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. 


Sally - My Custard Pie said...

Your humour is just my cup of tea. Love this.

Victor E. Sasson said...

Thanks for making me laugh, Kano. I heard National Public Radio reports that, in addition to all of the slaughter of civilians in Aleppo, the souk, Crusader fortress and other monuments have been bombed. Do you know if the clock tower I know as Bab Al Faraj is still standing? I photographed it in 1977 during a brief visit.

Kano said...

Thank you for the kind words. I was looking through your blog. I want your Mum Biryani recipe. PLEASE! I will keep it secret I promise.

I don't know Aleppo that well. I have never been. I know the souks and Omayad Mosque sustained significant damage. I don't know much about Bab Al Farraj clock tower.

MN Expat Book Club said...

Always cheered to see you posting.

Majdy said...

Cant wait to "burn my finger"again, need to get The Pomegranate molasses first though. :-\
Ty for the post.

Kano said...

@MN expat book club


Thank you for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed the post.

Lisa Hejazi said...

I love, love, love your blog. But where's the koosburah!?

Kano said...


Welcome to my blog.

Kosbara is coriander. I use the English name for both green and seeds coriander rather than the American style, cilantro.

Taste of Beirut said...

I posted this dish recently and translate it into finger-licking good! I personally think it is a Syrian masterpiece, the best lentil dish EVER. I love eating it and making it, especially with the homemade pasta. I feel like I am living in Syria these days in Beirut, I sometimes wish I was shielded from the sadness that is engulfing the lives of so many, especially when I meet Syrian kids in the streets everywhere. Don't give me money they say, just feed me, I am hungry. :(

Kano said...

@Taste of Beirut

Thank you for stopping by. I am delighted to see people reading the blog again after almost two years of absence.

As you said it is really a sad state of affairs where we got to in Syria. I was in Beirut and Cairo few times in the last few months and it is truly sad.

michaelthebaker said...

hello kano. I run a small restaurant near brighton. it is totally wood fired. we are holding a Levant Food night on sunday 28 sept to raise money for syria and gaza. . Rather than me make your recipes could i tempt you to become chef for the evening. I do hope so. Michael

Kano said...


Absolutely! I would love to help out. Do you want to email me to discuss details on

syrianfoodie at gmail dot com

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