From kibbe to cherry kebabs, the ancient crossroads city of Aleppo serves up some of the Middle East’s most cherished- and little known- cuisine.
“The cooks in paradise are from Aleppo,” wrote the Syrian poet Al-Ma’arri in The Epistle of Forgiveness, an 11th-century book of Arabic philosophy. Famous throughout the Middle East for its distinct, zesty flavors- some of which are thought to have arrived from China along the Silk Road- Aleppan food was once prized in the courts of sultans and satraps, as were its chefs. Sultan Ahmed I, who ruled the Ottoman Empire in the early 1600s, was apparently so proud of his Aleppan cook that he had the man’s birthplace engraved on the kitchen door of the Topkapi Palace. Situated on the rocky Mesopotamian plains of northern Syria, Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet. Its strategic location between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates made it a crossroads of European, Asian, and African trade since ancient times; at the height of its prosperity, Aleppo was considered the most important city in the Ottoman Empire after Constantinople (Istanbul) and Cairo. Celebrated too was its cuisine. Successive rulers- Roman, Byzantine, Mongol, Mamluk, and French, to name a few- influenced the local palate, as did the traders and refugees who brought with them spices and recipes from across the known world. Aleppo’s regional importance faded after an 1822 earthquake flattened the city and killed more than half its inhabitants, and waned further with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which diverted trade routes to the south. But its culinary traditions survived.
Tangy, spicy, and with sour overtones, Aleppan gastronomy is quite unlike its counterparts elsewhere in the Middle East, or elsewhere in Syria for that matter. One distinctive feature is the liberal use of pomegranate jus, a reduction made by boiling the blood-red native fruit into a tart syrup that is drizzled over dips and salads. Acid-heavy dishes using cherries, quince, and other fruit- Aleppo’s answer to Chinese sweet and sour- also make a prominent showing when in season. And spices, especially a heady blend of cardamom, nutmeg, curry leaves, paprika, cumin, cloves, and ginger, are preferred to herbs.
“The people of Aleppo put enormous emphasis on their food. We live and dream it,” says Mohammed Haddad, executive sous chef at the Sheraton Aleppo Hotel. With a chuckle, he adds, “Young women are taught that if they want to win the heart of a man, they need to know how to open the door to his stomach.”
I am following Haddad around Aleppo’s legendary souk. This medieval warren of stone archways and hidden courtyards was inscribed, along with other Old City sites- including the 13thcentury Citadel and any number of madrassas, caravansaries, and hammams- as a World Heritage Site in 1986. Packed with hurried shoppers and peddlers who push and shout their way along worn cobbled lanes, it offers a tantalizing assault on the senses. We pass counters selling freshly made falafel rolls and piles of bright green immature almonds, loved for their bitterness. There are mounds of plump figs, boxes of honey-drenched baklava and semolina sweets, bars of olive oil soap, bags of cardamom-infused coffee, and mountains of za’atar– an aromatic condiment of sesame seeds, wild thyme, anise, and sumac that is eaten with olive oil and flatbread for breakfast. All this sits among shops hawking scarves, Iranian rugs, delicate gold jewels, water pipes, and pressed copper plates; in fact, almost anything you can imagine.
We wander the souk’s length- stretching across 12 hectares, it is among the largest covered markets in the world- then divert to the butcher section, an unappetizing alley where catfish squirm and sheep carcasses, complete with pendulous testicles, hang from the ceiling. Haddad explains that male mutton is the preferred meat in Aleppo; ewe mutton is considered tough, and beef and camel meat cheap substitutes. No part of the animal goes to waste; we spot intestines, used in a festival dish called sendawanat, and lamb feet, which are boiled into a thick broth and eaten with bread. The most prized cut of all is the lump of tail fat from the Awassi, otherwise aptly known as the fat-tailed sheep.
“Our food is so rich that most people only eat twice a day- a late lunch, followed by an even later dinner. But when they eat, they fill the table to capacity,” Haddad says with anticipation as we take our seats at Al-Zawak. We have negotiated Aleppo’s lunatic traffic and crossed the city to Al-Jamiliyah, a leafy neighborhood of handsome 19th-century apartments built by Jewish families. With its kitschy decor and neon-green tablecloths, Al-Zawak isn’t the classiest restaurant in town. But it is one of only a handful of establishments that serve home-style Aleppan dishes, and Haddad promises me a sensational lunch.
It’s the end of March, and cherries are in season. I’ve been spotting the fruit on menus around town, and Aleppo’s famous kebab kerez is the first dish to hit our table. Swimming in a soup of dark cherry jam, it’s far too sweet for my tastes. Better is the tangy mohamara, a red pepper dip that blends sun-dried capsicum with crushed Aleppo chili peppers, cumin, pomegranate jus, cherry, tahini, and, oddly, a sprinkling of instant coffee. Next up is a parade of kibbe, meatballs made of bulgur and minced lamb. One is kneaded with spices and served raw (kibbe nayye), another is grilled with quince (kibbe safarjaliyye). Then comes the meal’s crescendo: qouaissat, a delectable lamb loin stuffed with rice and pine nuts and added to a thick tomato-based stew.
Filled to bursting, we nonetheless head to Al-Andalos Sweets, a patisserie a few blocks away that brims with baklava and other gooey pastries. I love the ballorieh, a sandwich of white rosewater pastry filled with roasted pistachios (the name translates as “coming from paradise”), but it is the mamounieh that wins my heart. The thousand-plusyear-old recipe of semolina porridge sprinkled with cinnamon and chunks of goat cottage cheese is usually eaten for breakfast, scooped up with pieces of bread. But it goes down just as well for dessert.
Eager to show me dishes found only in the home, the next day Haddad invites me to the Sheraton for a bespoke feast. In true Aleppan style, he prepares more food than we could possibly eat in a week, let alone a single meal; in Aleppo, he explains, a full table equals prosperity and health. We graze on chicken tarator (boiled poultry mixed with yogurt and marinated tahini), laham balagim (rounds of puff pastry topped with meat and pomegranate jus), and sharod (chunks of meat drenched in yogurt and clarified butter), a calorific delicacy usually reserved for festivals.
A stone’s throw from the hotel is Al-Jdeida, the old quarter built by Aleppan Christians after Tamerlane sacked the city in 1400. It’s enchanting: a quiet labyrinth of narrow cobbled lanes meandering past old courtyard houses, leafy public squares, and churches with spires that tower above arched tunnels. It’s also in the midst of a revival. Al-Jdeida’s mansions- each resplendent with fountains, mosaics, and intricate chandeliers- are slowly being converted into boutique hotels, cafés, galleries, restaurants, and grand private homes (French shoe guru Christian Louboutin recently bought a place here). Tourism is booming; some people are even tagging Aleppo as the next Marrakech.
An Armenian obstetrician named Garo Narbekian was ahead of the curve when he opened Al-Jdeida’s first tourist oriented restaurant, Sissi House, 15 years ago. The food is a tad bland compared to my last few meals, but the setting- a 17th-century mansion- couldn’t be more captivating. Service is excellent, and tables are scattered around a tiled courtyard flanked by imposing stone walls. Both the Italian and Armenian presidents dined here in the week before my visit, a waiter tells me with hushed pride.
Sissi House is busier than ever these days, thanks in part to the handful of charismatic lodgings that have already opened nearby. Among them are the Jdayde Hotel, where some of the small but sparkling rooms have balconies that look over Sahet Al-Hatab Square, and Yasmeen d’Alep, with its elegant Arabic furnishings and a fountained courtyard. As I sit with the restaurant’s manager discussing the finer points of Aleppan cooking, I can’t help but think that the neighborhood’s revival bodes well for a city that has been out of the global spotlight for so long. I’m also grateful that I’ve had the chance to see it- and taste it- before the word gets out.