my view, pita bread should be outlawed!

You can buy Arabic bread from all Middle Eastern shops, some delicatessens and some large supermarkets especially in West London. Arabic bread freezes very well for up to a month or so.

Pomegranate Molasses

Pomegranate molasses (Debes Rumman دبس رمان in Arabic) is one of my favourite ingredients. It adds the most beautiful sweet and sour flavour. It brings depth and warmth to many many dishes. The secret to get good results with pomegranate molasses is to use it in moderation. It is very concentrated and if you add too much it will over power the dish. In a typical dish for two a table spoon is usually more than enough.

You can buy pomegranate molasses from Middle Eastern Shops. Alternativly you can buy it from Arabica Food & Spice Co. They sell their products in Borough Market, Selfridges and Harrods among other places. On line you can order it from Melbury & Appleton.

Ghee Clarified Butter

Ghee (Samneh سمنة in Arabic) is made by simmering butter till all the water evaporate and the milk solids settle in the bottom. The clarified butter is then spooned off. Ghee differs from normal butter in taste, texture and aroma. Because there is no milk solids Ghee tolerate very high cooking temperature without burning. Syrians usually heat Ghee butter till it smokes then pour it on rice dishes at the last minute of cooking. We also use smoking hot Ghee to top hummus and Fatteh dishes.

You can by Ghee from Middle Eastern and Indian shops. Large supermarkets usually stock it, look in the ethnic food area. Ghee doesn't need refrigeration and lasts for a very long period of time.


Tahini is without a doubt my favourite ingredient. This one is irreplaceable. You can not cook Levantine/Middle Eastern food if you don't have tahini in your kitchen. It is used in many mezze and main dishes. It is used to make sauces to accompany red meat, fish, some rice dishes and falafel.

You can buy tahini from Middle eastern shops and large supermarkets, Look in the ethnic food areas next to Greek products. Tahini last a very long time outside the fridge.

Red Pepper Paste

Sun dried red pepper paste (Debes flafleh دبس فليفلة in Syrian Arabic) is an Aleppian speciality. It is used to make Muhammara and as an ingredient in many dishes.

Red pepper paste is very difficult to find in London. Non of the Middle Eastern shops I know stock it. In my Muhammara post I attempted to re-create my own. I finally managed to find it in a Turkish supermarket in West Ealing. If you are buying yours from a Turkish shop, look at the ingredients. Most are mixed with vegetables, tomato paste, onion or garlic which will change the taste of your cooking.

Red pepper paste will last few months in the fridge if you cover the top with a layer of olive oil.

Aleppo Peppers

Another Aleppian speciality, hence the name! It is made by sun drying Aleppo peppers till dry, then crushed by hand and rubbed in olive oil. It has a very nice aroma and a wonderful bright red, orange colour. The taste has some fruitiness and saltiness to it.

You can buy red flaked chillies from all Middle Eastern shops but they lack the characteristic colour and aroma, so I am not too sure about origin and authenticity. Instead I buy my Aleppo peppers on line from The Spicery.


Za'atar (زعتر in Arabic) is a name of wild herb widely available in Eastern Mediterranean areas. It is somewhere between thyme and oregano. The word Za'atar usually refer to the herbal mix made from dried Za'atar leaves, sesame seeds and salt. Other spices and flavourings can be added to create different Za'atar mixes. As a general rule, there is two variety Green Za'atar and Red Za'atar. The latter uses sumac and usually called "Aleppian Za'atar" in Damascus. The main use of Za'atar is mixed with olive oil to make a tangy dip eaten for breakfast. You can spread the mixture on flat bread dough and baked to make Mana'esh bi Za'atar (Za'atar Fatayer). You can also sprinkle Za'atar on Labneh (strained yoghurt) or white cheese.

Za'atar is available from all Middle Eastern shops. On line from Melbury & Appleton. Alternatively you can buy it from Comptoir Lebanise on Wigmore St.

Allspice (update 4/11/2009)

After a public outcry and a twitter campaign, I decided to include allspice in my essentials list. Read all about it in my previous post.

Halloween special: Tahini Pumpkin

Halloween is here and pumpkins are everywhere, in supermarkets, on TV, and all over the blogosphere!

I am one of the people who gets irritated by Halloween for some reason, I don't know. May be the commercial nature to Halloween celebrations. May be I feel Americans are ramming their Halloween down our throats. May be ... I don't know. It just irritates me!

So the last thing I expected myself to do is to post a Halloween special, but all these nice recipes (here, here and here) got me inspired. I haven't cooked pumpkin in years and I really fancied some. So I decided to cook Tahini Pumpkin (yaqteen bi thineh يقطين بطحينة in Arabic)

Pumpkin in Syria is traditionally cooked in tahini sauce. A nice hearty stew perfect for a cold winter night. The tahini in this dish is added towards the end and cooked with the meat and pumpkin. Although the flavours are great, tahini curdles in high temperature and the dish doesn't look that great. I prefer to make a loose tahini sauce and pour it on the dish just before serving. It looks much nicer!

A much lighter variation on this dish omit tahini all together and replace it with garlic yoghurt sauce. This is my favourite way to cook pumpkin and I will post the recipe soon.

Here is my Tahini Pumpkin recipe:

Lamb cubes 400g
Small pumpkin
Chicken stock 250mls (or a stock cube)
Walnut 75g
Tahini 5tbsp
Garlic one clove
Allspice 1/2tsp
Ghee clarified butter 1tbsp (alternatively use olive or vegetable oil)

In a heavy bottom pot, brown the meat in the Ghee butter and remove from the pot. Add the sliced onion and cook on medium heat till soft. Peel and de-seed the pumpkin and cut into chunky pieces. Add to the pot and fry for few minutes. Add the browned meat, allspice, chicken stock, salt and pepper to taste. Crush the walnuts in a pestle and mortar and add. Stir the ingredients and add hot water if necessary to cover. Bring to boil then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for one and half hour or till the meat is tender. Try not to stir during cooking to avoid breaking the pumpkin.

In a bowl, wisk the tahini, salt, juice of half a lemon and very little water. The mixture will become light in colour and very stiff. Add more water and wisk. Keep adding water till the mixture start to soften and you reach a nice smooth consistency. The sauce need to be runny but not too watery.

When the pumpkin stew is cooked transfer to a deep dish and pour the tahini sauce. Decorate with some walnuts.

Serve with vermicelli rice.