One Hundred and One Mezze: 1.Keshkeh Khadra

One of the reasons I started this blog was to show that there is more to Syrian food than Grilled meat and Mezze. So my main focus was to move away from the stereotypes and write about delicious, but little known outside a Syrian household, dishes. Nevertheless, Mezze is an integral part of Syrian cuisine and it deserves a place on my blog.

I am going to write a series of posts on different Mezze dishes. I set my self the silly target of one hundred and one recipes. I am not sure why 101 but it sounds good first of all. Secondly, I am sure I read somewhere that there is more than 400 types of Mezze. True or not, I think I should manage a quarter of that number.

Mezze (Maza as pronounced in Syria) strictly speaking means any food served next to alcohol, being some nuts in a bowl or something way more sophisticated. Usually small portions in small dishes. The term we use for all these small dishes when served next to BBQ or before your main is "Muqabelat". Literally means appetisers.

To start my series I chose my absolute favourite and the least known of all Mezze dishes: Keshkeh Khadra.

Keshkeh (or Kishk, Kishkah, ... etc) is a fermented mixture of grain and yogurt. The mixture is then dried and ground to a flour like powder. There is several ways you can use dry keshkeh. My favourite is a nice warming bowl of soup in a cold winter evening.

That was the dry variety. The dish I am talking about today is the fresh variety. "Khadra" in the name means green, to indicate freshness rather than colour. To prepare this dish you need to mix your ingredients and let the flavours develop over three days. As you can imagine it is lots of hassle for a tiny Mezze dish. I usually prepare a large patch, divide it into portions and freeze it. When I get it out of the freezer I freshen it with a spoon of yogurt then add my fresh ingredients.

Keshkeh Khadra

Bulgar Wheat
Red onion
Olive oil

To make your keshkeh you need to mix the Bulgar and the yogurt in a bowl. Start with 1 bulgar to 2 yogurt ratio. You will need to add more yogurt later and you will likely end up with 1:3. Cover and leave in a cool place overnight. Mix well in the morning and add more yogurt as the bulgar would have absorbed all the moisture. Cover and put in the fridge. Every twelve hours or so you need to mix, add a bit more yogurt, cover and return to the fridge. You need to repeat this for about three days till the flavour develop. The final consistency need to be similar to Mutabal (thinner than Hummus).

When your keshkeh mixture is ready, take a portion size. Mix with 1 table spoon fine chopped onion, 1 table spoon chopped parsley and 1 table spoon crushed walnuts. The flavour is very delicate so go easy on the salt or don't use any even.

Spread on a plate. Drizzle some olive oil and enjoy.

Ice cream van!!!! what a great idea!

On Tuesday The Daily Mail brought us a world wide exclusive news story. A story that will make any right wing, xenophobic, supremist institute like The Mail and its readers so proud.

Two brothers from Essex have introduced Dubai to the great concept of putting some ice cream in a vehicle and go around town to sell it. What an original idea! How enterpreunial those Essex boys are! Those Middle Eastern people will never think of something so creative. "the van is even starting to bring together the different nationalities which make up the country, providing them with a meeting place" the older brother said.

"This is the first ice cream van in Dubai and possibly the Middle East"

This last sentence annoyed me so much I was all geared up to write a 5000 words essay on the subject. Lucky you, I spent the next few hours on google looking for a certain photo I needed but I couldn't find it. Now I have to wait till I get a copy of that photo from Syria. So expect more on the subject some time in the near future.

Nevertheless, I thought I should still have a quick rant about my beloved Daily Mail.

Two course meal under a fiver

The Guardian has recently published few credit crunch recipe specials. They got couple of celebrity chefs to cook two course meal for two under a fiver. They got so much flak from readers that the recipes were unimaginative, expensive, unhealthy ... etc

The Guardian decided to put the ball back in the readers court. They asked readers on their Word of Mouth food blog to come up with a menu themselves to see if they can do better than the celeb chefs. Take some photos and the best ones might get published in G2.

I decided to submit a Syrian inspired menu. It was such a hard task as you need to buy everything from scratch. Olive oil alone will eat up half of your budget.

I decided to cook Foul Salad(Broad Bean) for starter. This is Foul Ma'alla ("fried" Foul) with a twist. The main is Mujaddara(Bulgar wheat and lentils pilaf). I added a non-Syrian chilli sauce to pour on top. I got the idea from the Egyptian dish Kushari. For those who don't know, Kushari is a "poor man" dish consists of rice and lentils pilaf, boiled pasta, fried onions and chilli sauce on top. I personally prefer to "Syrianise" it and use Bulgar instead of rice.

All the ingredients used are Tesco standard range (some items are Value range) bought on Sunday. Here is the pricing:

Bulgar wheat 80p
Lentils 70p
Olive oil 250mls bottle 120p (the cheapest I could find)
Frozen Broad beans 100p
Onion 20p
Garlic 20p
Lemon 20p
Tomato paste 30p
Coriander 30p

All totaling 4.90£

The optional yogurt is not included but could be another 50 p

Starter: Foul Salad (Broad beans)
Frozen broad beans 400g
Yogurt 100g (optional)
Coriander chopped 1tbs
Garlic 1 clove crushed
Olive Oil

Boil water in a pan and add the frozen beans. Bring back to the boil and cook for two minutes. Transfer the beans to cold water to stop the cooking process and preserve their colour.

In a frying pan heat two table spoons of olive oil till very hot. Drop the coriander and garlic and remove immediately from heat. This will flavour the oil and take off the edge of the garlic. Add the mixture to the broad beans and squeeze half a lemon. Mix with yogurt and drizzle some olive oil.

Main: Mujaddara (Bulgar Wheat and Lentils Pilaf) with Chili sauce:
Green Lentils 150g
Bulgar Wheat 300g
One Large onion
Garlic two cloves
Olive Oil
Chilli powder 1tbs
Tomato paste 1tbs
Vinegar 1tbs

Finely slice half the onion and fry in olive oil till brown and crispy. Remove half the fried onion and dry on kitchen paper to sprinkle on top. Keep the rest of the onion and the oil for later.

Soak the Bulgar wheat in cold water for 20 minutes. Boil two cups of water on a pan and add the lentils. Let cook for 10 minutes till start to soften the add the Bulgar wheat and a tea spoon of salt. Bring back to boil then reduce the heat and cook for 15-20 minutes. Add more boiling water if necessary. Add the olive oil and fried onion mixture 5 minutes before ready and mix well. Cooking time and water amount varies a lot depending on the type and coarseness of the wheat. Try to follow the pack instructions. Cover and let steam.

For the chilli sauce chop the other half of the onion and sweat over medium heat in olive oil. Finely slice the garlic and add to the soft onion. Add the tomato paste and chilli powder and cook for few minutes. Add 1 cup of boiling water, salt, vinegar and squeeze some lemon to taste. Let simmer for 15 - 20 minutes till the sauce is thick.

Serve the Mujaddara with fried onion on top with the chilli sauce.

The paper came out today, my menu didn't make it. Maybe, I should have cooked pasta afterall!

Mutabal and Baba Ghanoush: Which is Which?

Gastrogeek, a fellow food blogger, published a recipe of Bengali Moussaka. A small discussion followed her post confirmed a long standing theory I have that people outside Damascus, Arabs and Westerners alike, don't know the difference between Mutabal and Baba Ghanoush. Even Wikipedia puts them under one title.

Being a man of science I decided not to accept anecdotal evidence from my discussion and put my theory to scientific scrutiny (If I was going to accept anecdotal evidence I would be selling herbs, Riekei, homeopathy, reflexology or some other kind of nothing-to-do-with-science-or-even-therapy-hocous-pocus-kind-of-rubbish).

So, I took a random sample of two groups of restaurants through a google search:
1. Restaurant in Syria or Syrian restaurants overseas (n=14).
2. Other Levantine restaurants outside Syria (n=13).
Since both dishes are Syrian, I set my study criteria that correct Syrian terminology should be used.
I checked the menu in each of these restaurants and recorded if they got their Mutabal/Baba Ghanoush right or wrong.
The results came back as group one got it right in 92% of the cases while group two in only 46%.
But is it a coincidence or do I have true results? I applied t-Test to my results and the two group showed a significant statistical difference with a P value=0.0085.

Hoorah!! My theory is proven (and my very boring on-call shift is about to finish). In case you are wondering what the hell was that last paragraph about, this is the kind of stuff I have to read on daily basis. I thought I will share the joy.

So after all of this what is the difference between the two? Both these dishes have the same main ingredient, smoky baked aubergine, but that where similarities end. Mutabal is the one with yogurt, Tahini and Garlic. Baba Ghanoush is the one with pomegranate molasses, tomatoes, parsley and walnuts.

Aubergine for both dishes is traditionally cooked in an unorthodox way. You put the aubergine whole directly on open flame and you cook it till it is charred on the outside and soft on the inside. This gives the dish its characteristic smokiness. No other method of cooking can give you that exact flavour. I tested my friend method and cooked my aubergine on the halogen hub. It actually works. Not as smoky but very close.

After you cook the aubergine, cover with cling film for 20-30 minutes. Remove the charred skin, it should come off easily, then mash the aubergine with a fork.

Add the rest of your ingredients and season to taste. There is no exact amount to the rest of the ingredients. Add more or less to get a taste you like. Spread on a plate and drizzle with olive oil.

I hope I answered the question once and for all.

Don't Eat Your Greens

That was the dietry advice in tenth century Egypt. And being the tenth century, not following that advice didn't result in Gillian McKeith going through your poo. It resulted in flogging and public shaming.

Egypt at the time was ruled by eccentric (polite for barking mad) Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah the sixth Fatimid caliph. He issued a number of arbitrary laws that were getting weirder and more eccentric as years goes by.He tried to prevent women from going out so he banned shoemakers from making women shoes. Christian were only allowed to ride horses if the saddles were wooden and undecorated. He banned fishermen from catching any fish that had no scales and forbade people from selling or eating such fish. And to our subject, he banned watercress, rocket and most importantly Mulukhiyah the national and favourite dish of Egypt. Egyptians loved Mulukhiyah since the dawn of time. It was even mentioned in Pharaohs texts.

Nobody really knows why he banned Mulukhiyah. Some people claim that it was the favourite dish of Mu'awya ibn Abi Sufyan the archenemy and hate figure of Shiaa Muslims. Some say greens are sheep and cattle food and eating them will bring human intelligence to the level of livestock. Some theory goes that Mulukhiyah is a strong aphrodisiac and by banning it he was trying to cut promiscuity. We in Damascus have a theory/urban legend to explain it. Although the theory is funny, it is offensive and un-PC so I will leave it out.

Mulukhiyah (Mlukhyeh as we Syrians pronounce it, Jute Mallow or Jew's Mallow in English) is a green leaf vegetable with a distinct bitter taste. To me, it has the most distinct and unusual flavour compared to any other Middle Eastern ingredient. It has a natural thickening agent that could turn unpleasantly slimy if not cooked properly. In Syria we never break the leaves or leave any stalks to avoid that.

Mulukhiyah with rabbit is Egypt top dish. Mulukhiyah leaves are very finally chopped and cooked is soup-like stew. In Syria and the rest of the Levant it is a firm favourite. We cook it with chicken and the leaves used whole. The leaves are used fresh or they can be dried or frozen to be used out of season.

In London it is almost impossible to find Mulukhiyah fresh. You can get the dry leaves from Middle Eastern supermarkets. I get mine from Damas Gate in Shepherd's Bush. Don't even touch the frozen variety as you will end up with a big lump of slime.

Here is my recipe for Mulukhiyeh Syrian style:

Dry Mulukhiyah 100g packet
Chicken breast on the bone (bones for added flavour to the stock if available)
Garlic 8 cloves
Coriander chopped 1 table spoon
Chicken Stock 1 cube
Small onion or two shallots
Salt and pepper

Soak Mulukhiyah leaves in plenty of cold water for two hours.

Cover the chicken breast with water and bring to boil skimming the water to get clear stock. When water reach boiling point reduce heat to simmer and add coarsely chopped onion and the stock cube. Cook till the chicken is fully cooked then remove from stock.

Drain the mulukhiyah leaves and wash them. That will get rid of the slime. Add the leaves to the stock and cook. Peel and half five garlic cloves and add them to the pot. Remove the chicken meat, shred it and add it to the pot. Continue cooking till the mulukhiya is cooked. It should take 20 - 30 min and will keep some bite. There is no right and wrong to the amount of stock in the finished dish. I like mine fairly dry. Crush the rest of the garlic and add with the coriander and cook for a final 3 minutes.

Serve with a sprinkle of dry chilli and squeeze of lemon. You can serve it hot with Vermicelli rice or room temperature with Arabic bread.

Home Vs. Restaurant

Yesterday on Syria News Wire Sasa wrote a post about four articles published in The Times travel pages this weekend about Syria. I was really happy as it shows time is changing and Syria is coming back on to the front of tourists' distentions where it deserves to be. It shows that western tourists can see beyond the American State Department propaganda.

So, I was reading happily on my fourth article till this sentence came a long "Food in Syria is tasty and cheap but monotonous. By day five you’ve had enough of flatbread and hoummos". Well, first I was offended and I my thoughts went something like this: "what an ignorant and ill-informed statement", "Did I really expect anything good to come out of The Times", " Why would anybody think like this?"..... " Does she have a point?"

It got me thinking. And like all life mysteries all you need to do is google it. And That what I did. I googled Syrian Food and I discovered that the "awful, right wing Times" are not alone. Something along the line "what Syrian food lakes in diversity, It makes it up in taste" is written on some ecotourism website. And then this nice article on Food and Wine website. The writer spent two years in Syria reporting for the New York Times. She thought at the time, as her words go, "the food as rather dull. Hummus and platters of the grilled chicken dish shish tawuk seemed to be on every restaurant menu".

I always pride myself with the diversity of our cuisine. There is so much to choose between from simple Falafel sandwich on a street stall to a complex Kibbeh dish that will take the best of two days to prepare. We use all kind of fresh vegetables cooked with or without meat. There is rice dishes, Bulgar dishes, tomato based stews, stuffed vegetables, yogurt dishes ... and the list goes on and on. So where did this monotonous idea come from?

The food we eat in restaurants have very little to do with what we eat at home or what is our cuisine all about. The vast majority of restaurant serves the usual Mezzeh and Grills combo but this is a very small part of the cuisine. Tiny part in fact. This is not only a Syrian problem. Same applies to Lebanese restaurant in and outside Lebanon. You can hardly find one or two interesting dishes in any of these restaurants.

I am not sure why there is this split in the Levantine cuisine. I always thought that the fact we all live in flats is to blame. I am not sure if this theory is true or not but I know that having BBQ in Damascus is almost impossible outside a restaurant. Getting smoke coming out of your sixth floor balcony is totally unacceptable. So when you go out for a meal every once in a while you wouldn't mind, actually you would love some smokey meat with some Hommus on the side. But if you are a foreigner and you have to eat it every single day things get dull indeed.

Going back to my New York Times lady, she discovered after few days with Anissa Helou between Damascus and Aleppo preparing for her culinary tour that there is so much to Syrian food beyond bread and hommus. All you need to do is to look a bit beyond what is directly in front of your eyes.

I am going to stop here. I must have bored your heads off by now . I will make it up for you all with a nice recipe this weekend. I promise.

Syrian Pasta

Although we Syrians invented pasta (I am no food historian, but every time I read an article about pasta it says that Arabs invented pasta and introduced it to Italy, and if an Arab invented it he must have been Syrian) our traditional use of pasta is very limited. I am not talking about what we do with pasta today. Italian restaurants serving all kinds of pasta are all over Damascus. Even my mum generation cooked different types of pasta. We had lasagna, cannelloni and spaghetti bolognese as part of our normal diet when I was a kid. Here I am talking about what my grandma did with pasta. How pasta was cooked in Damascene houses thirty or forty years ago for a nice supper or a filling Suhor in Ramadan.

Pasta or Ma'ccarona (معكرونة) as we call it in Syria is traditionally cooked three ways: Ma'ccarona Be Lahmeh(with meat), Ma'ccarona Be Jebneh(with cheese) or Ma'ccarona Bel Laban(with yogurt). The meat variety is nothing special, pasta cooked in bolognese ragu, nothing much to say there.

The cheese and yogurt variety are far more interesting. They are really Syrian dishes. We took a foreign ingredient and made it our own by adding Syrian tried and tested flavours. The combination of white cheese and parsley or yogurt and garlic are unmistakably Syrian and works very well indeed.

Start these dishes with boiled Penne. For the cheese pasta you need your pasta well cooked. Al dente will make the dish too dry. For the yogurt pasta use your preference. You need 350g of dry pasta for either one of these recipes.

Ma'ccarona Be Jebneh
White cheese 200g
Parsley finally chopped 50g
Purified Ghee butter 1 table spoon
Black pepper

Finally chop the cheese. Use a combination of different types of Arabic white cheese for best results. Different types of cheese have different texture, flavour and melting temperature. Use whatever cheese available to you. Akawi, Sheelal, Mjadaleh, Baladi or Haloumi can be bought from any Arabic supermarket in London.

Melt the butter in a pan and add the pasta with the rest of ingredients and keep stirring so the pasta doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. You can add a couple of table spoons of the pasta cooking water. Keep stirring till the cheese start to melt and serve immediately. Be a bit generous with your black pepper as it lefts the flavours.

Ma'ccarona Bel Laban
Greek style yogurt 400g
Three cloves of garlic
Purified Ghee butter 1 table spoon

Melt the butter in a pan and add the pasta and keep stirring till the pasta heated through. Remove into a bowl and let cool slightly so the yogurt doesn't curdle with the heat.

Mix the yogurt and crushed garlic and add salt to taste. Pour the mixture over the pasta and mix Sprinkle the paprika and serve.