Syrian Classics: Mnazaleh be Aswad

I have no idea what the word Mnazaleh means. There is two dishes called Mnazaleh this one and a little known (and far less tasty) cousin Mnazaleh be Ahmar. Aswad means black as the dish is made of black aubergine while Ahmar means red and the dish is made of tomatoes.

Leaving the name aside, the dish is oven baked aubergine with mince lamb and pine nuts. It is one of my absolute favourite dishes. It is a must on my menu for big family dinners as it serves a good number of people and you can prepare it in advance and stick in the oven at the last minute.

This dish is classically cooked with deep fried baby aubergine. I made some changes to this dish. I use normal large aubergines as they are widely available in UK supermarkets but I don't deep fry them before cooking as this large variety absorbs oil like a sponge and then all comes out when baked in the oven and it ruins your dish. Secondly I like the look of large aubergines. I peel them in stripes and my wife loves that. She thinks it looks very Syrian. She have this firm belief that we Syrians love everything in stripes from Damascus old houses to our clothes and even food. I will have to admit I can see some truth in that. What do my fellow Syrians think?

Here is the recipe:

Minced lamb 500g
Pine nuts 50g
Two large aubergines
Two large Beef Tomatoes
Tinned chopped tomatoes 400g
Ghee clarified butter 1 table spoon
Greek style yogurt 300g
Two garlic cloves
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
Hot water

Heat the oven to 200 degrees. Peel and prepare the aubergine as above. You need 1.5 cm thick slices. Slice the beef tomatoes whole to very thin slices. In a heavy roasting dish empty the tomato tin. Arrange the aubergine slices. Sprinkle with some salt and brush with olive oil. Add hot water to cover the aubergines half way. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Add hot water if necessary to prevent burning the edges.

In a sauce pan, melt the butter and add the meat. Season with salt and black pepper and cook on a fairly high temperature. The meat mix need to be well seasoned as this is the strongest flavour in the dish. Keep cooking till all the water has evaporated and the meat start to fry in the butter. Add the pine nuts and fry for five minutes.

Take the baking dish out of the oven and spoon the meat mixture on the aubergines and a slice of tomato. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and add hot water as necessary. Bake for another 30-40 minutes.

Crush the garlic and add to the Greek style yogurt and some salt to make a nice side sauce. If the yogurt and garlic mix is too strong for you use less or no garlic at all or even serve without yogurt.

Serve the Mnazaleh with Vermicelli Rice and a spoon of garlic yoghurt.

Damascus communal ovens

Historically Damascene houses apart from few exceptions didn't have ovens and most of the cooking was done on cookers. Because of that there is very few baked dishes in classical Syrian cooking. These dishes were cooked in communal ovens. There was one of these ovens in every neighborhood. People would prepare dishes such as Kabab Hindi (Indian Kebab, although it has absolutely nothing to do with Indian cooking) or Lehmeh bil Seniyeh (literally "Meat in a Tray") and then they will take these dishes in the roasting tins and bake them in these ovens. Alternatively family butchers would prepare these dishes then bake them and send them ready.

The other dish cooked in these ovens was Sfeehah which is a very thin pizza like flat dough covered with spiced mince meat then baked. There is two variety of Sfeehah. Either mix the meat with Debes Remman (pomegranate molasses) or with tomatoes. Sfeehah was usually eaten in special occasions or when there was big number of guests to feed.

Nowadays with an oven in every house more baked dishes are being introduced to Syrian cuisine. These communal ovens still exists especially in old areas of the Syrian capital but their type of business has changed. They still would bake your home prepared food if you asked but they mainly sell Fatayer to passers by. Fatayer is a general term for all the small Pizza like pies with different toppings and stuffings. Classically there was meat, cheese, spinach and Zaatar ,a tangy herb mix made from dried thyme and other spices with olive oil, toppings. Nowadays you would expect to find anything between ten to fifteen different types of toppings in any self respecting fatayer maker.

Here is a recipe of Ftayer Sabanekh (spinach fatayer):

For the stuffing:
Spinach 500g
Large onion
Olive Oil
Pomegranate Molasses 1 table spoon
Pomegranate seeds 1 tea spoon (optional)
Lemon to taste
Dry flake chillies

For the dough:
Self rising flour 2 cups
One egg
Sugar 1 tea spoon
Salt 1 tea spoon
Vegetable oil 50 mls
Hot water 1 cup

Mix all the dough ingredients but start with half a cup of water and add more as needed till you get fairly soft dough. You can use an electric mixer. Let the dough raise for half an hour then make into small balls and cover with a damp towel.

Drop the spinach in a pot of boiling water and turn of the heat immediately and let the spinach and the water cool down. This will soften the spinach but it will keep shape better than cooking. Drain in a colander and squeeze all the water out.

Roughly chop the onion and fry in olive oil till it become soft but not brown. Fork out the spinach in a bowel and add the onions with the rest of the ingredients. Pomegranate Molasses vary a lot in strength, taste and consistency so start with a small amount then add more if desired. If your molasses is not of the sour variety you can add lemon juice but don't make the mix too wet.

Now flatten the small dough balls into thin discs 3-4 mm and 15 cm in diameter. Spoon the mix in the center then fold the edges to form the triangular shape as in the picture above. lightly oil a baking tray and put you fatayer on. Then bake in a very hot oven (225-250 degrees) till nice and crisp. It shouldn't take more than 15 min.

This recipe is enough for 15 fatayer.


Al-Halabi restaurant and Michelin stars

I just got back from holiday in Syria. I was there for eight days and it was a non stop eating affair. I have no idea how I managed to keep the damage to my waist line to a minimum.

Way before I arrive home my mum usually would prepare a list of all my favorite dishes to cook while I am on Holiday so every lunch is a culinary affair. Some time days are not enough so my mum would double up and cook two dishes instead of one to make sure I am well fed before I go back to cold dark London. On top of that there is the compulsory dinners at my grandma's, best friend, aunt and uncle. Add to that a couple of meals out, a breakfast here and there... and you end up with few extra pounds and an upset stomach.

Now back were we left. In my first post on this blog I was wondering if Al-Halabi restaurant could be my Syrian Michelin starred restaurant.

In short, No.

To start the sitting was fantastic. The dinning room was beautiful, the decor was traditional Damascene executed to perfection and the staff were wonderful. The restaurant specialises in Aleppian food hence the name Al-Halabi meaning "the Aleppian".

The menu included the usual Mezzeh/starter dishes cold and hot. Most of these were straight forward traditional dishes. Some others have some kind of a twist to left them up. This was mostly a shy attempt with various degrees of success. We ordered Mutabal (smoked aubergine and tahini dip) which was the best I have ever tasted. The Lamb Tongues Salad (very adventurous on my wife behalf) failed miserably to deliver on flavour. The meat was under seasoned and so bland the only thing I could taste was the olive oil.

The rest of the menu reflected the exotic nature of Aleppian cooking compared to that of Damascus and the rest of Syria. Historically Aleppo was a flourishing commercial centre and with its location on the Silk Road ingredients, spices and indeed influences came from all over the world. Allepian food contains more spices compared to the Damascene salt and pepper. In addition it uses fruits in main dishes which is almost unheard of elsewhere in Syria or the rest of The Levant.

Example on the menu included Kebab Karaz (Cherry Kebab; grilled kebab in a sweet and sour cherry sauce with a sprinkle of Cinnamon on top), Kibbeh Safarjalieh (Kibbeh cooked with Quince and Pomegranate Paste) and Kibbeh Sumakieh (kibbeh with aubergine with Sumac sauce).

We ordered the excellent cherry kebab and a dish they called Lahmet Hanano which is baked lamp with warm tahini sauce. I really enjoyed the later but I knew I would before even tasting the dish as I am a big big fan of tahini. One thing I am still trying to figure out is how they managed to heat the tahini without curdling. If anybody have an answer please share your wisdom with me.

All in all, Al-Halabi is a very good restaurant serving excellent food but I can't say that they achieved the Michelin quality cooking I was hoping for. So the search is still on for that special restaurant or chef that can elevate traditional Syrian cooking that little extra notch.

Syrian cuisine on the net

For anyone who doesn't know much about Syrian cuisine and interested to know more, I collected few Internet links. Unfortunately Syrian food is very poorly advertised and it is not the easiest of tasks to find proper resources about the subject. This is a collection of pages I visited in the past:

Paul' Travel Blog. Although I don't agree with few things he mentioned in the blog but it is a general look of what a tourist could eat in Syria

Wikipedia. Very poor page. It is my next task to improve this page.

Food Safari. nice page about Syrian food.

And a couple of books for you:

Modern Mezze by Anissa Helou

Shawerma, a personal journey.

This post is almost a year late. I first thought of starting this blog only to write this post.

On my last Holiday in Syria I went to eat shawerma with Mazen one of my best friends. He told me that Abo Fayyad the (almost historic figure) famous shawerma chef is working in a new shop in Mazzeh, Sheikh Saad, and they are selling shawerma sandwiches the old way.

We went there and to my great surprise it wasn't Abo Fayyad standing in front of the spit. It was his brother Abo Hisham. When I was in high school and all the way through Medical school I had hundreds if not over a thousand of sandwiches (I promise you I am not exaggerating) made by Abo Hisham. Although the two men made almost an identical sandwich it was only Abo Hisham for me, may be because of his pleasant personality and the fact he always called me "Doctor".

The shawrema sandwich those guys made looked like the primitive ancestor of the shawerma you can buy today in Damascus. It was bigger, the bread was thicker and the sauce was so runny they needed to put the sandwich in a tiny plastic bag so you don't end up with fat and sauce all over your cloths. It was delicious, nevertheless. The sandwich was the norm at that time. All the shops in Sheikh Saad (the shawerma destination in Damascus at the time) sold it to thousands of happy punters every evening till the early hours of the morning.

This sandwich is all but extinct now. It was replaced by the Medan (the current shawerma destination joint with Al-Qusoor Sq.) model. The thick bread from government run bakery has been replaced with much thinner "touristic" bread wrapped in another paper-thin-crisp-as-you-like Saj bread. The runny sauce is all gone and here comes stronger tasting garlic mayo sauce. The sandwich is more sophisticated and way better looking so it was only a matter of time till this format took over.

The cause of my beloved older shawerma version was not helped by the development of the Sheikh Saad area and the difficult nature of Abo Fayyad. After the two brothers moved from their original shops they never settled. It was a matter of few months before either the shop being knocked down or Abo Fayyad breaking up with his business partner.

As you can tell, shawerma had a great place in my heart (and a huge impact on my waist line). It was fantastic to eat a sandwich made be Abo Hisham exactly as it was ten years ago.