Most Westerners approach Syria via Lebanon, landing first in Beirut and sampling the pleasures of the most occidental of Arab countries before traveling eastward—both geographically and culturally. By the time he has crossed the Lebanese-Syrian frontier, the traveler has probably sampled Levantine cooking—hummus, a rich dip made from ground chickpeas and sesame oil; baba ghannouj, a smoky mixture of mashed eggplant, sesame oil, lemon juice and garlic; tabbouleh, a finely chopped salad of parsley, onions, mint, tomatoes and cracked wheat; kibbeh, ground meat mixed with cracked wheat, and either molded round a generous pinch of pine nuts or served as a huge baked sandwich of meat and pine nuts; and the whole family of skewered meats, lamb or chicken cut into cubes (laham mishwi and shish tawuk), or ground with onion and parsley (kiftah, or plain kabab).
But Syria is not just a hinterland, gastronomically or in any other way. Many of these dishes may have come from there—it's anyone's guess just where most Middle Eastern dishes originated—and to the discriminating palate the regional differences are just as important as the resemblances. For example, the famous Lebanese mezeh, a multiplicity of hors d'oeuvre, is rarely served in Damascus, and Syrian salads are less likely to contain lettuce as their basic ingredient than baqli, or purslane, a small plant with reddish stems and light green, slightly tart, fleshy leaves. Damascus green olives are also different from those of Lebanon, much larger and purged of their oil by being soaked in lye.
Within Syria itself there are two major gastronomic poles—Damascus in the south, and Aleppo in the north. The cooking of the south is more akin to that of Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, while the cooking of Aleppo is influenced by its proximity to Turkey and by the large Armenian community in the town. Aleppan food is more heavily seasoned than that of Damascus, especially with red pepper. Many of the vegetable dishes are soaked in yogurt, and the Aleppans tend to be highly carnivorous, serving a variety of meat dishes, both raw and cooked, at one meal.
Moving eastward from the Lebanese-Syrian border, heading for Damascus, the road touches the Barada river about 20 miles from the frontier, and follows its course into the Syrian capital. Behind are the barren slopes of the Anti-Lebanon range; in front a fertile plain. It is a striking contrast, and the dusty, sun-baked traveler is readily attracted by the many open-air restaurants which line the road, enticing him to bask in the dappled shade of the oasis created by the river on the outskirts of the city. Most of these restaurants are good, all specialize in Syrian cooking, and even where the food is indifferent, the shaded calm and the murmur of the river compensate for any lapses in the cuisine. One of the most popular restaurants in this area is the aptly named Green Valley; here you can sit under trellises of vines, surrounded by jasmine and bougainvillea, and enjoy a leisurely meal to the gentle lapping of a fountain or, not infrequently, to lilting Arabic music provided by a group of impromptu entertainers who have dropped in for a couple of hours' relaxation.
Gastronomes in search of quality Damascene cooking may choose from a number of good restaurants, among them Abu Kamel, situated at the top of Port Said Street, and Ali Baba in Yousuf al-'Azm Square. One of the best is the Orient Club, patronized by Henry Kissinger on his recent shuttles to Damascus. Here, during the season, you may sample their truffle stew (yakhnit al-kama), a delicately spiced dish, which by the way you should order at least a day in advance. The truffles come from the Syrian desert near the ancient city of Palmyra, where, it is said, the wild desert storms give these round edible fungi their special delicacy. Truffles are either dark or light in color, the former being regarded as superior. Before being cooked they should be thoroughly soaked to clean the sand out, and then peeled. To make truffle stew, they are added to fried meat cubes with onions, then simmered and flavored with lemon juice, before being eaten with boiled rice.
But undoubtedly the best known of all Damascene delicacies are the sweets. These have been much appreciated since ancient times, and even the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, although he reigned in Baghdad, is reported to have had his sweet pastries fetched from Damascus. Today most of the best confectioners—Mehenna, Hamra, Baghdash—are situated either along Port Said Street or on Marji Square, where massive flat trays of layer pastry filled with creamy cheese or crushed walnuts (baqlawa); pistachio-filled ropes of crisp brown pastry (kanafi); mounds of sugar-dusted semolina pastry filled with ground pistachios (ma'moul); and bowls of little pancakes (katayif), turn the shop windows into an epicure's delight. All are very sweet and, with the exception of ma'moul, very sticky.
One of the most common flavorings used by Damascus confectioners is rose-water, and this is also a popular ingredient of the soft drinks dispensed by ambulant peddlers or served from colorful street stalls. From them you may order a thirst-quenching glass of pleasingly acidulous light brown tamarind water (tarmar hindi); wine-dark mulberry juice ( tout shami); pomegranate juice; licorice water; or jallab, a sweet tasting mixture of mulberry and lemon juice topped with a sprinkling of pine nuts and raisins, and occasionally flavored with carob molasses.
After quenching his thirst, our greedy traveler, moving northward, will come upon some intriguing variations on the themes he has already ingested. In Horns, for example, their kibbeh is molded into flat pastries, rather than the oval balls of Damascus and Beirut, wrapped round a piece of lamb's fat flavored with garlic and red pepper before being skewered and broiled over charcoal. In Latakiya some home cooks roll their kibbeh into balls and then boil them for a while before baking them in the oven with a mixture of meat stock, crushed walnuts, lemon juice, sesame oil, olive oil, garlic and red pepper (kibbeh arnabiyeh).
Already our traveler is in the region of red pepper, red meat and assertive seasonings. In Aleppo this gastronomic tradition bursts into full flower. Aleppans will tell you that they have more than a score of different recipes for kababs alone, each reflecting the influence of either the traditional Arab or the Turkish cuisine. Their pounded meat kabab may be flavored predominantly with one or more of the following: parsley, marjoram, garlic, thyme, sage, mint, saffron, cinammon, hot or sweet peppers, nutmeg, lemon or cumin. They may be charcoal broiled or baked in the oven, and when skewered preparatory to being cooked, the balls of meat may be interspersed with onions, tomatoes, egg plant, green peppers, or small green zucchini.
Aleppan salads are likely to be liberally laced with onion rings, parsley and red pepper, while many of the attendant side dishes will contain vegetables in yogurt. Particularly tasty are zucchini boiled and allowed to cool, covered with a mixture of sesame oil, garlic, mint and salt. Sliced cucumbers soaked in yogurt and sprinkled with mint are also common. Cooks from Aleppo make frequent use of egg plant, and a popular dish which has this vegetable as a main ingredient is imam bayaldi. This is made from small egg plants, partially peeled into lengthwise strips, inside which are inserted two or three cloves of garlic. The vegetables are then deep fried in hot oil until soft and brown, then simmered in a mixture of pomegranate juice, sugar, tomato paste, pepper, cinammon and water, before being allowed to cool.
Visitors to Aleppo in search of authentic local food should drop in at Hagop's, located around the corner from the Baron Hotel. Here the food is good and inexpensive, but the crowds who flock there can scarcely be accommodated in the small eating area, so it is hardly the place to linger. More conducive to leisurely eating is the Sahara, an open-air restaurant where the tables are ranged around a tall fountain set in a pool on which three plump ducks cruise, amiably snapping up morsels of bread thrown to them by diners.
Aleppo also has its own confectionary delicacies. Most famous is perhaps karabeej, round balls of sweet semolina dough stuffed with crushed almonds, flavored with rose water, and served with a white, creamy syrup. During the Muslim feast of Ramadan one of the main confectioners in Aleppo, Moussattat, prepares a delicacy pleasingly called "girls' spinning" (Ghazl al-banat), crumbly snowballs covered with soft sugary down, and filled with a pinch of Aleppan pistachios, generally regarded as the best nuts in the Arab world. Sweets similar to those sold in Damascus are also available in Aleppo, and on the streets vendors hawk jellied candy, made from sugar, lemon and gum arabic, molded around pieces of string, a Turkish delicacy called jorbilbil, which one finds only in the northern part of the country.
John Monroe is professor of English literature at the American University of Beirut and writes frequently for Aramco World.