Katherine Zoepf spent two years in Syria reporting for the New York Times. But she knew virtually nothing of the cuisine until she went on a tour with author Anissa Helou.
The three men sitting on the stone ledge in the Aleppo souk are stealing sidelong looks at Anissa Helou, and I don’t blame them. The London-based Syrian-Lebanese cookbook writer, with a ballerina’s posture and a cloud of unruly, silvery hair, commands attention wherever she goes—including the covered markets of this ancient Silk Road city in northern Syria.
It’s early, and merchants like this trio are breakfasting next to their still-shuttered stalls. Suddenly one of the men stands and shyly holds out something from his plate for me: a flap of Arabic bread wrapped around creamy fava beans, ful medammes. I pause, blushing—I’m not used to having a stranger offer me part of his meal. But Anissa takes the bundle and gives me a taste. The broad, brown, soft favas—swirled with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and Aleppo pepper paste—have a chunky texture and a bright, earthy flavor. “This is a traditional Arab breakfast,” Anissa explains to me. “To have it here in the souk—that’s tasting it exactly as it should be.”
Anissa, a former art dealer and the author of a half-dozen acclaimed books about Mediterranean cuisines, is doing research for her new culinary tours of Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities. She has strong personal ties to the country: Though she grew up in Beirut, she spent childhood summers in the little Syrian village of Mashta al-Helou, her father’s ancestral home. Nearly every Syrian we meet who hears Anissa’s last name asks if she is from “Helou mountain” and treats her like a fondly remembered cousin. And with Anissa as my guide, I feel I too have some deeper connection to this country.
I worked in Syria for two years as a newspaper stringer and had come to think of the food as rather dull. Hummus and platters of the grilled chicken dish shish tawuk seemed to be on every restaurant menu. But as Anissa reveals to me, many of the most interesting dishes rarely appear in restaurants. Syrian cuisine puts a heavy emphasis on seasonal ingredients. In this harsh climate, there’s a window of just a few weeks to catch the delicate wild thistles called akkub or to try kamah, a prized desert truffle. Understanding the food culture requires a willingness to look hard, ask questions and go deep—and even, perhaps, to accept a few spiced beans from a bearded stranger.
© Ben Stechschulte
Damascus, Syria’s capital, was founded around 1000 BC and is thought to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Today, it’s a jumble of ancient and modern: The two most recognizable points on its skyline are the eighth-century Ummayad mosque and the ziggurat-shaped Four Seasons Hotel. On our first day in the city, Anissa leads me deep within the souks of the old walled city to watch a vendor weigh the thyme, sumac, fennel, aniseed, roasted chickpeas and other ingredients that go into Syria’s version of the Middle Eastern spice blend za’atar. “Every shop has its own za’atar recipe,” Anissa explains. “There’s one with pomegranate molasses, and another for baking that doesn’t burn easily.”
In souk el-Srijeh, Anissa jokingly tries to marry me off to a young assistant in a sweets shop that specializes in the warm, orange-syrup-soaked, cheese-filled dessert called helawat al jibn. The owner laughs and tells Anissa that I’d be unlikely to fetch more than 100 sheep as a wife because, at 29, I’m “elderly for a Syrian bride.”
I try not to feel ancient as Anissa leads me down the Street Called Straight to a shop that sells handmade kitchen tools. Luckily, she isn’t interested in playing matchmaker again, as she’s too busy admiring the pestles and paddles used for shaping hummus. It has never occurred to me that hummus must be carefully shaped for serving, but Anissa says the presentation—usually higher around the edges of the plate, with a spiral groove into which olive oil is drizzled—follows strict convention. “Syrians are not as devoted to aesthetics as the Japanese, but we have a very strong sense of how food must be presented,” she says.
For dinner, Anissa takes me to a traditional restaurant, Al Khawali, to sample kibbe. At its simplest, this staple of Syrian cuisine is a mixture of ground lamb, bulgur wheat and onion. Anissa orders classic variations of that basic recipe: kibbe balls in a warm yogurt sauce that’s rich and buttery, with a hint of garlic; kibbe tartare; fried, zeppelin-shaped kibbe stuffed with pine nuts. The most unusual is a round kibbe pie seasoned with galangal, cardamom, cinnamon and mildly hot Aleppo pepper, with cubes of fat from a lamb’s tail baked into the center. “This was one of my favorite treats as a kid,” says Anissa. “My aunt grilled them over charcoal, as many Syrians still do.” When I break the pie open the fat oozes out, moistening the crisp shell.
Late on our second day, we drive five hours to Aleppo. This city is more conservative than Damascus—we see many more local women wearing the full-face veil called the niqab. Most guidebooks advise Westerners in Syria to dress modestly as a sign of respect. Syrians, however, are famously polite, and harassment of any kind is rare. The country’s hard-line, military-dominant regime and the U.S. State Department’s warnings against citizens traveling here caused many of my friends to worry about my safety when I first decided to come to Syria as a journalist. But I have found it surprisingly welcoming to American visitors. The only harassment Anissa and I experience in Aleppo is during a walk through souk al-Attarine, where the hawkers try to flirt with her and we’re jostled by donkeys laden with burlap sacks of dried chamomile.
We drop off our bags at Dar Zamaria, the gorgeous boutique hotel where Anissa’s tour groups will stay—a former 18th-century residence restored in an Ottoman architectural style, with high stone arches and mosaic tiles. Then we head out to meet one of Syria’s few female chefs, Maria Gaspard-Samra. Maria spent five years heading the kitchen at Mansouriya, the most luxurious hotel in Aleppo; she then left to open a casual snack bar called Sandwiches Chez Maria. She has agreed to give cooking lessons to Anissa’s group members in her home, demonstrating how to prepare traditional Aleppine recipes like cherry kebabs (tiny meatballs cooked in a wild cherry sauce) and seasonal specialties like a gorgeous beetroot dip made creamy with tahini.
I get my own lesson in Aleppine gastronomy that evening at Dar al Yasmeen, a restaurant in the courtyard of an old stone house. As we order, Anissa explains that Aleppo is famous throughout the Middle East for the Turkish and Persian influence on its cuisine. “The Persians were among the first to stuff vegetables,” she says, as I dig into cabbage leaves loaded with a delectable rice flavored with lemon, garlic and mint, as well as zucchini filled with ground lamb headily spiced with ground cumin and cumin seeds. After eating traditional kibbe in Damascus, I am introduced to the Aleppine variation made with rice instead of bulgur, a reflection of the city’s large Armenian community. Then there are tiny lengths of lamb intestine stuffed with rice and pistachios—gleaming, translucent and still surprisingly meaty.
Anissa sees me pause before taking a bite and smiles. Then she repeats a phrase that I have come to think of as her mantra: “You have to be fearless!”
Anissa Helou’s Culinary Delights in Damascus and Aleppo: anissahelou.com
Manhattan-based journalist Katherine Zoepf is currently working on a book about young women in the Arab world.