• Posted by Anissa Helou on July 15th, 2008, 12:47 PM

    Photographs by Liz Hasell

    As if to add to our sense of disorientation–we had just got off the night flight to Damascus and were pretty bleary-eyed by the time we arrived at our hotel–the night porter opened only the tiny bottom part of the big wooden door and invited us to stoop through the low opening with our luggage. Not promising, I thought to myself.

    But then we emerged into a luminous courtyard paved with colored marble, which was more promising. Still, the porter seemed intent on keeping us off balance. He was puzzled by our arrival and could not find our booking. Finally he did and, as if in slow motion (he was also sleepy), he led us each to our room for us to grab a few hours sleep before the start of our Syrian adventure.

    It was during my research for my book Mediterranean Street Food that I came up with the idea of leading culinary tours. I had such fun traveling around the different countries, talking to street vendors and tasting their food that I decided it would be great to take enthusiastic foodie travelers on culinary adventures.

    Click any image for slideshow.

    And so I planned my first itinerary, initially to Beirut, Damascus, and Aleppo. Lebanon and Syria are immediate neighbours along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, each with a superb, distinctive cuisine. But then I wondered if Lebanon’s uncertain political situation and its perception by many westerners as a war zone would put off travelers. I thought it would and left out Beirut. And boy, am I glad I did.

    Even though my group was flying directly to Damascus, I chose to fly to Beirut two days earlier to visit my mother who lives there. From there, I planned to take a car to Damascus, which is a mere 2 ½ hour drive, to meet the group. As if on cue, Lebanon lived up to its unstable reputation and the day before I was to leave London, trouble started between rival political factions. As a result, Beirut’s airport was shut.

    Fortunately, there were still seats available on the Damascus flight my group was booked on. I reflected on all this as I woke up in my room at Beit el-Joury (a 19th century Ottoman house recently converted into a hotel) while admiring the architecture: high ceilings and lovely tall windows giving onto the courtyard. Some decorative effects were not in keeping with the architecture but the effect was pleasing overall. As I came out of my room, I found the group having Turkish coffee and eating olives and tressed cheese, a kind of salty mozzarella made in thousands of thin strands. Their first taste of Syria.

    From our hotel, located in Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of Damascus, we set off to Souk el-Bzuriyeh, the souk of spices, walking through a warren of narrow alleyways to reach Straight Street or Souk Madhat Basha off which you find the spice souk. Just before the turning is al-Arjaoui, the best za’tar merchant in the souk, offereing several different mixes: plain (with only dried thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds), red which is the classic Aleppo mix (with spices and nuts added to the plain mix), with pomegranate syrup, and a royal mix which is their secret mix.

    From al-Arjaoui, we walked deep into the B’zuriyeh, stopping at the different spices and dried herbs stalls where they also sell bizarre remedies strung in garlands right above the gorgeous mounds of colorful spices and herbs: dried lizard, snake skin, shrunken heads, and all kinds of bizarre and rather scary objects. From the heady aromas of spices, we moved to the cloying sweetness of the confectionery stalls for a taste of sugared chickpeas, candied fruit, nuts, and vegetables (a speciality of Damascus) as well as all kinds of nougats filled with pistachios.

    Rancoussi, a modern spice and nut shop with none of the old charm of the souk stalls but with superior merchandise was round the corner. Then, to take our mind off food for a short while, I led the group into the magnificent Azem school opposite where an old man sat in a tiny room, operating a weaving mill by hand, working with precious silk, gold, and silver threads to make the famous Damascus brocade.

    We walked back up Straight Street, trying not to stumble over the piles of paving stones that were being laid to transform the street into a pedestrian area, to get to my favourite qatayef vendor. Qatayef are thick pancakes filled with walnuts or clotted cream (qashtah), fried and dipped in sugar syrup. My friend there–I have been going to him for over 15 years–fried ours to order and handed us each our choice, cream for me, walnuts for the rest of the group, piping hot and deliciously crunchy. I have had these qatayef in many places, on and off the street, but Ramadan’s, the name of the stall, remain the best.

    And thus started our culinary adventure, six days of nonstop eating, in restaurants, on the street, at road stops and in homes. I had planned it so that each meal would be a little better than the one before and each menu would be different; and if I ordered the same dishes, I knew they would be prepared differently. In between meals, we stopped at street stalls (I chose them carefully) for the group to taste street food such as za’tar and pepper paste or herb omelette sandwiches. I even pushed the boundaries at a road stop butcher-cum-restaurant on the way to Aleppo by ordering a pizza topped with testicles. This proved too much for one of our group. It was the only thing she wouldn’t taste.

    Ahmad, our driver who insisted on calling me mama Anissa (apparently a sign of respect), got us safely to Aleppo, rightly considered the culinary capital of the Midldle East, and the horror of the testicles pizza was forgotten for the magic of intriguing dishes in which meat is mixed with fruit to produce subtle sweet-sour flavours. We all delighted in the city’s cuisine and we were enchanted by the city’s fabulous old souks. Our main destination there was Souk al-Attarines, the souk of perfumers where you also find spices and gastronomic specialities. It was our luck to be in Syria during rose and vine leaves season. Wherever we went, we saw piles of the most gorgeous pink rose petals used to make rose jam; and boxes of fresh vine leaves, arranged in neat bundles so that cooks didn’t need to sort them before stuffing. Unripe greengages were also in season—they were the star ingredient at our last dinner, added to stuffed vine leaves for extra tartness.

    The highlight of our stay in Aleppo, was a meal at the Club d’Alep, an old fashioned private club with some of the best food in the city. We were invited there by my lovely friends, Pierre Antaki and Georges Husni, respectively the secretary and president of the Academie Syrienne de la Gastronomy. A real privilege, as it would have been impossible for us to get in without them.

    I also organized a home-cooked meal, prepared by Maria Gaspard Samra, a rare Syrian woman chef. Maria gave the group a demonstration on how to prepare typical Aleppine dishes: muhammara (spicy walnut dip), mutabbal (grilled aubergines dip), and kibbeh, tiny stuffed meatballs. She cooked one lot of kibbeh with quince and fresh pomegranate juice and the other in a yogurt sauce. Maria also barbecued chicken, meat, and vegetables over an improvised charcoal barbecue set right inside the chimney breast of her kitchen. Worryingly precarious. We then feasted on all those delicious dishes on her terrace, drinking raki and getting merrier by the minute.

    The off-balance feeling returned as we were ready to board the plane back home, but this time it was because of the extra pounds we had put on after so much eating. We no longer felt disorientated though. We had spent a few days exploring the food culture of Syria and everyone felt they had learned a lot in a short time, not to mention the supreme enjoyment they had at discovering all those wonderful new flavours.

    For more information on Anissa’s culinary tours write to travels@anissas.com.

    This article was first published in Paladar.

    Anissa Helou is the award-winning author of Lebanese Cuisine, Café Morocco, The Fifth Quarter, Modern Mezze, Mediterranean Street Food, and Savory Baking from the Mediterranean, which was listed as a top 2007 pick by NPR, the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune. Born and raised in Beirut, Helou lives in London, where she has her own cooking school, Anissa’s School. Her writing has appeared in the Financial Times, Gourmet, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.

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