Damascene Food

It’s interesting how different cultures can shape a society. Being in Canada, we are so diverse that I think it has made us more understanding about others. Most recently, we’ve had many Syrian refugees come to Canada. Other than all the tragedy that the media exposes about Syria, I’m not sure many people know much more than that. What was life like in Syria before the war? What did it look like? And without trying to be insensitive, what is Syrian food? I ponder this because despite the destruction and warfare happening, I would like to think food is a form of comfort for many. It can remind of us our childhood, be associated with happy events or even be a form of enjoyment. For those who have escaped Syria to be free from all the warfare, I can only hope that there is at least this one mutual comfort that they can have with them.

Thus, it is to no shock that many Syrian restaurants have started appearing. I found one recently that identified themselves as Damascene. If I didn’t look this up, I wouldn’t have even known it was Syrian. It is based on the name of the Syrian capital, Damascus, which is argued to be one of the oldest cities in the world.

This particular restaurant was beautiful, with colourful walls embellished with tiles and pictures and a lovely fountain in the middle. We sat beside the window where the baker made the bread. It was such an interesting sight. He would flatten the dough and put it into this huge fire oven, in which the dough would suddenly pouf up into a ball. When we got our bread, it was steaming hot (literally fresh out of the oven). Unlike your typical Indian style naan or pita bread, the Syrian bread was quite thick and had a nice, chewy texture. It could have been used as a pocket to stuff food into (like a wrap), but it was really good on its own too.

Like many Middle Eastern restaurants, they served shawarma which is meat that has been marinated and cooked on a vertical spit and grilled. We specifically tried the chicken shawarma and all I can say it was juicy and delicious! It came with a pita, side of pickles, pickled beets, green chiles (which I stayed faaaaaar away from) and a side of delicious rice adorned with cashews.

If there’s one thing I love, it’s flavoured rice. The nuts gave it a crunchy texture and the rice tasted so buttery. Yum! And no visit is complete to a Middle Eastern restaurant without some kebabs. We got a combo that came with one beef kebab and one shish tawook skewer. It also came with a side of rice, pita, and chiles, but interestingly enough they served it with a grilled half of an onion and a grilled half of a tomato. It was topped with a piece of pita that slightly resembled a pizza as well, with tomato sauce, onion and parsley (no cheese…though that’s probably a good thing in this case).

Unfortunately, the meal was so filling that we didn’t have any space for dessert. However, I did spot some visitors having tea and other beautiful dishes. Perhaps next time. I don’t know if it will ever be safe in my lifetime to visit a country such as Syria, but if this restaurant was a glimpse of what it would have been like before all the warfare, I can only imagine how much more beautiful it would’ve been in person. I absolutely hate politics, but if there’s one thing that I know, it’s that war doesn’t resolve anything.

Roman Zaman

325 Central Pkwy W #8
Mississauga, Ontario L5B 3X9
Canada
Telephone: 905-276-0101

Bolanee – Afghani Style Flatbread

Bolanee, also known as bolani, is a warm Afghani styled stuffed unleavened flat bread. The naan (an alternative name for bread) is soft and the filling is often a vegetable mashed up and enhanced with spices. It’s similar to the Mexican version of a quesadilla, only a traditional bolanee contains no meat or cheese but pure vegetable. These days, there are many contemporary versions that break out of this mold and include other types of vegetables, legumes or meat.

Bolanee can be found in many Afghani kebob restaurants. The one I had recently was lightly pan fried and stuffed with potatoes, green onions and herbs and it came with a side of mildly minty yogurt sauce for dipping. The bolanee was slightly spicy, but the yogurt helped counteract that. It’s a great appetizer for sharing, like garlic bread. ūüôā

 

When in Turkey – Have Green Apple Tea!

Elma √ßaya, also known as green apple tea, is a popular drink that is served in Turkey. It can be served hot or cold, but either way it’s delicious and a good alternative to the usual coffee or tea.

Although I do wonder if it’s something they like to serve mainly to children or tourists (in addition to Turkish coffee, I’m not going to argue against it because I like it!

It tastes exactly like apple and it has a sweet, yet tart flavour. Even though it’s a simple crystallized sugar mix, it mimics green apple flavours quite well. It’s like biting into a fresh apple, only in complete liquidized form.

While I was in Turkey, green apple tea was served in many hostels, hotels and restaurants. It was especially welcoming in the morning when it was served with a yummy Turkish breakfast which is chock full of meats, breads and fruits. The best part about drinking this tea is if you don’t like it that sweet, you can reduce the amount of sugar crystals you add into it.

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They even sold these at the airport, which I think demonstrates just how popular this drink is. When in Rome…or in this case Turkey, have some Turkish green apple tea. ūüôā

Köfte

Köfte is eaten all over the world, from Asia to the Middle East to Africa and even North America. They are little patties usually made of ground meat, somewhat like little sliders minus the bun.

It’s when I went to Turkey that I came across a spice mix for the first time. It’s relatively easy to find in Middle Eastern shops, but travelling tends to clear your mind and make it open to discovering new things.

It’s also easy to make. Just add the spices, an egg, some water and mix. Then, roll them into balls, flatten them into patties and throw them in a pan with a little oil until it is cooked. The package of ingredients says it contains oat, fermented flour (wheat), black pepper, hot chili powder, coriander, curry, cumin, onin, garlic,parsley, salt, flavouring and sugar. Sounds easy enough to recreate a recipe on my own one day. It probably needs some stale bread in the mix too, like many meatball recipes. ūüôā

I originally brought these along on a camping trip because I thought they would be a nice change to the usual suspects, but we ended up with too much food so I made them at home. They can be eaten with rice or bread. Or you can put these little guys into a pita with some tomatoes, lettuce and some hummus to make a wrap or prepare it like a hamburger. They are not spicy hot at all, but they do have lots of flavour because of all the seasonings. ūüôā

 

Manakeesh

Italy is well known for making pizza, but then there are those other cultures that have something similar. A Middle Eastern version of pizza is called manakeesh. These are made with a flat bread crust and decorated with various toppings like a standard pizza, but their flavours are Middle Eastern inspired. You can find pizzas with thyme, cheese, feta and sujuk* to name a few. One popular type of manakeesh is topped with thyme and cheese, but I got a spinach and cheese manakeesh recently.

The spinach has an interesting sour taste to, which I’m assuming is the result of sumac which mimics an acidic, lemony flavour. It also had some crumbly cheese on top and a crispy crust. Like Italian pizza, manakeesh can be eaten anytime of the day though I personally like it as a light lunch or dinner. However, it can also serve as breakfast or a snack.

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*Sujuk is a spicy, Middle Eastern sausage made of ground meat and spices like fenugreek, sumac, cumin, garlic, salt, and pepper

Variations of Baklava – The Bird Nest

To me, a standard baklava is made with phyllo pastry and is filled with honey and nuts. It is typically cut in triangles and is easily found in many Greek or Middle Eastern restaurants or grocery stores.

However, there isn’t just one type of baklava. There is a beautiful¬†one that¬†resembles a bird’s nest. Looking at it, the nest is visually quite detailed.¬†I felt a bit like Godzilla when I ate¬†this dessert – attacking the poor eggs. Of course, it isn’t really a bird’s nest!

It has thin strands of shedded phyllo pastry to bear resemblance to the twigs of a nest in a circular, bowl-like structure. It also has whole almonds to look like ovoid-shaped bird eggs and the pistachios are in there just for good measure. Like many Middle Eastern desserts, you can get your fill with one huge portion or eat one (or several) small versions. The little ones only have enough space for the pistachios or an almond, so take your pick!

It’s sticky to touch because of the sweet, liquidy¬†sugar water. I believe there are variations of¬†this, but the standard is made of sugar, water and¬†possibly lemon or orange blossom water.¬†The base of the nest is made by drenching the phyllo strands with¬†this sweet concoction and then spinning it around one’s finger to recreate the image of a bird’s nest. The thin strands resemble thin noodles, perhaps a vermicelli? Once the nests are built,¬†more syrup is added on top before it is baked golden-brown and crispy. Following is the chopped pistachio nuts/almonds.

The alternative version avoids dealing with the thin strands and uses full sheets of phyllo pastry instead. The method for this is rolling it on a small rod and then scrunching it together before removing it and making a circular, nest shape with it. You can see a video of this on YouTube.

Overall, this dessert is sweet but wasn’t ridiculously sweet. It was pretty filling, given that I ate a big one. I’ll know for next time to eat just one or two small ones. Despite being drenched in sugar water repeatedly¬†during the cooking process, the phyllo remained crispy. Based on the video above, it is recommended that you drink tea with it. I can see that working. Enjoy! ūüôā

Moussaka and Greek Salad

I think I am very liberal when it comes to trying new types of food. Whether it be¬†weird insects¬†or various offal parts, I walk¬†a path that believes you can’t knock it until you try it (even if I have to do it with my eyes closed). So even though I don’t have a liking for mutton or goat, I still ate¬†the bhuna gosht a friend made. Despite having the heebee jeebies, I still¬†purchased a small¬†cup of bondaegi (silk worms) in Korea (it’s seriously a popular snack there and the kids love it). And regardless of the time I was grossed out beyond means in Morocco, I tried a (super) small piece of cow’s brain that was offered to me by a friendly German that I met during my travels.¬†Why? Out of the need to fulfill my curiosity (even though curiosity killed the cat).

However, there are some things that I am just flat out biased against and predisposed to dislike. It’s not necessarily because of what or where it comes from, but only because of the taste. One of those things is eggplant¬†(also known as aubergines). However, when eggplant is prepared as moussaka it is yummy¬†to my taste buds.

Moussaka is a dish that is like a Greek version of shepherd’s pie or casserole. It is baked and the most basic recipes have¬†a layer of grilled eggplant slices, ground beef or lamb, and mashed potatoes. More elaborate recipes can have¬†b√©chamel¬†sauce and other fillings such as potatoes, onions or tomatoes. The combo I ordered above came with rice, potatoes, a bit of tzatziki sauce and Greek salad. Yum!

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Moussaka with Hidden Peas and Cheese

Another version I ate had some peas and cheese in it. Cheese is always a good thing in my books and to add some greens? Why not? It’s a good way to add more vegetables to your meal. I have never made a moussaka before, but if you love hearty meals and you’re passing by a Greek restaurant, all I can say is moussaka is your friend. ūüôā

Side Note: Greek salad is not known as Greek salad in Greece. Rather, it is known as horiatiki salata. It makes sense if you think about it. Greek salad is typically made with lettuce, cucumber, red onion, tomatoes, olives and feta cheese but they must have more than one type of salad over there!

Three Types of Macaroons

I was a bit mind blown today. I’ve always known¬†that¬†there were two types of macaroons – the coconut kind which are¬†sweet little yellow drops of shredded coconut and….

…the ever so popular sweet mini sandwich-like French macaroons which are two cookies filled with cream.

People often confuse the two, but they are nothing alike. The former is made of coconut and the latter is a sweet confectionery treat made of almond flour and comes in a rainbow of colours and flavours (pistachio, strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, etc.). However, I just recently learned about the Middle Eastern version of a macaroon which also takes on the same name (also known as makarouns, mak’karons, zanaib¬†fingers, etc.).¬†It doesn’t¬†resemble the coconut version or the sandwiched version in either taste or appearance and unlike the first two it is deep fried, not baked.

The Middle Eastern macaroon is an anise flavoured treat that is made of semolina flour and somewhat¬†resembles a pine cone.¬†The¬†pattern comes from squishing the raw dough onto a¬†wired rack or grater (though I’m sure there are many other methods out there).¬†It is crisp on the outside, yet soft on the inside and just crumbles in your mouth when you bite into it. The anise gives the cookie an interesting sweet licorice flavour and it is doused in a sweet syrup or honey. I personally fell in love with these at first bite. Even though I don’t normally like licorice, the sweetness of the syrup toned down the anise and produced a wonderfully balanced taste of the combined flavours. If you ever come across these, give it a try and let me know what you think. ūüôā

 

 

Kibbeh – A Little Mediterranean Football

Kibbeh – also known kibbi, kibbe, kibeh, etc. – are delicious little snacks, appetizers or hor d’oeuvres that come shaped like puffy marquise diamonds. They’re like falafel balls, but are made of bulgur (a wheat that has been steamed, dried and crushed) instead of chickpeas and are stuffed with fillings like spinach, cheese, ground meat, nuts, etc. Other than being fried,¬†they can also be baked, steamed or eaten raw (though most advise against eating it this way for safety reasons).

The exterior has a grainy texture to it, but the inside is soft and moist.¬†From the ones I’ve eaten, I think spinach is the best.¬†Other than the fact it’s an awesome vegetable on its own and in other dishes, the spinach in this particular kibbeh was salty with a bit of acidity from¬†lemon juice. It also had some spices in it, so it was definitely not bland!

 

 

Kibbeh is¬†well known in the Middle East as well as many other parts of the world. It is the Middle Eastern version of a two-bite sized¬†croquette¬†and can be bought individually or plated as a mezze. Rather than just serving miniature samosas or little puff-pastry snacks, perhaps¬†I could recommend adding kibbeh to the platter? Happy eating! ūüôā

Ghoraybey

I’ve always been curious about those beautifully decorated cookies and pastries in the window sill of a local Lebanese store that I pass by frequently. I decided to try one called ghoraybey.

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They come in miniature size and regular size and have a signature pistachio nut on each. I ended up getting the bigger ones that are looped because being the day of Ramadan when I went, the mini ones were swiped the quickest being more popular. However, I learned that these cookies can also come in different shapes when people make them at home.

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Ghoraybeh are the Mediterranean equivalent of butter cookies (though some call them sugar cookies). Biting into them, they aren’t overly sweet and have a very powdery texture to them that kind of melts in your mouth. It is white, soft and crumbly because it is predominantly made with ghee (clarified butter) and powdered sugar.

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I found these cookies a bit fragile and the flavours to be very subtle, where most of the flavour comes in the aftertaste. However, I can see ghoraybey pairing well with a nice cup of tea and I do like the addition of the signature pistachio. It’s a good snack for those that don’t want anything too sweet. And I’m a bit late, but Eid Mubarak ūüôā