When people look at the Middle East nowadays, all they see is war and conflict, which overshadow many positive aspects of the region. As a result of religion, thousands of years of history, foreign influence, and location, the Middle East has developed a rich culture that becomes apparent in the area’s food. Situated in former Assyria, the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean, Syria perfectly demonstrates the diverse and delicious food found in the Middle East. Having Syrian origins myself, I can verify that in a typical Syrian meal, it is very difficult to not find at least one thing you like.
To start off, we usually sit in the living room and eat meze, a variety of small appetizers. The typical Syrian meze consists of the following:
Basically a Syrian meatball, kibbe hamda is finely ground meat, typically lean beef or lamb, wrapped in bulgur and can be fried, cooked, baked, grilled — you name it. This dish is a major staple of Syrian, Middle Eastern and North African cuisine.
How to make kibbe.
Highly popular in Syria, Turkey, Israel and Lebanon, lahamajin are small meat pies of lamb or beef on flat bread. For extra flavor, people will often add cayenne pepper or some other spicy ingredient.
How to make lahamajin.
This is a salad made with parsley, tomatoes, onions and bulgur, seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice and salt. There are many variations of tabbouleh, including adding garlic, adding mint and replacing bulgur with couscous.
How to make tabbouleh.
This is a spread or dip made from cooked, mashed chickpeas and tahini.
How to make hummus.
This is another spread or dip consisting mainly of eggplant. A common misconception about babaganoush is that the term can be used interchangeably with mutabal. Mutabal is a different dip that shares only the eggplant base with babaganoush.
How to make babaganoush.
How to make mutabal.
These are miniature baked farina rings, typically with sesame seeds and served with zatar, a popular condiment made of various Middle Eastern herbs and spices.
How to make ka’ak.
Both hummus and babaganoush have a large number of variations. People can add anything from garlic to turmeric. In fact, many meze dishes have the possibility for added ingredients, making no two families’ mezes the same.
Zatar, like hummus and babaganoush, has a very adaptable recipe. There are no rigid guidelines to making it, but it is recommended to use mostly oregano or thyme. You can also buy zatar since its readily available at nearly any Middle Eastern market.
Additionally, adults tend to eat meze while drinking Arak. Arak is a strong anise drink, usually containing 40 to 60 percent alcohol. The original, traditional version tastes like aniseed, and it turns milky white when exposed to water.
Next, we move to the dining room where the main meal begins. Typically, the main course starts with a plate of vine leaves stuffed with rice and either minced meat (yabrak) or vegetables (yalanji), as well as a plate of mahshi. Mahshi is quite similar to yabrak and yalanji in that it is either eggplant (bahdijan) or zucchini (kusa) stuffed with meat.
How to make yabrak.
How to make yalanji.
How to make mahshi.
The main part of the traditional meal consists of various plates, mostly meat, all served at the same time, allowing diners to pick and choose.
This is a stew made of okra, beef or lamb, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Be careful eating bamia; it is deceptively filling!
How to make bamia.
In this stew, the focus is on cut green beans, not meat. The green beans are typically cooked with tomato, garlic and ground beef and served with rice.
How to make fasolia blahmi.
Sambusak closely resembles a small empanada filled with meat or cheese and can also be served as part of the meze.
How to make sambusak.
This is just kibbeh as a pie. It's pretty popular in traditional cooking, so it's not unusual to eat kibbeh hamda in the meze and kibbeh bil sanieh in the main course.
How to make kibbeh bil sanieh.
No Middle Eastern meal is complete without the world famous kebab. The kufta kebab is the Syrian spin on the kebab, adding any combination of garlic, black pepper, cayenne pepper, allspice and paprika, as well as usually serving it alongside a salad.
How to make kufta kebab.
After the meal is over, it's time for dessert!
A sweet, cake-like pastry made up of layered filo with nuts and syrup, Syrian Baklava is common in not only the Middle East, but also the Mediterranean, the Balkans and much of North Africa.
How to make baklava:
Kanafe is typically prepared either as a layered cake, where several layers of Urfa, Hatay or ricotta cheese are covered by a crunchy layer of thin, long noodles or shaped like an éclair (called kanafe khishnah) with the noodles wrapping around the cheese interior.
How to make kanafe.
One of my favorite foods of all time, atayef, especially atayef asaferi, are basically Arabic pancakes. They are thinly spread out on a pan and baked like a pancake, then filled with cream and syrup, sealed via frying or baking and dipped in more syrup. With a crunchy border, soft exterior, creamy interior and overall syrupy sweetness, the atayef is one of the crown jewels of Syrian and Middle Eastern cuisine.
How to make atayef.
If you want to make these at home but cannot find some of the ingredients at your local supermarket, not to worry. They will almost always be available at your local Arab market or shuk — and if you don't live near one you can try Amazon.
Happy eating or, as we say, sahteen! صحتين!