- A TASTE OF SYRIA
- Philip M. Kayal
- Virginia Jerro Gerbino
Syria is regarded as the crossroads of civilization and many chefs believe
its culinary traditions offer the finest representation of Middle Eastern
cooking and culture. From appetizers to desserts, the foods highlighted were
tested and refined for hosts with discerning appetites, broad tastes, and a
range of cooking skills.
Exemplifying the breadth of the cuisine, this selection of treasured family
recipes was brought to America in the early 1900’s by the authors’
grandparents, immigrants from Aleppo, an ancient center of world commerce. They
continue to be prepared the same way in Syria today.
Because of its Aleppian influences, Syrian cuisine is both sophisticated and
particularly healthy with its emphasis on lean lamb and vegetables. While some
dishes like Hummus, Shish Kabob, and Baklava are well known
to Americans and ubiquitous across the Arab world, the foods of Syria are
special in their particular mix of spices and textures.
This new compendium of Syrian cuisine includes a brief cultural and
historical review, English and Arabic indices of 114 recipes, a glossary of
terms, and a guide to the purchase and preparation of ingredients.
Born and raised in the large Syrian-Lebanese community in Brooklyn, New York,
Virginia Jerro Gerbino is the family cook and keeper of its culinary traditions.
She is employed as an Administrative Assistant for a law firm and resides in
Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Her first cousin and co-author, Philip M. Kayal, is
former Chair of Sociology at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey
and the author of several books on the Arab-American experience. He lives in
Orange, New Jersey.
The Perfect Gift
Classic Family Recipes for the Home Cook
A TASTE OF SYRIA
Virginia Jerro Gerbino
Philip M. Kayal
Including: Family Traditions/Cuisine; A Brief History of
Syria; the Syrian-Lebanese in America; Locating Foodstuffs; Lamb Preparation;
Glossary of Terms; Basic Cooking Guidelines; Recipes for Breakfast, Mezze,
Soups, Salads, Entrées, Vegetarian Dishes, and Desserts; Arabic & English
Available November 2002
U.S. $24.95 hardcover; 200 pages; ISBN: 0-7818-0946-0
MAIL TO: Hippocrene Books, 171 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016
TEL: 718-454-2366; FAX: 1-800-809-3855; EMAIL: email@example.com
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- The Cuisine of Aleppo
- To understand Syrian cuisine as it developed in Aleppo, our family’s
hometown, a little history is necessary. Aleppo is ancient, but its roots are
buried beneath a very modern city. Legend has it that the prophet Abraham
paused in Aleppo to milk his cows on Citadel Hill, thus spawning its Arabic
name Halab, which means "milk." It is one of Syria’s principle
cities and the second largest after Damascus. Located in northwest Syria, it
borders on Turkey and is at the crossroads of great and historic commercial
routes, only sixty miles from the Mediterranean Sea and the Euphrates River.
Aleppo lies along the Baghdad-Istanbul railway and is linked by rail with
Damascus and Beirut, Lebanon. With road connections to Damascus, Latakia, and
Antioch, Turkey it is a natural gateway to Asia.
- The old city of Aleppo is centered around and dominated by a twelfth-century
citadel where the ancient souks, or bazaars, are found. They run along narrow
and winding streets and virtually everything from spices and silks to brass
are sold in these precursors to modern shopping malls.
- The city was originally laid out in walled districts entered via babs or
doors. Different groups, such as Jews and Armenians, lived in these distinct
quarters. Though no longer segregated residential entities, these areas are
still known by their ethnic names. The overwhelming majority of Aleppians are
Muslim, but Christians, Jews, Turks and Armenians have had a say in the life
of the city for centuries. While some group rivalries exist, it is not unusual
to find churches and mosques abutting one another in Syria's major cities.
- Travelers in Syria quickly realize that the people are multilingual, diverse
and very much aware of the diversity around them. In the crossroads that is
Aleppo, this is particularly true. Like Damascus, it is filled with many
foreigners, tourists, and refugees. The Ottoman occupation of Syria, Lebanon,
Greece, and Armenia supplied a context for tolerance and sharing, giving
Aleppians a commonality of food, albeit in slightly different forms and
presentations. When we hear baklava, for example, we think of Greece, but it
is also a Syrian pastry called batlawa. Over time, the string cheese brought
to Syria by the Armenians became known as Halabi cheese or the cheese of
Aleppo because that is where so many of these refugees settled.
- For these reasons, the cuisine of Aleppo is considered by many to be not
only unique, but the best of the Arab world (see "Aleppo’s
Allure," The New York Times Magazine, July 15, 1990). A mixture of
Turkish, Greek, Armenian, and Arab influences, its variety and seasonings
distinguish Aleppian food from all others. Aleppians serve particularly tasty
versions of kabob, kibbeh, mezze, and stuffed vegetables. The city is famous
for its hot peppers, pomegranates, and pistachio nuts. Aleppo is surrounded by
flocks of fat-tailed Awassi sheep, olives and fruit orchards and its
traditional dishes draw their character from its countryside. Its famous
pistachios are used in many pastries, smothered in sugar syrup.
- It is not only the rich assortment of appetizers, main courses and desserts
that set Aleppo’s cuisine apart from the rest of Syria, but attention to
detail, subtlety of flavor, and elegance of presentation. Aleppo has a French
ambience, while Damascus is more British. In addition, each city has its own
specialties. Mamuneh’ya, a sweet breakfast delight, is served only in
Aleppo, while a range of unique chickpea salads are commonplace in Damascus.
- For appetizers, side dishes, or even a snack or luncheon meal, nothing
surpasses hummus (puréed chickpeas) or baba ghanouj (puréed eggplant) with
parsley or cumin as a garnish. M’hammara, a mix of red peppers, walnuts and
pomegranate syrup, tastes great on pita. Like lebaneh, a yogurt spread
drizzled with olive oil and dried mint, it is an appealing party dip. All
these are common throughout the Middle East and vary in taste and texture from
city to city and family to family.
- Kibbeh trabulsieh, a popular entrée, named after the city of Tripoli, is an
egg-shape lamb and wheat meatball, stuffed with sautéed ground lamb, spices,
and pine nuts. Cooked in rendered butter, it is loved by all. Likewise, shish
kabob or mishwie, as we call it, is all the rage. Though our parents would eat
it only with grilled onions, we now add a variety of vegetables to the skewer.
The present fashion is to serve it over rice. Mishwie can be found on grills
throughout Syria, day and night. The aroma of lamb and the scent of the
ubiquitous jasmine fill the night air, especially in Damascus and Aleppo where
no one dines before 10:00 p.m.
- Syrians often make rice with vermicelli, sautéed in butter and cooked with
chicken broth. Many serve it with lightly browned pine nuts as a garnish but
it can also be made with saffron, which colors it an appealing yellow and
provides a characteristic taste. Sitto Alice added only saffron to her rice;
Sitto Helen only vermicelli. Both variations are very Syrian.
- All Syrian food should be eaten with Syrian bread (pita). Finding a good
bakery is important. Most large cities with Arab communities have them and we
strongly recommend freshly baked Syrian bread over that sold in supermarkets.
Use the bread to wipe your dish clean. Or open it and scoop up leban, hummus,
baba ghanouj or m’hammara. Use it for sandwiches. Toast it for use in salads
or stuff it with Syrian cheese, toasting it until the cheese melts. Delicious!
- Halaweh or halvah, as it is called in the United States is a well-known
Middle Eastern delicacy sold in many supermarkets. A combination of sesame
paste, sugar, and oil it is marketed as a candy - plain, with chocolate, or
with pistachios. Virginia and her children like it in pita.
- A typical Syrian breakfast consists of some combination of sliced cucumber,
lebaneh dip, Syrian cheese, olives, pita, perhaps toasted, or some mamuneh’ya
served with cheese and pita. Ca’ak, a cookie and/or arras, a bread, with
apricot jelly, Syrian cheese, and melon is also served. Aromatically flavored
za'atar bread can also be accompanied by olives and string cheese. The
beverage of choice in the morning and throughout the day would be ah'weh
turkieh, a thick espresso heavily flavored with sugar.
- In the summer, yogurt mixed with garlic slivers, mint, cucumber, and chopped
lettuce makes a tantalizing lunch. Fried eggplant and/or fried squash in pita
is also a summer specialty as is ta'bouleh, a salad consisting of parsley,
scallions, wheat, dried mint, tomatoes, lemon juice, and spices. For the
winter, makhlootha and rhisthaya are appealingly hearty soups as is kibbeh
lebanneya (kibbeh balls in warm yogurt with rice). A full dinner menu might
consist of yebrat (meat-stuffed grape leaves), kibbeh trabulsieh, or jaj
zatoon ou riz (chicken and olives with rice) served with ta'bouleh. Feasts fit
for a king! There are also superb meatless meals (syamee) for the health
- It is the pastries of Aleppo which distinguish it as a world-class culinary
center, especially its gh’raybeh, batlawa, and ca’ak bil adgweh. When made
correctly, gh’raybeh is light and buttery, delicate to the touch and palate,
beautifully pear shaped and garnished with a sliver of pistachio or almond.
Unlike the Greek version that uses honey, Syrian batlawa is made with sugar
syrup, perhaps laced with rose water or orange blossom. Batlawa franjea,
derived from the French occupation, is a delicious farina custard rich in
butter and sprinkled with cinnamon. Desserts are served with Turkish coffee
followed by arat, a strong Anisette liqueur. Almost all Syrian pastries can be
eaten by hand. Sitto Helen is legendary for her desserts especially gh’raybeh
and cara' beech.
- In the middle of Aleppo, babs lead to the old Armenian or Christian quarter
where the best pastries are found. Turks, Syrians, Greeks, and Armenians share
a similar cuisine, but the Armenian influence on Aleppo's pastries is
especially strong. Oddly, it is very difficult to find coffee and pastries
served by the same vendors. Pastry and coffee shops usually stand side by side
to serve the many Syrian families strolling for dessert each evening.
- As mentioned, Syrian food in America is often referred to as Mediterranean.
Many restaurants serve variations of all the appetizers we list. Everyone
doctors these recipes to fit their own tastes. Unfortunately, many lose their
originality and authenticity in the process - an inevitable outcome in the
melting pot of America.
- Many Syrian entrées have now become mezze (appetizers). With hosts and
guests wishing to try everything, many main courses are now served as cocktail
party finger foods. Kibbeh nayeh (lamb tartare) and yebrat are good examples.
Sau'seejaw (sausage) served in lemon juice from a chafing dish with pita
becomes a Syrian "pig in a blanket." There is also Giddo Richard’s
wonderfully cured adeed that can be rolled with olives and secured with a
- Zwaz (fried lamb brain), is a delicacy we loved as youngsters. Now hard to
find, the lamb brains were mixed with olive oil, lemon juice, parsley and
spices and served as a salad with pita on the side. It was also served in pita
with lettuce as a topping. One can also add eggs and spices to the lamb brains
and fry them as individual omelets, similar to ir'jeh. Lamb tongue, liver, and
kidneys were also delicacies prepared by our parents. Though we enjoyed them
as youngsters, these organ foods are no longer popular because of their fat