Notes on Syria
In the fall of 2008, I had the unforgettable opportunity to travel in the Middle East. Syria was particularly striking. Lately, news of terrible violence and unrest there has been heartbreaking. I suppose Syria was never on most Americans’ must-see lists. But until recently, I would have told you to get there as quickly as possible, if for the food alone.
Syrian cuisine is far from typical Arab fare, it’s surprisingly rich and complex. The dessert landscape somehow provides a bounty for their chefs. Pomegranates, orange blossoms, peppers, eggplant, okra, mint, pistachios, rich yogurts, exotic spices, rustic breads, sticky pastries, and lamb, lamb, and more lamb abound. The city of Aleppo’s position on the old Silk Road brought culinary influences from Persia, Anatolia
and even further afield.
Contrary to my preconceptions, we found no anti-American sentiment. Instead, we were met with warmth and generosity precisely because we were American. It gave me hope that one day we will realize much more unites us than divides us. For the time being, I will hold on to my beautiful memories of Syria and hope that travel there once again
Of all the flavors I tasted in Syria, muhummara has to be a favorite. A puree of red bell peppers, walnuts, pomegranate and Aleppo chili, muhummara is at once a dish and a condiment. The earthy heat and nuttiness is balanced by the sweet pepper and tangy pomegranate. It’s just perfect with lamb, or eaten alone with warm flatbread and cooling yogurt. You’ll find muhummara is deliciously complex and addictive.
In about a month, truckloads of peppers of all varieties will arrive at the Athens Farmer’s Market. Consider using Michael McMullan’s nardello peppers to make a muhummara of your own. A recipe follows,
but adjust to your tastes.
2 cups roasted red peppers
1 cup toasted walnuts
1 slice bread, crusts removed, lightly toasted
½ cup olive oil
2 T pomegranate molasses
1 t Aleppo chili*, or a pinch of red chili flakes
1 t ground cumin
Blend all ingredients to a rough paste in a food processor.
Season to taste with salt.
*Aleppo chili is available at Middle Eastern groceries but my favorite comes from Kalustyan’s spice shop in NYC (kalustyans.com).