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Syria: What We Ate

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So my husband and I have been dreaming of going back to Syria since our first trip in 1999. Finally got around to it in June--we had been in Egypt for about a month, which I think made Syria seem even more like heaven than usual, thanks to its lack of dust and fascination with foreigners. We flew directly into Aleppo and basically hung out there for a week, with a little overnight trip to Lattakia. We didn't actually eat as much as we would've liked, but isn't that always the way.

Immediately upon arriving, we went looking for our dream falafel man--a guy who had a little cart and the best damn sandwiches ever in 1999. It was late afternoon, so really not the time. We wound up with a really tasty shawarma sandwich and a kibbeh sandwich--both of which were wrapped up in their pitas then left to sizzle a little in the fat that was dripping off the shawarma. Classy.

Dinner that night at al-Andalib--the source of all the noise in our room at the Hotel Baron, but after eating there we couldn't hold it against them at all. Very simple roast chix, fries, salad, beers. Midway through dinner it dawned on me that I was the only woman in the place. But unlike Egypt, that wasn't a big deal.

The next day we hunted for our falafel man again (while changing to a cheaper hotel--faded glamour costs a lot!), and we only found some guys with a little sidewalk grill setup. We wolfed down some kofta sandwiches, picking from the pile of mint and hot peppers every few bites. Even at this super-basic operation, the guys had gone to the trouble of threading little bits of lamb fat in between the vegetables on the skewers. So much more delicious. And I've got to hand it to the Syrians for public hygiene--their setup was meticulous, considering they were mincing the meat for the kofta right there. Lots of hand-washing and chopping-block wiping, and water offered to us after we ate. Not to slag off Egypt, but you just don't get that there.

Then I asked the guys if they knew our falafel man. I have a hard time with Syrian Arabic, but I am pretty sure they told me he died. We were very very sad, but our delicious lunch took the edge off our grief.

We ate at Sissi House, and apparently the courtly old French-speaking waiters have all died as well. I have such fond memories of my 1999 meal there--it's where I had fresh walnuts for the first time, and the old waiter discreetly whispered in my ear (in French) that I had to peel them first. Also, the power went off in the middle of dinner, and the oud player kept playing, and I practically swooned. This time the power stayed on, and we had a much slicker young waiter. He served us well, though, when we asked to have a selection of more unusual things--we explained what we'd eaten before, and then he brought us other stuff. The only really remarkable thing was a super-chunky sort-of muhammara, with lots and lots of char on the red peppers, which were cut up in 1/2-inch chunks or so, drizzled with pom molasses and topped with walnuts.

We had a lunch at a random but delicious restaurant on the west side of town right before we left. That's where I got the fresh zaatar salad with white cheese and tomatoes--just a bunch of raw herb chopped up with the other stuff. Very astringent and refreshing. Then a serving of chickpea fatteh that was as big as my head.

On a day outing to Lake al-Assad, we had absolutely delicious fish, fresh from the lake and I'm pretty sure brushed with a bit of pomegranate molasses before being grilled. Does anyone know if this is a typical preparation? That's the only explanation I can think of for the way the fish caramelized. Also, the salad that came with had tiny, fine slices of lemon in it, peel and all--great texture.

One of the most wonderful things we ate, just due to context, was lunch at a bike shop. We were in there asking about obscure bike parts, and the guy of course spread out newspaper on his desk and shared his big bowl of meat stew, and his rice, and his hot peppers and salt with us. Too bad we'd just eaten about half an hour before...

Equally heartwarming was our last-night dinner, back at al-Andalib. This time we were with our Syrian friend, and it turned out the menu was much more extensive--I guess they hadn't felt like explaining it all to us the first time. So we had all kinds of tasty mezze that I unfortunately don't remember, but the thing I was intrigued by most was at the next table, where two guys got a silver platter of cucumbers and tomatoes, all covered in ice, plus a knife. Then they proceeded to make their own salad. And they saw me watching, and sent over a big bowl of it, and it was indeed so much better than what the kitchen was making. We also had some shankleesh, from those same guys, and some funky, mozzarella-texture goat cheese from the guy on the other side.

Just thinking about all this makes me teary-eyed. Other small highlights: Sour-cherry ice cream, the sourest I've ever had, with chewy bits of cherry in. Assorted fresh juices--now I understand how six juice stands in a row all stay in business--each one's "cocktail" is a little different.

There are a couple more cogent comments on my blog (look in 'Travel for Fun' category), and pictures on Flickr--unfortunately not too many of the food, though.

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Absolutely wonderful! Syria is one of the countries I most want to visit, primarily because of the food (but I suppose I could take in some of the history and sites, too :smile: ! The baqlawa from a Syrian restaurant was the best I ever had, and on a recent trip to Oman, the chef on the yacht I was on was from Syria. He did wonderful things with fish, but nothing brushed with pomegranate molasses (or even remotely sweet--but a couple of very spicy ones).

Thanks for your report, and if I do make it to Syria one day, I'm eating where you ate!

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