Tag Archives: Syria

Pizza, Eastern Mediterranean, Syrian

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A few years ago, shortly before the Arab Spring, we had the trip of a lifetime in Syria. We met a friendly hotelier who used to live in Perth, Australia (his neighbours called him Abu Salim of Australia), saw some incredible Roman sites and Crusader-era castles, and wandered around the ancient cities of Damascus, Hama, Aleppo.

Some of our most cherished memories are of food. Knowing no Arabic, we looked, wondered, pointed, smiled, and began to understand the meaning of true Arabic hospitality. We walked into bakeries by the street, and walked out bearing bags of round, soft, silky bread, more refined than any lebanese-style bread we could find at home. I bought bags of fresh nuts, walked past sacks of spices – so many colours and smells, many barely recognised.

We walked past shops that sold rounds or pockets of silky bread. Some had a smear of lamb and tomato and mysterious spices, others were stuffed with unknown (but so tasty) white cheeses and herbs. Each one we tried was delicious. We had something similar on our day trip to Baalbek, Lebanon. Knowing no Arabic, we called them Syrian/Lebanese lamb pizza things.

A couple of years later, I found a recipe for the lamb pizza in Greg Malouf’s Saha, a culinary journey through Syria and Lebanon. The proper name is lahm bi ajine. (But I still call them lamb pizza things)

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This is a long-winded way of saying this week’s Tuesdays with Dorie (TWD) assignment, Eastern Mediterranean Pizza by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, reminded me of those lamb pizzas. Both use a mixture of chopped tomatoes, minced lamb and spices on a thin dough base, which is cooked quickly on a hot pizza stone or baking tray. I made both the (Greek?) pita dough and Greg Malouf’s yoghurt dough, but played around with Greg Malouf’s recipe for pizza topping.

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Pomegranate, and Syria, on my mind

Pomegranates: for many the word evokes images of biblical gardens, sensuous feasts and fertility myths. For me, it recalls The King of the Vitamin.

The King of the Vitamin was a juice shop In Aleppo, Syria. The counter and shop was crowded with bunches and bags of fruit, its decor and layout looked like a carnival stall. There were a number of juice shops on that street, a sight we became familiar with in the Middle East countries we visited two years ago.

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the King of the Vitamin, on the street of fruit juice

Approaching the counter, I ordered in Arabic, hesitantly making unfamiliar, sinuous sounds from a phrasebook.

The beard man behind the counter smiled broadly. Another man began to squeeze cut pomegranates on a heavy duty citrus press. Deep red juice ran down the press and into a bowl below as he pulled the lever with force. I could almost see each translucent seed bursting under the pressure, giving up the ruby liquid inside. 

The emptied half pomegranate was taken off the press. Another went on the press. He filled a paper cup the size of a giant Starbucks latte. There must have been half a litre of pomegranate juice in that cup, extracted from maybe 10 pomegranates.

Then he started on another cup. Seeing my wide-eyed amazement, he briefly paused, mimed ‘body building’, and laughed with us.

I paid less than $1. The bearded man handed the cup to me with the by-now familiar phrase, “welcome to Syria.”

The juice was tart, tempered with just enough sweetness. The flavour was as intense as the colour, and so, so fresh I could almost smell the sun on the pomegranate tree. Forget old fashioned lemonade, this had a complex, nourishing taste that made my taste buds tingle for more. I may have done a little dance on the grey dusty pavement.

After the first sip, bottled pomegranate juice in Australian shops would always taste stale, plastic even.

Was it any surprise the King of the Vitamin became my favourite shop during our stay in Aleppo?

After two days, the bearded man with the broad smile began to greet us as regulars. We drank our juice at the counter, from glasses. “He should drink pomegranate juice to lose weight”, the juice press guy says pointing at Mr Gander, and we all laughed. We wondered, but never asked, which vitamin they were the king of.

From that time, I will always have a soft spot for pomegranates.

In the next couple of weeks, I will be writing about some recipes that showcase this fruit, in memory of the people in a country (Christian and Muslim alike) that gave us a glimpse of their tradition of hospitality, and welcomed us to their country, its incredible sights and food.

[As it turned out, we were there barely 12 months before the Arab Springs swept the region. Now we watch the news and wonder about the people we met, however briefly, during that trip.]

Note, photo of the King of the Vitamin is from Wandering Earl. We were trying to blend in and look less tourist-y (ha!) and didn’t take photos of restaurants or food vendors as a rule.