James Brennan takes us on a captivating journey into the visceral sights, sounds, smells and most importantly flavours once found in Aleppo, Syria, before it was torn apart by the civil war, in the first of our new podcast series The Digest.
Aleppo has long been revered as the spiritual home of Middle Eastern gastronomy. Once a key stopover on the spice route between Asia and Europe, it became famous for its bustling souks, fine restaurants, talented chefs and sophisticated cuisine. Such was its reputation as a culinary centre, it became the first port of call for food writer James Brennan when he embarked on an eating and writing tour of the Middle East in the summer of 2010. Then Syria fell into civil war. The following is a testament to the generosity, warmth and good humour of the people of Aleppo - and their excellent food.
Listen to Aleppo: A Taste of the City That Was and read the full story below.
'Aleppo: A Taste of the City That Was' by James Brennan
Read by Matt White
‘Are you from Holland?’ said the man.
‘No, England,’ I replied. ‘Why?’
‘Because you are big and heavy like a cow.’
I’d heard that the people of Aleppo were among the friendliest in the world, so this wasn’t quite what I’d expected. He was wearing a traditional white kandora robe, his hair was short and gingery like rusted wire-wool, and his leathery complexion bore a sprinkling of freckles. I was just a happy-go-lucky traveller, embarking on an eating tour of the Middle East. Admittedly, it could be said that my strapping six-foot frame was comfortably- upholstered, slightly out of shape, ungainly even, and rather sweaty in the afternoon sun. Not quite Lawrence of Arabia emerging through a shimmering heat haze like some romantic desert vision, but surely not a big Dutch cow.
'If you think I look like a cow now, you should wait and see me in a few months,' I said through a forced grin, thinking of my eating adventures to come. He grinned back, showing a gapped set of yellowish teeth like the keys on a neglected accordion. 'No, no, if you not Holland, then you not cow. Holland people, they walk like this…' He arched both arms at his sides and proceeded to march on the spot in an unlikely manner, still grinning. Perhaps Aleppians didn’t see many tourists? Or cows.
Syria, and Aleppo in particular, seemed like the natural place to start my Middle East food crawl. In many ways, this was where it all began. Aleppo had once enjoyed a position as a great trading city on the Silk Road between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, but its routes of prosperity began to dry up, and by the early 20th century it had fallen into decline.
If Aleppo’s history was a meal, it would be a buckling banquet table of hot and cold mezze plates, spicy dips, succulent grilled meats, aromatic rice dishes and bitter-sweet Arabic pastries - a bewildering variety of complex flavours, textures and aromas that would befit the city’s storied past.
With a population of over 2.5 million, it was the largest city in Syria, though it still played second fiddle to Damascus in terms of power and influence. Many of its old labyrinthine alleys had been swept aside by broad avenues, which were choked with an incessant gush of traffic. From its belching buses to its asthmatic trucks, the vehicles seemed aggressively hostile. The roads were how I imagined the insides of human veins to look after a fix of heroin - the yellow tide of clattering Iranian-made taxi cabs was the surging drug, coursing through every artery and capillary, rattling pedestrian corpuscles and blood cells in a maddening, quickening burst. Crossing a street seemed impossible, but once I’d summoned the pluck to step out onto the asphalt, the inherent good naturedness of Aleppians revealed itself, and the traffic somehow veered and swerved out the way.
History had coloured the story of Aleppian cuisine. The Citadel was built by the Mamluks, but the mound on which it stands had been used for centuries as a site for worship. According to legend, the prophet Abraham let his cow graze on the hill, and offered its milk to the people of Aleppo. Some say that the city’s ancient name of Halab - which is still widely used in Syria today - is derived from haleeb, the Arabic for ‘milk’. Or it might come from the Aramaic word halaba, which means ‘white’, and may refer to the colour of the limestone found in the area, or perhaps the white milk of Abraham’s ashen cow. It’s impossible to know, but the fact that people make such a link shows how food and Aleppian history are so closely intertwined.
Aleppo’s position as a stopover for caravans on the Silk Road completely revolutionised its approach to food. It became a vital trading link between China and Europe, and it prospered with the flow of people, goods, wealth and ideas. The city became an important hub for Muslims on the pilgrimage to Makkah, and the local hospitality industry flourished. As the city grew, more and more of the surrounding fertile land was used to graze sheep and cultivate vegetables, fruit and nuts. Strange herbs and spices came in from the east, which alongside local cherries, olives, peppers and pistachios, inevitably found their way into the beating heart of Aleppo: the souk.
Behind carts laden with sacks and boxes, sandalled feet scrambled on dusty cobblestones worn smooth over centuries of trade. The souk was transformed from the quiet space of yesterday into a riot of smells and noise. 'Yalla, yalla,' came the cry from burdened porters, sweating beneath red-and-white keffiyeh headscarves worn like turbans. Come on, come on, keep moving! The crowd snarled at a junction in the narrow pathway, as women in drizzling black abayas steadied bundled packages on their heads, and men heaved their carts through the teeming jumble of bodies into side-alleys and away. It was late morning in the market and the hustle was building steadily before afternoon prayers.
This souk was like no other. The longest covered bazaar in the world, it wound in a serpentine tangle of stalls for more miles than a sane man can count. It was where the locals came to shop, browse and haggle for everything and anything, from embroidered cushion covers to bridal costumes. It was a real, working marketplace and possibly the most authentic of all the traditional souks in the Middle East.
Traders occupied alcoves sliced into the walls, and were organised according to guild - gold and silver over here, textiles over there - yet the main thoroughfares offered a bit of everything. Much of the current construction dated back to the Ottoman era, but parts of it were built in the Middle Ages, when caravans from the Silk Road would unload their goods and park overnight at merchants’ accommodation in the khans or caravanserais. Some of the khans branching off from the meandering lanes were built in the 15th century, but there has certainly been a marketplace on this site for many hundreds, perhaps thousands of years
Roaming hawkers sold sesame-studded breads on rickety carts, while others transported their wares on their heads. One cart was piled high with a mountain of pistachio nuts. My eyes were drawn to a cluster of butchers’ shops a few moments after my nose had got wind of them. The strong stench of blood and guts drifted from visceral hanging displays. Bulging livers drooped from ceiling hooks next to flaps of tripe. Large sheets of pallid fat had been hacked and carved, so that sculpted lobes curled over like waxy white palm fronds. The hanging carcasses left little to the imagination, their ribs poking through wrinkled folds of skin like the bars on a grisly xylophone. Occasionally, there would be a decorative bunch of parsley or mint hanging up to distract you from the gore, but one stall had blood spattered and smeared on the wall like a statement: 'We’re butchers, dammit. We kill animals and there’s no getting around it.'
The fragrances of the souk changed constantly. I was distracted by a fresh waft from a nearby fruit and vegetable shop, where a basket of barely-ripe cherries caught my eye. Then a zesty blast hit me as I approached the spice traders. Sumac and paprika in crimson and burnt orange; buff dunes of cumin, coriander and turmeric beneath hanging rows of dried limes. Among the stacked jars and bulging sacks was the legacy of the Silk Road - the exotic colourful mounds of spices that had transformed the way Aleppians approached food.
I was getting peckish and stopped at a sweet shop. The sign said ‘Sweet Mahroseh’ in red and blue neon. Outside, there was a broad platter stacked with glazed pastries dusted with icing sugar. A jug-eared boy appeared, and told me they were warbat filled with ashta, or clotted cream made from buffalo’s milk. I couldn’t resist. The wonderfully flakey pastry, which had been dipped in atar sugar syrup, crumbled into the thick ashta with every bite. Admittedly, there weren’t many bites. I wolfed the whole thing down in seconds as I drifted through the crowd.
I stopped to look at some traditional Aleppine olive and bay laurel soap, and I heard a voice calling me from a nearby textiles stall. 'Hey, you. Where are you from?' It was a moon-faced young man in a tight black t- shirt, waving theatrically in my direction. I went over to answer the, by now customary, question. 'I’m from England,' I said. 'Oh. I have been to Soho. It was so queenie-queenie!' He giggled, pulled a face, and then slapped me on the shoulder. Not for the first time in Aleppo, I was mildly taken aback. Here I was, in a conservative and predominantly Muslim society, where homosexuality was certainly illegal, and I was flagrantly being chatted up by an openly camp market trader in the most public of places.
As I walked past another stall, I saw a picture on the wall of the late Princess Diana with a red-and-white keffiyeh superimposed onto her head. Elsewhere, there was a portrait of the Syrian President, embellished with a pair of devil horns scribbled in marker pen. I wondered if the souk doubled up as some kind of subversive bolt-hole for dissidents and non-conformists.
Just before I left. A stocky, thickset man with a bent nose, gimlet eyes and eyebrows like gorilla’s fingers summoned me over to him. He asked me the staple question, curtly. I answered him. 'Ah, England good,' he said, before handing me a business card: Ghiath Tifor, Golden Boxer. 'Middle East champion. Arab champion. Middle weight,' he announced proudly. I braced myself for an upper-cut, but his stern expression gave way to a smile. He delved into his shopping and produced a brown paper bag. From it he lifted two plastic-wrapped mamoul cookies, which he gave to me before going on his way.
That evening I experienced another gesture of hospitality from Pierre Antaki of the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy. He’d offered to take me to Club d’Alep, a private members’ restaurant that had been lauded as the best in the country. He was in his early 50s, clearly comfortably off, with salt and pepper hair and a general look of wellness.
As his SUV cruised through the snagged streets of the Christian Quarter, he told me how, in the Ottoman era, the Sultans would send spies from Istanbul to Aleppo to steal its fiercely guarded recipes. Some of those recipes had hardly changed since the Middle Ages, and Club d’Alep was the best place to taste them. It was a modern restaurant with a winter dining room and an al fresco space for the summer, both of which were free of tourist trimmings.
The mission statement on the Academy’s website stated its purpose: ‘To safeguard the culinary heritage, and to help develop, improve and promote the Syrian cuisine.’ Pierre took it up from there. 'We started in 2003, but we are not very active in Syria because…' There was a long pause, and he glanced furtively at my dictaphone. 'Our members are not very dynamic… and we have a lot of…' a longer pause, '…obstacles.'
It was clear the regime in Syria permeated every cranny of day-to-day life. Stiff-lipped portraits of President Bashar Al-Assad peered from almost every building, and it was rumoured the secret police and a network of informers kept a watchful eye on everybody, especially western tourists. The Academy was registered with the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, and Pierre evidently had to choose his words carefully. It felt like the Academy had ruffled one or two governmental feathers since it was founded. 'We are trying, slowly, slowly, with our own means, through our travels, through receiving journalists, through replying to every single email that comes to us, to make our Academy known.'
The table began to fill up. There was baba ghanoush with smokey mashed aubergine and tahini; sweet red peppers grilled over charcoal and smothered with pomegranate molasses. A plate of raw green chilli peppers appeared next to a tabbouleh salad, and then kibbeh nayyeh or raw lamb, which had been pounded with bulgar wheat, chopped onion and fresh mint until creamy and mousse-like, and then slathered with olive oil. I’d had it in Lebanese restaurants before, but the Syrian version contained peppery spices and was drizzled with pomegranate molasses. It was Aleppian history on a plate. The table presented six months of dinners in one go. An unassailable mountain of food designed to defeat you, to show that your host’s hospitality far exceeds your greed.
'All the spices, whether they were liked by the Syrians or not, used to pass by this city to go to Europe,' Pierre explained. 'So, as a smart businessman, when you have something in front of you, you want to know what it is and how it tastes. And this is why they put all the spices in the food. Lebanon didn’t have the caravans passing through, so they didn’t have the chance to discover these different tastes.'
Two bowls of hummus arrived. One was called ‘Beiruti hummus’, with chopped parsley and a lot of garlic. The other was standard Aleppo hummus, which contained cumin. The local one was much thicker than the Lebanese. 'I was told that in Lebanon they call the Beiruti hummus ‘Halabi hummus’ after Aleppo,' said Pierre. It amused me that neither Lebanon nor Syria wanted to claim responsibility for this uncouth hummus.
Then there was a delicacy I hadn’t tried before: the desert truffle or faqah. It was like a mushroom-potato hybrid with subtle earthy flavour and fragrance, and a slightly crunchy texture. Not quite as arresting as its European cousins, but interesting nonetheless. It had been boiled, sliced and served as a salad with chopped parsley, black pepper, olive oil and lemon juice. 'We are proud of it in Syria, in Aleppo more than in Damascus. It grows wild in the desert. And in the early spring, when the soil cracks, it shows. Otherwise it’s totally buried under the sand. Only the bedouin know where to find them.'
The kebabs, for which Aleppo is justly famous, soon materialised under a bouquet of fragrant steam. The hunks of lamb had been barbecued on a skewer with the desert truffles, but Pierre advised me to taste the meat on its own to appreciate its richness. It was stupidly soft and tender, but the flavour pounced with a full-bodied thwack. 'Lebanon and Damascus don’t have this meat,' purred Pierre. 'In Damascus, you will see the meat is pink, while here, it’s red. It’s about how the pasture and how the animals are raised. Around Aleppo the soil is very rich in minerals and iron, it is very fertile land. All our cattle breeds in open air. They eat fresh.'
By now I was so stuffed full of meat and herbs you could have minced me and served me up as a gourmet sausage. But it was time for dessert. Or should I say desserts. First up was semolina with walnuts, cinnamon and mastic. Then there was a gum-recedingly sweet confection resembling candy-floss.
'This is sugar hair,' said Pierre. 'It’s bloody sweet. It’s sugar, pure sugar. I don’t know how it’s made, it’s a secret. It’s pulled from a paste across a table and it needs a lot of muscles. Stretching and folding until you have the desired texture.'
He went on to tell me that Aleppo’s ‘hairy sweets’ or knafeh may have their origins in Chinese cuisine - another legacy of the Silk Road. There was also vermicelli in traditional Aleppian food, which is cooked with rice or soup. And there were lots of sweet elements in savoury dishes - such as the pomegranate molasses splashed on the kibbe nayyeh - perhaps influenced by the Chinese concept of sweet and sour.
I’d been working my way through plate after plate of great food like a one-man plague of locusts, and I was concerned that I would soon resemble Ismail’s Dutch cow for real. I took a breather, and then Pierre began talking about ‘real’ Aleppian food, as though what I’d been stretching my stomach to accommodate had merely been an illusion. 'This is restaurant food,' he said, flicking his hand over the table as if to dismiss every dish. 'What we eat at home is different from this - it’s always rice with stew, vegetables and meat. All the stuffed things.'
Finally beaten by the sheer volume of food, I sat back with a fruit-flavoured shisha pipe and asked Pierre about the future of Aleppian cuisine. 'What will happen could be something different to what I hope,' he replied with a sigh. 'I hope to develop a Syrian- Aleppo nouvelle cuisine in a way that keeps the taste but is nice looking. So people can discover the food we eat at home in restaurants.'
The Lebanese are more inventive and more daring because they have seen other things,' he continued, referring to the diaspora that left the country in the wake of the civil war. 'Our chefs are good, but unfortunately they are close to uneducated. Our chef here doesn’t know how to write and read, but he is the best. For me, this is the best restaurant in all Syria,’ he said.
I’d eaten enough to bury a bedouin encampment, but Pierre’s enthusiasm was infectious. Buoyed by his passion for Aleppian food, and armed with restaurant suggestions, I embarked on an eating spree that lasted days.
At Beit Sissi (Sissi House) I had muhammara, a spicy red pepper dip garnished with walnuts and cucumber, drenched in sweet pomegranate molasses.
A flatbread’s flip from Sissi was Zmorod. I ordered what is perhaps the definitive Aleppian dish, the ultimate product of the region’s fertile land and mercantile history: kabab bil karaz, the famous cherry kebab. Rounded nuggets of minced lamb had been cooked on skewers to a state of succulence and slathered in a gooey slick of dark red cherry sauce. These were the locally grown wishna cherries that were just coming into season, like the ones I’d seen at the souk. It was a test for the palate, a sortie of flavours bombarding the taste buds with sweet and sour, before strafing it with spice. It was intense. Everything Pierre had told me about the Chinese influence on Aleppian cuisine was making sense.
I wandered into the Armenian quarter, which had flourished with refugees who had fled their homeland during the early 20 th century genocide perpetrated by the Ottomans. At a restaurant called Kasr Al Wali, I was keen to see how Armenians had shaped Aleppo’s tastes. The basturma offered heavenly slices of cured meat, a blush of crimson flesh that intensified to a deep purple close to its spice-encrusted edge. I had yalanji, cold stuffed vine leaves folded into neat triangular parcels, and sojouk or spiced sausage meat rolled in flatbread.
There were laughs to be had at Aleppo’s very own world record-breaking restaurant, Al Kommeh. It had photographs to prove that at one time it had created the world’s largest plate of fattoush, at 3.5 tonnes and 6 metres in diameter. It had also produced the planet’s longest kebab. At 15 kilos and 12 metres long, this was a kebab you could partition a city with. No wonder there were military generals and government officials on the photographs of its unveiling.
A fig tree had shed its soft green fruit onto the pavement next to an old black 1970s Chevrolet. Across the street, a prehistoric-looking bakery had laid that morning’s flatbreads out on carpets unfurled on the cobbles. A retro Volkswagen Beetle trundled one way, a man on a motorbike went the other way, and two little boys emerged from the scene carrying the family’s daily bread on their heads, the packets flapping over like elephants’ ears. On the tiny Hatab Square there was a fishmonger rubbing spices into the scored flesh of a huge fish, while a mother, her young son and a big black cat looked on. Jdeideh was just waking up.
Down a dusty lane, a few people had gathered outside a signless cafeteria. It was Al- Fawwal, and the man behind the counter was Abu Abdo. He was making ful medammes, which wasn’t a great surprise. Because that’s all he had ever made. Every day, from 3am to just gone noon, for the best part of 50 years.
Abu Abdo’s ful medammes consists of large fava beans, slowly simmered in copper urns until soft and mushy, served with red chilli paste, garlic and a choice of either lemon juice or tahini. That’s it, no alternatives. You either like lemon or tahini or you don’t like Abu Abdo’s ful. Watching him work is to see a man truly in his element, like Steve McQueen behind the wheel of a Shelby Mustang. Fluid, graceful, elegant. His body moves like mercury as he goes from tahini, to beans, to chilli paste to olive oil. Splashing them into bowls or plastic bags in a flowing, liquid ballet of functional movement. You worry that if he stops he’ll seize up and crumble into a billion pieces. He’s as much a part of his restaurant as the dented worktops and the big blue gas canisters that fire up his ful. Take away Abu Abdo and the walls would crack and the heavy wooden shutters would bang themselves closed in resistance.
I’d had ful before in Dubai. It was sometimes spelled ‘foul’, which I thought was a pretty apt description. To me it tasted like a Bronze Age sock that had been dug up from a peat bog and boiled in donkey vomit. A cheesy, acrid stench of a three-week old body part found under a serial killer’s porch. You could say I wasn’t a fan.
I ordered the ful with tahini and sat down at one of a few tables. It was splashed up the sides of the bowl, a brownish, reddish, yellow and white swirl of unctuous liquids, with the occasional fava bean poking through the surface. There was a basket of flatbread, a bowl of tomato and green chillies, and a whole raw onion. A steaming copper urn stood nearby, ancient, streaked and stained with what looked like a century of slopped ful. I girded my gastronomic loins.
It. Was. Incredible. Creamy, comforting, spicy and wonderful. The cheesy stench was nowhere to be sniffed, and the rancorous bitter pungency a distant memory. This was ful medammes as it should be. A lovable dish that loves you back.
'Do you like my ful?' asked Abu Abdo, somewhat rhetorically, after I’d soaked up every last drop with bread and got up to leave with a woozy look on my face. He was still spooning the mixture into bowls, and stopped momentarily when a young boy with Down’s Syndrome came behind the counter to give him a hug.
Abu Abdo’s really is one of the last true bespoke dining experiences - you know exactly what you are going to get, you know who’s going to cook it, and you know you can’t quite get it like that anywhere else. It’s been in the community for 150 years, handed down from father to son with a responsibility to keep on doing what they’ve always done. It doesn’t have to be sexy or cool. It just has to be good. A constant that doesn’t compromise to please shareholders.
That evening, I left my hotel with the warm glow that had stayed with me all day. I walked past the old clock tower at Bab al-Faraj and padded along the busy main artery of Sharia al-Quwatli to the main square. Saahat Saad Allah al-Jabri is a sprawling, treelined, European-style plaza, built during the French occupation. There, an old man approached me. He was wearing a black and white keffiyeh flowing over the shoulders of a threadbare suit jacket. He insisted on buying us both a drink from a street hawker. It was jallab, a spicy, syrupy fruit juice made with dates and grape molasses. He pointed to his stomach and gave me the thumbs up, which I assume meant it was good for me. We had to drink it on the spot so the glasses could be washed by the vendor for the next customer. It was pretty grim if the truth be known, like thick, gloopy medicine. All the old man could say in English was 'Tony Blair,' while grimacing, which didn’t help it go down any easier. But by now, being given food and drink by complete strangers seemed as natural as breathing.
I carried on walking and came to one of Aleppo’s most celebrated landmarks, The Baron Hotel. The century-old grand dame of Aleppo had once played host to such luminaries as TE Lawrence, Charles Lindbergh, Theodore Roosevelt, Yuri Gagarin and Kemal Ataturk. Now tired and jaded, with its name scrawled in flickering neon, its retro bar is more popular than its faded rooms. Tourists come to see Lawrence’s unpaid bar bill, framed and hung on the wall, but I grabbed a beer and sat on the outdoor terrace. Agatha Christie is said to have started writing Murder on the Orient Express here.
Tomorrow, I would be at the train station where Hercule Poirot began his journey to Istanbul on the Taurus Express, but I would be heading south to Damascus. It was fitting, then, that my beer hailed from the capital. Turbo Beer, from the Barada Beer Company. I took a sip of the watery, off-tasting fizz and read the blurb on the bottle.
'Turbo beer is a genuine nourishing and tasteful beer with well balanced flavours. It is considered as one of the world’s best beers.'
Hmm, I thought. Probably.
It’s October, 2020, and you can no longer drink Turbo beer at the Baron Hotel. The government-owned Barada brewery was an early casualty of the civil war, and The Baron Hotel, the target of mortar blasts and looters, while still standing, is closed to guests for the foreseeable future.
The Siege of Aleppo ended in December, 2016, but much of the city remains in ruins, and the effects of the humanitarian crisis will reverberate for decades to come. Sections of the old souk are being rebuilt, but Aleppo will never be the same again.
I lost contact with Pierre Antaki, but heard he had fled Aleppo for Beirut. Abu Abdo, master of ful at Al Fawal, moved his restaurant to another neighbourhood after the original was damaged in the fighting. According to reports, he sadly passed away in 2019. As for the people I met in the souk and the streets, who enriched my travels and my memories with their good humour, friendliness and generosity, I may never know what became of them. The cheeky souk traders, Ghiath Tifor the ‘golden boxer’, and Ismail, who I last saw at the foot of the old Citadel, which still looms over the beleaguered city.
And me? I’m ten years older and wiser. Still writing about food, celebrating food, and eating food. And more closely resembling that big Dutch cow with each day.
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