Thursday, September 10, 2009

Journey to Syria

Back from a 2-days trip to Syria to look into a new project for documenting Syria’s very rich food heritage. I have posted many times this year about Syria (search the blog under Syria), latest about a trip to one of the coutry’s food capitals, Aleppo. This time, my colleague and I visited the south of the country, the Jabal al `Arab region also known as Jabal al Druze, or the Druze mountain. The Jabal is an elevated range overlooking the Hauran plain, and home to a significant Druze population, as well as to Christians and Muslims. According to my friend Kamal Abu Hassan, the Druze population of the Jabal settled there in 1711, when the Yamani branch of the Lebanese Druze left Lebanon after the victory of the Qaysi branch in the battle of Ayn Dara. The Jabal is known for the Druze Revolt against the French (1925-1927) led by Sultan Basha al Atrash, a great Arab military leader. The area is stunning and receives lots of snow. Below is a picture of a mountain dam at 1400 m altitude, with, in the background, an apple orchard belonging to our friends and hosts, the Abu Hassan family who live between Sweida (the capital of the Sweida governorate where the Jabal is located) and Beirut. Incidentally, the Sweida governorate is the size of lebanon: 10,000km2.

The Jabal al `Arab is known for many food products. It is almost virgin territory, but new urban developments are quickly sprouting everywhere. The area is one of the nuclear centers of origin of lentils, chickpea, wheat and barley. It also has, according to the local agricultural experts, 37 different grape varieties, most of which are old local stocks. Among these are the baladi, the helwani, the salti (which came from Salt, in Jordan), the qarri, the `anouni and the late maturing qasufi. The local people make both wine and arak, as well as raisins and grape molasses.

One of the famous grapes region is Qanawat, a small village built around the ruins of a Roman temple crafted in black basalt, where grapes are the most common fresco design. In the pictures below, the Roman temple and a grapevine, and below, a detail of one of the frescoes.

Below is a photo of clusters of unripe helwani grapes looking exactly like the sculpture above. We were told that on the Damascus market, the price of the grapes from Sweida is at least double that of grapes from other regions of Syria.

There are many other products of interest in Sweida, such as the kitha' which is a dried yoghurt used in the cooking of the mansaf, a dish common in Jordan (which is right next door). The best milk for making kitha' originates from the East of Sweida, in the Badia al Safra where the pastures give a special taste to the ewe's milk.

A day in Damascus

There are so many things one can see in Damamscus, but what I love most are the narrow streets (zuqaq, plural: aziqqah) in the old quarters. They are great to walk in the day as in the night. Below is a beautiful zuqaq in the Saruja quarter, not too far from the Hamidiyyeh district.

Saruja is like a little self-contained village: below is the street baker who still makes old damascene breads in a basalt stone oven. He makes 4 kinds of breads I had never heard of: the mashluh, the manqush, the manqush barakeh (with black seed-nigella) and the farani, which is like the mashluh, but with black seed. He also makes what he called kubz mawi, and which he described as "a Palestinian bread, like a bun". I only tasted the first 4 as the mawi dough was not ready yet.
mashluh bread

manqush bread

But the real reason behind our Damascus day was to investigate the processing of qamaruddine, dried apricot paste . It is a flagship product of Damascus, made in the green belt of the city, in the Ghuta area. We have learned a lot about qamareddine. The best qamareddine is apparently made in the town of `Arbin in the Ghuta, exclusively from the kleybi apricot variety. Two kinds of qamareddine are made: the yellowish commercial type, in which the sugar content is brought up to 30% using commercial corn sugar, and the home made traditional type, which has a dark orange color and tastes great. Below is a picture of both products.

Kleybi apricot tree in the Ghuta

Night in Damascus during Ramadan is endless: people go to sleep with sunrise, and food is celebrated every night throughout the month. The Midan food market is a must see place: colors, lights, people, smells and food, food and food.

Sweets have the lion's share, shop after shop of selling delectable baclawa and other traditional pastries. All looked clean, quality control provided by the gentleman in the dark glasses in the picture below: big brother.

Here, one can find rows upon rows of muhallabiyya (a milk pudding) waiting to be consumed alongside shops selling spices from all over the world, a reminder of Syria's once crucial location, at the center of the spice road...


Mariam said...

Dear Rami,

I have been following your blog for quite a while now and I must say I really enjoy your posts.
I was in Syria last summer and so I felt compelled to leave a comment on your blog. The food in Syria is amazing!!I nearly always had my breakfast with manqush or kubz mawi with homemade jam (the lady I stayed with in Damascus made the most delicious jam I have ever tasted). The smoothies in Damascus are also very delicious (my favourite juice stand was in Bab touma, I think the name was alsham or alshamy).
Kind regards,

Mariam from Holland

Helena Cobban said...

Fabulous, Rami. Thanks!

Élan Vital said...

Thanks Rami. I'm quite curious now about Syrian wines/breads/fruits and veggies.

Martin Asser said...

Fantastic Rami. It might be worth looking at a few medieval geographers' books, such as Al-Maqdisi's Ahsan al-Taqaseem, where he lists the produce of these areas during his time. He is fascinating.
(this Laila, although the computer insists I am Martin!)