Narenj restauant review

An excellent review of Narenj restaurant in Damascus Old City by The Epicurean complete with Bible Act about Via Recta (Straight St. or Medhat Basha St. as we call it in Damascus). Go there and read it. Very interesting read.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 6. Baba Ghanoush

Don't confuse this with Mutabal. I invested hours of my life researching the two dishes and I hope I managed to clear the question as which is which.

Again I do apologise for repeating this recipe but as with Mutabal this is a very common question I get asked all the time. Regarding the spelling, the one I used seems to be the most widely used world wide. In Syria we pronounce it with "J" at the end, Baba Ghanouj, but for the benefit of non Arabic speaking readers I decided to use the spelling adopted by Wikipedia for all my posts. This will make it easier to google if needed.

Baba Ghanoush is an aubergine based mezze. Pomegranate Molasses gives it a nice sweet and sour fruity flavour. This dish is best served next to kibbeh. It works very well with grilled kibbeh as it offers a nice contrast to the fatty spicy stuffing of the kibbeh.

Here is my recipe:

Aubergine one medium sized
Pomegranate Molasses 1tbs
Walnuts chopped 2tbs
Parsley chopped 2tbs
Tomato one small

Start by placing the aubergine whole directly on open flame and cook it till it is charred on the outside and soft on the inside. Turn around every few minutes so it is charred all over. This method gives the dish its characteristic smokiness. No other way of cooking can give you that exact flavour. Grilling in the oven doesn't work but you can put your aubergine directly on electric or halogen hub. The cooking process should take 15-20 minutes.

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.

Chop the tomato finely and add with the rest of the ingredients to the aubergine. Mix well and drizzle with olive oil.

You can adjust the quantities of the ingredients as desired.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 5. Mutabal

Mutabal and Baba Ghanoush are the two most common recipes I get asked about, so I decided to re-publish how to make Mutabal in a proper recipe post rather than my previous "scientific paper" post.

Along with Hummus, this is the most common Mezze dish. You will see it on every table in every Syrian restaurant. The dish basis is char grilled aubergine. This gives Mutabal its characteristic smokey flavour that works a treat with BBQ.

There are some variations to this dish. You can use deep fried aubergine instead of the grilled one. This is as delicious but could be a bit oily if the aubergines are the large variety you can buy in the UK supermarkets.

The other main ingredient in this dish is Tahini. For those who don't know it, it is sesame seed paste. You can buy it from middle Eastern shops as well as large supermarkets.

Here is my recipe:

Olive Oil

Start by placing the aubergine whole directly on open flame and cook it till it is charred on the outside and soft on the inside. Turn around every few minutes so it is charred all over. This method gives the dish its characteristic smokiness. No other way of cooking can give you that exact flavour. Grilling in the oven doesn't work but you can put your aubergine directly on electric or halogen hub. The cooking process should take 15-20 minutes.

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 the ingredients. There is no exact amounts, add more or less till you get the taste you like. I use equal amount of tahini and yogurt.

Drizzle with olive oil and serve.

Syrian Cheese Cake

Thia is my first crack on making sweets for the blog. I am not a desert kind of cook. And I am not a good baker even. This partly because I have some kind of mental illness preventing me from following recipes. I just can't help to change any recipe I am attempting I add stuff, change things around and I don't do measuring cups. This could be detrimental to some delicate dough recipes. But hey what can I do, it is an illness after all!!

So, if you come from such poor abilities like myself you would attempt something safe first. NO! Not me unfortunately. I decided to create something totally from my imagination. I wanted to make cheese cake but I wanted to make it as Syrian as I can which was a challenge.

To make it Syrian I looked for inspiration from our sweets. There is very few cheese based Syrian sweets: Kenafeh Nabulsiyeh (Cheese Kenafeh), Katyef Be Jebneh (Cheese stuffed pan cakes , fried and dipped in sugar syrup) and Halwet Jeben. The first two didn't offer me any ideas but the third gave me some hope.

Halawet Jeben is a specialty sweet of Hama, a small city in central Syria. It is a sweet dough made from sugar, cheese and semolina. This is stuffed with cream, rolled and cut into bite size pieces. The dough is stiffer than what you would expect is cheese cake but that can be adapted.

Biscuit base was my next challenge as I decided against using the traditional base. Instead I thought Filo pastry is the perfect replacement. It can't get more Syrian than that. Almost 90% of Syrian sweets are made of it.

Choosing cheese was not a problem. Akawi was the obvious and only option. This cheese is used for all the above mentioned sweets. Akawi is a white cheese with low salt content, melts very well and doesn't have a strong flavour which makes it ideal for sweets making. The nearest tasting cheese is the dry mozzarella that you use for pizza. Although Akawi has a low salt content it still need to be de-salted before use in sweets.

Finally for the dish to receive the Syrian seal of authenticity, I added a splash of orange blossom water (Ma' Zahher is Arabic).

Here is my recipe:

Milk 500ml
Double Cream 200ml
Sugar 175g
Semolina 150g
Orange Blossom Water 2tbs
Akawi Cheese 500g
Filo Pastry 6 large sheets
Icing sugar

If you are using frozen pastry make sure it is defrosted in advance.

Slice the cheese into 5mm thick slices. Put in a big bowl and under running water for 30 minutes to wash the salt away. Change the water completely every few minutes. The cheese should lose most of its saltiness. Drain.

Heat the oven to 160c.

In a pot add the milk, cream and sugar stir while heating till all the sugar has melted. Add the semolina and orange blossom water. Before boiling point add all the cheese and whisk till all the melted cheese is mixed in. Take of the heat and keep whisking for few minutes till it is smooth and well mixed.

Melt the butter and brush the base and edges of a 24cm (9inch) springform cake tin. Arrange your Filo pastry sheets so half of it is inside the tin and the rest out side to be fold on top. Make sure the pastry covers the whole tin(photo above right). You need to brush every layer with butter to stick in place.

Tip the cheese mixture. Wrap the Filo sheets on top in a random wrinkled pattern (photo). Again brush with butter.

Bake in the oven for one hour till nice and golden. Let cool down for few hours then put in the fridge over night.

Dust with icing sugar and enjoy.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 4. Artichoke Salad

Artichoke is one of these things most people don't know what to do with. You don't know how to start, what is edible and what is not, preparing is awkward and when it is all cleaned and prepared what to do next? This last one is easy, boil it and serve it with butter or mayo or any other sauce like to dip the leaves in. Is that it? There must be another way of eating this thing.

To start, if you don't want the hassle buy it in a jar. Chose a good quality one and pay a bit more. The vegetable take ages to prepare and get flown hundreds of miles. This costs money, so Tesco Valeu 99p tin is definitely rubbish. Don't go there.

I buy mine in a jar not because I can't be asked, but because I prefer the Syrian artichoke to the European variety. Although the same plant, ours is less sour, more flavoursome and more earthy. I am not sure why, may be because of the soil or temperature or whatever... I am no farmer so I don't have a clue.In Syria we only eat the hearts and we throw everything else away, leaves, stem.. the lot. All to the bin!

You can buy Syrian artichoke in London in Damas Gate supermarket in Shepherd's Bush.

Salad is my favourite way of eating artichoke. It really showcase the unique flavour of artichoke. You can eat it as starter, mezze dish or slap a piece of meat of any kind and you got yourself a main dish. I imagine veal scallop with a squeeze of lemon will work very well with this salad.

Here is the recipe:

5-6 Artichoke hearts from jar
Garlic one clove
Half a small Red Onion
2-3 Tomatoes
Parsley 3tbs chopped
Olive oil 1-2tbs

Make a dressing with olive oil, lemon juice and crushed garlic.

Wash the artichoke to get rid of the salt. Cut into bite size pieces. finely chop the red onion and chop the tomato. Add the parsley and and the dressing and mix well.

Eat and Drink in Damascus, What the Lonely Planet left out

On the plane in my last two trips to Syria, Western to Syrian passengers ratio was more than 8:2. On both occasions not a single free seat on the plane. I can't explain how happy this makes me. Since 2005 Syria has been in a relative isolation. The Bush administration stupid strategy of "you are with us or against us" leading to class Syria within the Access of Evil really damaged Syria's image in the West. Over these few years Syria has been unfairly represented in Western Media leading to further stigmatising the image of the country.

Now this tide has turned. Western visitors tourists and politicians alike are queuing to visit the country. Tourism is on an all time high and the country's image in the media and people minds has significantly improved. Positive articles and reports of beaming tourism are published almost every week on the BBC website. A quick search of the national papers travel pages over the last year showed 7 articles in the Guardian, 6 in The Times, couple in the Independent and the Telegraph and even the awful Daily Mail published 5 articles since the turn of 2009. Even Jamie Oliver's magazine featured Damascus and Beirut in its third issue.

This high rise of tourists influx into the country was not matched with a much needed improvement in tourist information. For the Western visitor information on the net or on print is rare and hardly reliable. The leading traveller's guide to Syria remains The Lonely Planet. Every other person including myself is carrying the blue book in the Old City. Typically everybody is doing what the book is telling them to. This is most obvious in Laila's restaurant case. The place got major praise from the guide and when I went there everybody inside was a tourist. To my great disappointment the place was awful. Food is cold and tasteless, service is slow and the dining room (inside yard) was cold and uninviting.

That disappointment brought this post. If you don't know where to eat in Damascus hopefully you will look here and get some ideas. These places are not all for the average two days visitor. Some of them need a special trip and some are only for the most adventurous of gourmets but all of them are local favourites. Here is my pick of the best food in Damascus:

1. Narenj: To me this is by far the best restaurant in Damascus. They serve a very good collection of modern Syrian dishes. Their menu show case some local specialties from different regions of Syria. You would never have the chance to sample these dishes if not for this place. What makes this restaurant a cut over the rest apart from the great food is the attention to details. The restaurant is located in the middle of Medhat Basha St. (Straight Street) By the Roman arch.

2. Fateyer Al-Shaalan: Although there is hundreds of Fatayer ovens all over the city this one remains the locals favourite. They serve all the usual Pizza-like breads with different toppings. The place may not be easy to find, the best place to get there is taking a taxi to Al-Shaalan and wounder about to see the "Tanabel" market (Lazybones market) where all vegetables are ready prepared and wrapped in individual plastic bags ready for the pot, Fatayer Al-Shaalan is around the corner. Check the photos below and I am sure you will make the trip.

3. Bouz Al-Jedi: Don't let the shabby exterior fool you. The place is always packed with the full spectrum of the Syrian society, from workers and builders to arty-type Higher Institute of Theatre students. The place serves Foul and Fatteh. If you don't know what these are, watch this space I will be writing about them soon. The restaurant in Al-Shaalan around the corner the Fatayer place.

4. Midan Jazmatiyeh: This is foodies heaven in Damascus. The street is lined start to finish with food shops and restaurants selling all kinds of stuff. Arabic sweets in shop windows in huge 5ft piles. Cheese, olive, Falafel, Shawerma, Fatayer, grills, camel meat kebab all in one place, you will never know how to start and where to finish. The place is open day and night but don't go there before 10 in the evening when it is busiest and most atmospheric. The next two places are in this street.

5. Al-Mouselli Shwerma: I will let you read what Tim Franks from the BBC wrote:
"Two unreservedly happy memories. I ate the best shawarma I think I will ever have... It came from al-Mousali, a road-side emporium with a few plastic chairs, in the Jazmatiyeh district of Damascus. The meat was beef, unusually. It was as flavoursome as the roast at the Savoy Grill. It came in a delicate sauce of sour pomegranate. It was wrapped in evanescently thin laffa bread, and came with fresh vegetables and tankards of just-squeezed fruit juice."
6. Mahabeh, Midan Al-Sham and others: These places are not for the faint hearted. These various size restaurants are located at the start of Al-Jazmatiyeh St. They specialise in all kinds of offal dishes as well as the usual kebabs. Food range from the absolutely gorgeous to bloody awful depend on how far can you go. Here you can sample Sej'aat (rice stuffed lamb intestines), brains sandwiches, trotters or the all time "classic" of testicles and spinal cord fatayer. This Syrian style "Nose to Tail" eating.

7. Al-Halabi Restaurant: Although this restaurant was in the Lonely Planet, I couldn't leave it out. It is the place of a very special evening. The poshest ( and priciest restaurant in Damascus) located in the Four Seasons Hotel. Read my review here.

All photos are courtesy of my friend Tammam, Thank you.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 3. Chicken Livers with Garlic and Coriander

If you a vegetarian look away now!!

Today's mezze dish is Kebdeh Mtajaneh. Kebdeh means liver and Mtajaneh means cooked in a Tajine which is totally bizarre since we don't have tajine in Syria either physically or even as a cooking concept, but here we go, that is what is called.

So what is that Kebdeh Mtajaneh? In English, it is Liver with Garlic and Coriander. The dish traditionally is cooked with lamb liver but I personally much prefer chicken liver so you chose your favourite. Another change from the classic is the addition of red chilli which I find left up the flavours and adds a nice contrast to the mellow flavours of chicken liver.

This dish can be eaten as a starter or part of mezze collection but it is as good with warm arabic bread as a nice supper

Here is the recipe:

Chicken Liver 300g
Olive oil
Garlic one clove, crushed
Red Chilli one, chopped
Coriander one table spoon, chopped

Wash the chicken liver and dry gently on a kitchen paper.

In a pan heat 2 table spoon of olive oil. Add the chilli, liver and garlic and cook on high heat. Add the coriander two minutes from the end and season with salt and pepper. The whole cooking process should take no longer than 5 - 7 minutes. You want the liver to be just done. Cooking on high heat will seal the juices inside the liver and will come out nice and tender.

Serve with a squeeze of lemon.

Cherry Kebab

Aleppian cooking differs significantly from that of Damascus and the rest of Syria. Aleppian food is far more exotic and richly flavored. 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. Aleppian food contains more spices compared to the Damascene salt and pepper. In addition it shows signs of influence from nearby Turkey, Iraq and Persia and some distant land as far away as India. One of the Aleppian cuisine characteristics is the use of fruits in main dishes which is almost unheard of elsewhere in Syria or the rest of The Levant.

Cherry Kebab (Kebab Karaz in Arabic), Aleppo's most famous dish symbolise everything that is unique about cooking is that ancient city. First of all, it is a kebab and Aleppo is the kebab capital of the world. Then it is rich, strongly flavoured, sweet and sour and uses the glorious cherry fruit. In Syria a special kind of sour cherry is used for this dish. Trying to find sour cherries in London proved to be a nightmare so I abandoned the attempt and cooked with sweet cherries instead. This worked fine actually, the colour was not as purple dark as the original but fine tuning the amount of sugar, pomegranate molasses and lemon created a very authentic taste. Even my wife thought the cherry kebab I cooked tasted better than the one we eat in Syria! Baby you are so sweet!

Here is my recipe: for 2

Lean minced lamb 400g
Cherries 500g
Small onion
Pomegranate molasses 2tbs
Sugar 1-2 tea spoon
Pine nuts 30g
Ghee clarified butter 1tbs
Cinnamon 1 tea spoon
Khobez (Arabic flat bread) 2

Start by very finely chopping the onion (use food processor for easier and much better results). Mix the meat, onion, one tea spoon of salt and half a tea spoon black pepper. Check your seasoning by frying a small piece of the meat. Put the meat in the fridge for an hour. This will make it easier to shape the kebab. Take the chilled meat and form into one inch size balls with wet hands to give a smooth surface. Arrange on a tray and bake for 15-20 minutes under the grill or in a very hot oven. Don't over cook it as it will dry up. I like my kebab just done.

Add the pitted and halved cherries to a large heavy bottom pot with cup of water, pomegranate molasses, Cinnamon, squeeze of lemon and sugar. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 20-30 minutes. Stir frequently squashing some of the cherries to release flavour and thicken the sauce.

Remove the meat balls when done and add the meat juices in the tray to the cherries for a richer sauce.

Fry the pine nuts in the Ghee butter till nice and golden. Remove most of the pine nuts to sprinkle on top of the finished dish. Add the remaining nuts with the Ghee butter to the cherry sauce and stir well.

When the sauce is ready add the meat balls and simmer for another 10 minutes.

Cut the Arabic bread into triangles and open the two layers of the bread. Arrange the bread in the serving plate with the pointy edges outwards and sprinkle with cinnamon. Spoon the kebab and sauce over the bread, sprinkle the pine nuts and serve immediately.

P.S. I started writing this post three weeks ago when I discovered that Anissa Helou the great food writer has published a recipe on her blog. I decided to publish my recipe a bit later. Today I discovered that Louise from Just Add Maple Syrup has published a recipe last week. Regardless I decided to publish mine. So now you have not one but three recipes for the same dish published within a month (it is cherry season so no surprises there). Chose whichever recipe you like or even mix and match but make sure you try this dish, you won't regret it!