Sunday, May 6, 2012

Cherry Kebabs in Ancient Aleppo

In the shadow of the looming Citadel, the souk of Aleppo teems and bustles with life. It is the beating heart of one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities, and shimmers with vivid colors and smells as it has since the days of the Silk Road. It was here that merchants sold Eastern spices alongside fresh local produce, and that most Aleppian of recipes, kabab bil karaz, was born.

It is said that the covered souk in Aleppo stretches over 20 miles (32 km), making it the largest in the world. But size matters less than atmosphere in recreating the tumult and excitement of a medieval Arabian marketplace – and Syria’s second city has atmosphere in abundance. This is not a touristy souk, although it is perfect for visitors who wish to wander beneath its impressive stone arches and browse without being harassed by traders.
Aleppians pride themselves on their hospitality toward travelers, in traditional Bedouin fashion. During Aleppo’s 7,000 years of history, it has been overrun by Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, and Romans.
Walk around the wonderful Old City, and you’ll see architecture left by the Mamluks and Ottomans. Many civilizations helped shape Aleppo, but it was its position on the trade routes that provided its distinct character.
As one of the main stops on the Silk Road between China and Europe, Aleppo became a commercial center that prospered from the flow of goods, wealth, people, and ideas. And it was this cultural exchange that helped to shape its proud culinary heritage.
Today Aleppo is heralded as the gastronomic capital of Syria, and a growing destination for food tourism.
Surrounded by fertile land, it has always produced fine local ingredients, from fruit and vegetables to meat and poultry. But an influx of exotic spices from the East was to change the way those ingredients were prepared forever. The spice traders in the souks invented delicious recipes to entice customers and encourage trade. And their legacy became the bedrock of a sophisticated, globally recognized cuisine.
Exotic ingredients and local produce come together in kabab bil karaz, the cherry kebab. It is made with the sour wishna cherries grown in orchards on the outskirts of the city, and tender, locally reared lamb.
The minced meat is rolled into small balls, broiled, laid upon thin flatbread, and drenched in a thick, dark cherry sauce. A baharat spice blend adds cardamom, cloves, cumin, and coriander to the mix, and a few spoonfuls of pomegranate molasses rounds it off with a sumptuously balanced sweet and sour quality. A fresh fattoush salad, splashed with lemon juice and a sprinkling of sumac, is all you need to complete a dish that’s been thousands of years in the making.

The cherry kebabs in Aleppo have a unique flavor that comes from the small, sour cherries that grow just outside the city

Fresh, dried, whole, crushed, and powdered spices are sold in bins, bags, and pyramids in Aleppo’s labyrinthine covered souk 

The Citadel of Aleppo is one of the largest fortresses in the world; its walls sit above a moat that connects to underground passageways and caves

Best Places to Eat Cherry Kebabs

There’s a special ambience at this delightful restaurant, which sits in an elegant courtyard at the center of a beautifully restored 17th-century house. An ornate wrought-iron staircase climbs up a cool limestone wall, while overhead, intricate lanterns cast a lambent glow on the diners below. The atmosphere intensifies when the dining area is full of families and giggling couples, as fleet-footed waiters bring plate after plate of authentic Syrian delights to each table.
The kabab bil karaz here is famous across Syria.
The cherries and lamb are sourced locally, so both are wonderfully fresh. If you arrive early in the cherry season, the rich, spicy, dark sauce has a sourer edger to it, while later on it’s sweeter, as the cherries ripen. Either way, the meat will be cooked to pink and tender perfection, and goes superbly with warm flatbread and fresh salad leaves. Like all Syrian spreads, a variety of dishes should be added, from a spicy muhammara red pepper paste with pomegranate molasses to a smoky baba ghanoush dip of mashed eggplant.
Raheb Bouhaira Street, Jdeideh, Aleppo; open noon–late daily;
Also in Aleppo
Club d’Alep (+963 21 211 3500; expensive) is quite possibly the best restaurant in the country, but unfortunately it’s a private members club.
In Syria, however, more than anywhere else on Earth, people are so friendly, warm, and welcoming that it shouldn’t necessarily stop you from getting in. A friendly word with your hotel manager may be all that’s needed. The reward is simply fantastic food, from the cherry kebabs to the desert truffles with lamb. Bazar Al-Charq (; moderate) is a cavernous restaurant in a stone cellar, offering all kinds of kebabs and even some rustic Bedouin dishes.
Also in Syria
Al Halabi (; expensive) is one of the best restaurants in Damascus, but even this grand venue has a distinctly Aleppine bent. “Halab” is the ancient name for Aleppo, and Aleppine (Halabian) chef Mohammed Helal’s food bears all the adventurous hallmarks of Aleppo’s cuisine.
Highlights are the cherry kebab and the kebbeh saffarjaliyeh (spiced lamb and bulgur wheat patties with quince, pomegranate, and rice).
Around the World
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Dubai has a number of good restaurants offering great, authentic Syrian food, including Aroos Damascus (+971 221 9825; inexpensive) and Sarai (+971 438 0640; moderate).
What Else to Eat
There’s always a twist to Aleppine food, and yabrak is no exception. It’s similar to waraq enab (cold vine leaves stuffed with rice and minced lamb), but served hot, which changes the flavor and texture of the dish. Aleppo has a large Armenian population, so you should certainly try its soujouk, slices of spiced sausage rolled in flatbread. Basterma is another Armenian delicacy of cured meat crusted in a peppery herb coating. Both dishes can be found at Kasr Al-Wali (, but for one of the city’s most traditional and heartwarming experiences, have a breakfast of ful medames at Abu Abdo’s tiny restaurant in Jdeideh. The old man has been serving the same dish of fava beans, tahini, lemon juice, and red pepper paste for around 50 years, and he’s a legendary character in the city.
A Day in Aleppo
Few cities in the Middle East can match Aleppo for its mix of historical sites, calming mosques and churches, chaotic streets, and atmospheric souks.
Wandering through the delightfully haphazard Old City, toward the yellow-taxithronged streets of the New City, is the best way to soak it all in.
MORNING : Begin by ambling through the streets of the Old Town to the huge fortified mound of the Citadel. Tour the ruins, from the underground hammam to the old amphitheater, and then cool down at the café, with stunning views.
AFTERNOON : Explore the famous and sprawling souk, for which a stern constitution and a good pair of shoes are essential. Enjoy the tumult of trade along mile after mile of stands, offering everything from silk and spices to Aleppine olive soap and the entrails of sheep.
EVENING : Take refuge in the Grand Mosque, then grab a taxi for the New City.
The shops in the quiet Christian neighborhood of Jdeideh begin to close their shutters by nightfall, which is when you should head to Hatab Square and a traditional Syrian courtyard restaurant for delightful Aleppine food and a cold beer.

Getting to Aleppo

Aleppo International Airport is around 15 minutes from the city by taxi. There are trains from Istanbul to the north and Damascus in the south.

Where to stay in Aleppo

Baron Hotel (inexpensive) is the oldest hotel in Syria, and once played host to Lawrence of Arabia. A little faded, but full of history. +963 21 210 880
Yasmeen d’Alep (moderate) is a delightful hotel occupying a restored 17th-century mansion in the Jdeideh area.
Sheraton Aleppo (expensive) is ideal for when comfort and cleanliness are more important than character.
+963 21 21 228

No comments:

Post a Comment