Food From the Levant

Sorry I am writing this a bit late but I am currently swamped with work, research and few extra-curricular activities not running smoothly these days. Whinge over!

As I mentioned in my last post, Michael Hanson chef and owner of The Hearth Pizzeria and Bake House has kindly invited me to help run a charity event in aid of Syria. Michael wanted to serve food that represents the true flavours of The Levant. We wanted it to be a relaxed chilled evening with delicious authentic dishes, lovely wine and beautiful music. 

The menu

To start, we served six mezze dishes with a beautiful freshly baked flat bread:

Green Keshkeh


Baba Ghanouch


Chicken Livers with Pomegranate Molasses

Hummus with Sujuk

Ful Ma'ala (green Fava beans with garlic and coriander)

In addition I was hoping to serve a second hummus dish topped with Ful for vegetarians. However on the day it turned out we had Turkish tinned white beans instead. So, with a bit of improvisation, we ended up cooking the beans then crushing them with salt, cumin, Turkish sun-dried red peppers paste (Muhammara), garlic and lemon juice. It worked a treat!

For main, we served roast leg of lamb with Freekeh and roast vegetables with "Arabic" spin. The latter was cumin, lemon, garlic and chopped parsley. 

For desert, Michael have made beautiful ice creams with true Levantine flavours, pistachios and rose.

The Experience

This was my first experience cooking in a professional setting to 45 paying costumers. I will have to say, I loved every minute of it. Tiring and hot at times but very rewarding. 

The restaurant as I mentioned is pizzeria with a beautiful food fired oven. Although we had a small hob in the preparation area most of the cooking was done in the oven, an unusual method for cooking Freekeh, Ful and chicken livers. It worked well however.

"Food from the Levant" charity event at The Hearth, Lewes

Master baker Michael Hanson chef and owner of The Hearth Pizzeria and Bake House in Lewes Sussex will be hosting a charity event featuring the best food and wine the Levant has to offer. £10 of every ticket will go directly to Hand in Hand for Syria Charity to support much needed food and medicine projects.

Michael has kindly invited me to join his kitchen for the evening. We will be serving a spread of unique and little known mezze dishes, slow cooked meats, flat breads and desert accompanied by artisan Lebanese wine and live Nay music.

So If you fancy trying some home style Syrian food, help those in need in Syria or a bit of both then please join us for a wonderful evening of food, wine and music.

Tickets are £45 (£10 goes directly to charity)
The Hearth Pizzeria

Sussex BN7 2LP


Chocolate Bar for Syria

Almost a year ago I was contacted by Paul, the man behind Cocoa Hernando, asking for ideas to develop a Syria inspired chocolate bar. I quickly surveyed my Facebook friends for the most "Syrian" flavour to go into a chocolate bar. We came up with a variety of flavours from pistachio nuts to rose petal jam. However the clear winner flavour was orange peel.

I fed these back to Paul but he had a much better idea than our collective twenty Syrian brains, milk chocolate with pomegranate molasses. Genius! I couldn't wait to taste it.

Unfortunately it wasn't meant to be. Although the initial experiments tasted good, I was told, the chocolate bar didn't work for a variety of reasons and ended up being replaced with dark chocolate with Damascene rose. The final product is a beautiful bar of chocolate. The rose smell and flavour is subtle and marries beautifully with some of the best dark chocolate I have ever had. Just the right amount of sweet and bitter.

This post has nothing to do with the fact my name has made a cameo appearance on the back cover of the bar as an imaginary stall holder from Damascus. I genuinely love this chocolate bar. Those of you who follow my blog know I hardly ever endorse a commercial product. I have a two fold test; the product need to be related to Syria somehow and I need to personally love it. This bar meets both. 

The second reason I am writing this post is that 10% of the profits of the Syria chocolate bar will be donated to a Syrian Humanitarian Appeal in association with the Philanthropy Club 

Now to the negatives, and they are small in comparison. This is a premium chocolate bar and it is priced accordingly, £5 for 70 grams of chocolate. Also there is a slight whiff of Orientalism about the whole thing which might rub some people the wrong way. Having said that, I would still happily spend the five pounds. In fact I will buy the whole range to try the next time I am in Selfridges. 

Syria bar is available to order online or can be purchased from Selfridges, Harvey Nichols or from Cocoa Hernando pop-up market stalls.

Potato Makmora, my style

Lamb shanks were a revelation the first time I tried them. Believe it or not  that was only 5 years or so ago. 

In Syria we don't cook Lamb shanks the way God intended. Instead we take the meat off the bone cut it into cubes and use it to cook stews. The cut is called Mozat (موزات). I assume it is from the Arabic word Mozeh which means banana. I assume because the the shape of the muscle resembles a tiny banana. (The last three sentences are completely made up. Most likely it has nothing to do with Banana)

I never tasted Mozat until I cooked that lamb shank for the first time.

My mum, bless her, hates meat. She would have been a vegetarian without a doubt if vegetarians were invented at that time. She can't touch raw meat of any form. My dad does all the meat handling and prep at our house. My mum would just push the stuff into the pan with spoon. Once cooked it doesn't get any better. She would only eat red meat if it is in its purest form without any sinew or any trace of fat, preferably without meat flavour or texture! 

I don't know if you have seen a boiled lamb shank. It has a gelatinous connective tissue that holds the muscle together. If my mum ever see this on her plate she wouldn't eat for a week. So needless to say we never ever had lamb shanks in our house.

Enough about that and back to the recipe. This is a simple dish of lamb, potato and onion. I add carrots for extra sweetness. Cooked nice and slow in a clay pot with salt, pepper and allspice. Melting in your mouth tender. It is by far my favourite lamb dish and a stable on my dinner party menu.

Here is my recipe for four:

Four lamb shanks
Two potatoes
One onion
Four carrots
Chicken stock 150 mls
Salt and pepper to taste
Allspice  1tsp

Start by roughly chopping the onion. Peel carrots and potatoes and cut into one inch cubes. Then into the clay pot. Onions at the bottom, lamb shanks, carrots and potato. Pour the chicken stock season generously with freshly ground black pepper and rock salt. Generously sprinkle the allspice over the meat and potatoes. Cover and into a cold oven.

I start the oven on 200c. After twenty minutes I turn in down to 165c and cook for three and a half hours. 

If you want to follow standard culinary procedure then brown the meat before adding to the pot. However I don't bother when I am cooking in a clay pot. The meat browns nicely as you can see in the picture.

Ramadan special: Iftar - Revisited

I first published this post five years ago. I read it today for the first time since then. It brought a tear to my eye remembering a time of peace and happiness in my Damascus. 

I decided to republish it as traffic to my blog triple in Ramadan form hungry readers looking for food inspirations. Since first posted I have cooked a lot of the dishes listed so I thought it will be helpful to update the post and embed all the links to save you the hassle. 

Ramadan is a month of peace and manic at the same time. The first day of fasting hits Damascus and the city goes into this form of transformation I find fascinating to watch. To understand what I am talking about all you need to do is watch Damascus over the period of 10 minutes around the Iftar meal. 

In the best of times driving in Syria is a risky business, so imagine being in the streets with a million or so drivers, all hungry, tired, severe nicotine deprivation, all trying to make their destination at the same minute. Ten minutes later and not a soul in the street. Millions of people around the city sitting with their family around Iftar tables. The atmosphere couldn't be more of peace, celebration and family.

Iftar (or Futoor as we call it in Syria) is the evening meal in Ramadan. Muslims fast during this month every day from sunrise to sunset. They refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex during these hours. Come the evening, they wait around tables full of all kinds of delicious food for the call to the evening prayers. Millions of hands move simultaneously to reach for that glass of water to break their fast.

Juice is a stable on any Iftar menu especially when Ramadan comes in Summer when you really need something to kill your thirst. Dates is another essential, it is the first thing Muslims should eat according to Islamic tradition.

After an empty stomach all day long you would want something soft and light to start your meal with. Soup (here and here) and Fatteh are the perfect starters to warm up your stomach in preparation for the delicious grub that coming its way.

Main dishes in Ramadan are no different to the usual food cooked outside the month but what make Iftar meal special is the wide variety of side dishes that line up the table. Salad and especially Fatoush is a must, so is Foul (broad bean salad) which is usually breakfast or supper dish outside Ramadan. Other sides on the menu are pastries (here, here and here), Sambosek and one of the many vegetarian cold dishes (here, here, here and here) we love in the Levant.

Sweets are more important in Ramadan than any other time. You really need some sugar to boost your blood glucose levels after a day of starvation. Filo pastry of some variation with Eshta (Arabic clotted cream) stuffing form the basis of most Ramadan sweets. Another Ramadan special is Na'eem (ناعم), a very large fried cracker (somewhat similar to Poppadoms) with a drizzle of sweet grape molasses.

Manic rush is done. Food is done. Syrian people then goes into their peaceful mood. They cosy up on sofas to enjoy a family night watching their favourite TV serial drama, Bab Al-Hara.

One Hundred and One Mezze: 31. Potato with garlic and coriander

Potato occupies an awkward spot in Syrian cuisine. 

It is not a true vegetables in the way we use vegetables in our cooking. We don't have the concept of meat and two veg. Instead vegetables are either cooked in some sort of a stew and served as a main or cooked in olive oil and served as a vegetarian side dish. Potato does not fit either. 

Potato is not our main source of carbohydrates. Rice and bulger occupy that spot. 

We don't use it to thicken soup. We don't use it as a pasty filler. We don't make hash brown with it... etc 

As a results potato is often neglected in many Syrian kitchen. I know many Syrian households that never used potato other than chips!

But look a bit under the surface and you would find amazing uses of the humble spud. One of my favourite dishes of all time is my chicken and potato bake with garlic, lemon and oil. Another favourite of mine is a simple breakfast dish of boiled eggs, boiled potato, salt and pepper swimming in olive oil. Another great dish is potato salad and I don't mean the one smothered in mayonnaise, but a fresh sharp salad with tomato, parsley lemon and olive oil. Something similar to my artichoke salad

Today's recipe is a very nice and simple mezze dish. Potato with olive oil garlic and coriander. Most people fry the potato cubes however I prefer them boiled. They absorb the olive oil and take on the garlic and coriander aroma.


Two large potatoes cut into an inch cubes
4 garlic cloves (use more or less to taste)
A handful of coriander 
Olive oil 5 tbsp

Boil the potatoes in salted water.

Heat the olive oil on low heat. Add the garlic and coriander and remove immediately from the heat. You just need them welted. If you burn your garlic throw it and start again.

Add the potato. Mix well and season to taste. 

Shawarma Al-Jazeera, a taste of my childhood

If you are one of the handful of people still reading my blog after couple of years of only occasional posts you might know I was born and lived most of my childhood in Saudi Arabia. I hope this would not offend any of my Saudi readers but I really hated the place. We used to live in Abha. It was at the time a small town high up in the mountains close to Yemen. The nature and weather were stunning but that is where the beauty stopped for me. I didn't like anything else about the place. I hated the lack of freedom compared to our summer holidays in Syria. I hated the constant feeling of being a foreigner, and as you might expect being a foreigner in Saudi Arabia is not fun.

The highlight of my life in Saudi was our frequent visits to Jeddah, Saudi's second city on the Red Sea. We used to visit frequently because of dad's work or to sort out some paperwork from the Syrian Consulate or simple to spend the weekend. Jeddah at the time was such a cool place for a young boy. It had an Ikea, massive shopping centres, smoked turkey meat, Levi's Jeans, Authentic Syrian Halawet el-Jeben, and above all Shawarma Al-Jazeera.

Shawerma Al-Jazeera or as became known later Shawerma Shaker Al-Jazeera is allegedly Jeddah's first Shawerma place. A small hole-in-the-wall places with massive beef shawarma skewer. It was perfectly normal for a guy to park his GMC Superban and come to the window to order 40 shawarma sandwiches. In fact most of the orders were in double figures and there was a constant stream of costumers from early evening to early hours in the morning. To cope with the demand the place adopteded a conveyor belt operation. You place an order in one window and the process start. One guy cuts the meat, another mixes it on the hot griddle with the vegetables, the third put the meat in the bread, the next down the line add the sauce and wrap the sandwiches and finally the last guy hands you over your food from a second window. This process continued non-stop, I kid you not. 

The Shawarma itself is nothing like the Syrian or Lebanese variety. The meat has a lot more "Arabic" taste with more spices adapted to the local palate. After the meat is shaved of the massive skewer it was cooked on a flat griddle with onions, parsley, tomatoes and chillies. The sandwiches were made with small white subs and served with nothing but tahini sauce and chilli sauce.

Here is my attempt to recreate a taste of my childhood:

Sirloin or similar tender cut of beef 350g
One onion
One large tomato
One or two green chillis
Garlic 3 cloves
Parsley two handfuls
Yoghurt one tbs
Tahini one tbs
Olive oil 2 tbs
Spices 1/2 tsp each (feel free to improvise) I use black pepper, paprika, allspice, ground ginger and ground coriander

Slice the meat and the vegetable as thin as you can. Take your time. It makes a lot of difference. It allows the vegetables and meat to cook at the same time without losing much liquid and give authentic shawarma feel to the final product (and it is also therapeutic if like me you had a s**t day in the office).

Mix all the ingredients together and let marinade for half an hour at room temperature. 

Heat a large skillet or other heavy-bottomed pan until very hot. Add the meat mixture and cook on high heat for 10-15 minutes until very little liquid is left. The secret to success is to use a hot very large pan. The meat mixture needs to spread evenly in a thin layer. If you don't have a large enough pan cook in patches.

Serve the meat in Arabic flat bread, pita pockets or sub rolls for an authentic experience. Serve with tahini sauce and a chilli sauce of your choice.

Sochi, a dark legacy

Up to and including the infamous Olympic rings incident, the Sochi games have been a complete PR disaster for Russia (On some level I am disappointed things didn't go spectacularly wrong in Sochi. Nothing would have made me happier than seeing Putin’s Russia the laughing stock of the world). While most of the column inches where directed at the discriminatory homophobic laws, another dark secret of the place failed to grab the world attention. The Ethnic Cleansing of Circassians from their motherland and its historic capital Sochi hardly made it to the press.

Being ethnically half Chechen I have always been interested in the North Caucasus. Despite never visiting, knowing the language and cultural differences I feel strong connection to the region mostly because of my great admiration of my late grandfather. Like the Circassians, Chechens and other East Caucasus people have suffered a great deal at the hands of Russians.

After defeat to Russia in the Caucasian War in 1864  Circassians were expelled en mass from their homeland. Hundreds of thousands of people were dragged from their villages to ports on the Black Sea to be transported to the Ottoman Empire. Unknown number of people perished of diseases or killed at the hands of the victorious Russians. Most of those deported settled in Turkey or moved further south towards Syria and Jordan. Their descendants today make a community of a hundred thousand or so in each country.

In Syria most Circassian settled in The Golan Heights. They were the majority ethnic group of the region up to the 1976 war. Most Circassians along with other Caucusian people and Arabs fled the Israeli occupation and resettled in and around Damascus or immigrated to Europe and the US. In the late Nineteen Seventies few hundred Circassians returned to Beer Ajam and Breeqa, two Villages closed to the seize fire line that lay abandoned for over ten years.

Beer Ajam is one of my favourite places on Earth. The nature of the place is breathtaking. The hills covered in green all year round mixed with black basalt volcanic stone makes a wonderful back drop to the beautiful villas built in a traditional Golan black stone style. I always thought to myself that one day I willI will buy a small plot of land in the village and build myself a nice summer villa. Needless to say this dream is further away than it ever was.

Although increasingly assimilated in the Arabic population, Circassians have preserved their identity and culture. Some still speak the Adyghe language and traditional music, dance and costumes are present in weddings and social occasions till this day.  

Circassian cuisine, similar to the rest of the North Caucases , is a simple hearty affair. The cuisine is heavy on meat, dairy, grain and flour influenced by the availability, or lack of, ingredients high in the Caucasus Mountains. Cheese and meat stuffed dumplings and various other pastries are the heart of the cuisine.

Today’s recipe Chipse Basta (شبس باسطة) is a Circassian dish served in Weddings and special family occasions. The dish is a simple chicken and Bulgur pilaf served with a garlic and walnut flavoured sauce.  Chipse is the sauce and basta is the bulgur. The dish has special costume to serve and eat. Traditionally the dish was served in communal large tray where all the guests sit around. The meat is arranged in a special way where the breasts and wings of the bird is placed in front of the older person with legs and thighs arranged on the sides. The host or the older person will say few words then take a bite of the wing. He will split the breast in two and pass it to the guests to his left and right. Then everybody dig in. The elder at the top of the table will remain seated and eating until everyone is finished, so no guest feels embarrassed and leaves the table before completely full.

This is my take on Chipse Basta based on my distant child hood memories, my Mum recipe and my dear friend “Maysaloon” family recipe.

One chicken cut to quarters or four chicken legs
Chicken stock 700mls (use cold stock)
Bulgur wheat 300g (you can use 2/3 Bulgur and 1/3 short grain rice)
Walnut 100g
Garlic 5-6 cloves
Ghee purified butter 3 tbs
Flour 3 tbs
Olive oil 3 tbs
Coriander powder 1 tsp
Paprika 2 tsp

Season the chicken with salt and pepper, half the paprika, a spoon of olive oil and one crushed clove of garlic. Let marinade for an hour or so if you have time.

Wash the Bulgur and soak in cold water for 30 minutes.

Cook the chicken to your preferred method; grill or roast. I like to start the chicken skin side down on a hot griddle pan to mark the skin and give a nice BBQ flavour. Flip the chicken over then continue to cook in the oven for 30 – 45 minutes at 195C depending on the size of the pieces.

While the chicken is cooking drain the Bulgur and cook in 3 cups or so of water. Add salt to taste. The bulgur needs to be cooked properly, almost over cooked.

In a separate pot start by frying the flour in the clarified butter on medium heat until the mixtures turns light brown. Add the clod stock slowly to make a roux stirring continuously with a whisk to prevent the flour clumping. Once all the stock is incorporated bring to a boil then turn down the heat to medium and let the sauce thicken. Add Salt to taste, the rest of the crushed garlic and the coriander.  Crush the walnut in a pestle and mortar or a food processor and add at the end.

Stir the cooked Bulgur with a wooden spoon to mash it slightly. Press in a cookie ring on the serving plate. Alternatively press the cooked Bulgur with the wooden spoon in a roasting tray and cut to squares to serve. Arrange a piece of the Bulgur, a piece of chicken and small ramekin of the chipse. Just before serving heat the olive oil in a pan and add the paprika. Remove of the heat immediately. Spoon on top of the chipse sauce.

Paralysis Cheese and other dodgy translations

Syrians have an inherent inability to finish anything right (see Syrian Revolution). They start a wonderful piece of work or a nice project then they ruin it on the final details. Nowhere is that more apparent than restaurants menus. You can hardly see a restaurant menu around damascus without a bleeding obvious spelling mistake or dodgy translation.

The paralysis part of the name comes from the fact the spelling of the word  شلل could refer to a wool hank or paralysis. Needless to say the cheese is named after a wool hank it resembles not after paraplegia. 

To be fair the above picture was not in Syria but it is so funny I couldn't resist. However, Baked Aborigine (baked aubergine) and Jordanian Heater (Jordanian Musakhan) are true menu items in a couple of high end Damascus restaurants.

Harra' Esbao'o (Harra' Esba3o or حراق اصبعو), is possibly the most frequently mistranslated dish ever. It is not really a mistranslation but rather a very literal translation. Harra' mean burning hot and esba3o is his finger. However, no matter if you call it "Finger burner", "Burns his fingers" or any variation of these three words it still doesn't make any sense to the non Arabic speakers trying to order some lunch. In fact it doesn't make any sense even to an Arabic speaker who is not familiar with the dish.

Modern take on presentation. Picture by @Tammamo

Hara' Esba3o is my all time favourite vegetarian dish, hands down. In essence the dish is a simple lentil pasta stew. It is made special with all the extras; crunchy fried croutons, garlic and coriander topping, pomegranate molasses and lots of citrus juice. I am drooling just writing these words! The traditional recipe requires making dough, rolling it thin and cut it into half inch squares, a very time consuming process. Nowadays most people use pasta instead. In Damascus you can actually buy special Harra' Esba3o pasta. Alternatively, you can use shell pasta (Conchiglie), orecchiette, or even lasagne sheets broken into pieces. My favourite however is pappardelle broken into inch long pieces. 

Historically this dish was associated with all-women occasions. It was the brunch of choice to serve in Sobhiyeh (صبحية), a late morning gathering of women usually in the house of a high class house wife. In early twentieth century Damascus, Sobhiyeh would have been an elaborate occasion with with singing, entertainment and a lot of Hara' Esba3o. It was a way of showing wealth and affluent. In modern day Damascus these large Sobhiyehs are all but gone. The name now refers to housewives morning gossip sessions, Turkish coffee and reading fortunes in empty coffee cups. 

My more traditional presentation and iPhone picture!

Here is my version of Harra' Esba3o 

Dry green lentils 200 g
Pappardelle pasta 300 g
Olive oil
Garlic 5 large cloves
Coriander leaves 50 g
Arabic bread 2 medium loaves
Corn starch 1 tbs
Pomegranate molasses 2 tbs
Juice of one lemon
Vegetable oil for frying
One onion 
Pomegranate for decoration (optional)

In a large pot start by cooking the lentils in 4 cups of water until half cooked, roughly 10-15 minutes. Break the pasta into one inch pieces and add to the pot. Season with salt. Cook for further 10-12 minutes depending how al dente you like your pasta.  

While the pasta and lentils are cooking. Heat 4 table spoons of olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Crush the garlic and chop the coriander. Add the garlic first then the coriander to the hot oil and remove from the heat immediately. You just want the leaves to wilt. Avoid burning the garlic.

While the pasta is cooking add half the garlic and coriander mixture, juice of a lemon and the pomegranate molasses. Check seasoning. You can change the lemon/molasses ratio according to taste. 

Just before the pasta is done, dissolve the cornstarch in a little cold water and add to the pot. Let the pot boil for few minutes to thicken the sauce. It needs to be fairly loose at this stage as it will get thicker as it cools down. Add more boiling water if necessary.

plate in a glass oven dish or individual shallow bowls and let cool down. The dish is best served luke warm or room temperature.

While cooling, Cut the bread using kitchen scissors into 2 cm squares.  Heat the vegetable oil in a pot and deep fry the croutons. Keep an eye as they burn very quickly. Drain on a kitchen towel.

 Slice the onion thinly and fry in the same oil after the bread until dark brown. Drain. Onion is almost always served as a topping however I am not a fan so I don't.

When ready to serve, spoon the rest of the garlic and coriander on top. Sprinkle with the onions, croutons and few pomegranate seeds.