My Global Table: Syria

Various bowls of Syrian food.
Photography by Brian Wetzstein | Food styling by Donna Coates and Linda Hall

Syria. Saying the country’s name nowadays invokes images of sadness, sorrow and despair. The civil war has increased awareness of Syria and a flood of refugees worldwide. But for many Syrians, our home country remains a light in our heart and a place with beautiful memories.

I remember summer visits to see my uncles, aunts, grandparents and endless cousins for our annual reunion. I recall lively streets filled with food vendors, small convenience stores, farmers markets and people everywhere walking with family and friends. Wherever I turned, there were fresh local fruits and vegetables, sweets of all shapes and types, bakeries serving fresh breads and fast-food shawarma spots. The best times were at night, when it felt like no one slept and everyone was outside.

Cuisine Origins and Influences
One of Earth’s most ancient civilizations, Syria has been governed over the centuries by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ottomans and the French. This rich history and neighboring countries have contributed to the variety of Syrian cuisine. Further, Syria’s Middle Eastern location and weather provide rich fertile lands, allowing for many foods to be produced locally and eaten seasonally.

Syrian cuisine differs slightly among its regions such as Damascus, Aleppo and the coastal city of Latakia. Syria is home to many religions, with Islam being the predominant faith. As such, all meat is halal (animals must be killed in a specific ritual manner to be halal, meaning permissible) and pork and alcohol are avoided.

Essential Foods and Ingredients
The Mediterranean region is associated with an eating pattern considered to be one of the healthiest in the world. A typical Syrian kitchen has essential food staples such as olives, za’atar and olive oil. Za’atar is a spice mix made with thyme, marjoram, sumac and sesame seeds and usually is eaten with pita bread dipped in olive oil. Fresh vegetables such as eggplant, zucchini, cauliflower and green beans are the center of most main dishes. Radishes, parsley, tomato and cucumber are used to make a variety of salads including fattoush (salad with toasted or fried flatbread) and tabbouleh (salad of parsley, tomato, onion and grains).

Other common ingredients are tahini, yogurt, pomegranate syrup, garlic, almonds, pistachios and pine nuts. The main fats used for cooking are olive oil and ghee. Commonly used to give dishes a distinct flavor and aroma, bahārāt is a spice mix consisting of allspice, cumin, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom.

Traditional Dishes and Food Hospitality
Syrians are known for their love of food and hospitality with family and guests. Gatherings usually last for hours, with an abundance of food served and shared.

For breakfast, Syrians typically eat a variety of foods including cheese, labneh (yogurt spread), za’atar, olives, fruit jams, makdous (oil-cured eggplant) and fresh pita bread. Other specialty breakfast dishes are a fava bean salad known as ful-mudammas and fatteh, a dish made with tahini, yogurt, pita bread and chickpeas.

Lunch, commonly served mid to late afternoon, is the largest meal of the day and includes a few dishes: a soup or dip, such as hummus or babaghanouj (mashed cooked eggplant), a salad and the main entree. One of Syria’s national dishes is kibbeh, ground meat mixed with burghol (bulgur) prepared in a variety of ways. Freekeh is another popular dish cooked with lamb or chicken and sprinkled with nuts. Mahashee is a delicacy dish prepared with stuffed zucchini, eggplant or peppers and cooked in a tomato-based sauce.

In the evening, Syrians enjoy a lighter meal, consisting of appetizers similar to breakfast, shawarma (roasted meat), falafel (chickpea fritters) and fresh seasonal fruit or dessert.

Most popular desserts are made with pistachios and walnuts using kataifi (shredded dough) or phyllo pastry for baklava. Other desserts are made with a rich clotted cream called ashta, used in kanafe (pastry soaked in sweet syrup) and halawet el jibn (sweet cheese rolls). Syrup made with rose water is drizzled on most desserts as the final touch. Tea and Turkish coffee are always offered at the end of a meal as family and guests sit back and relax for the night.

If you haven’t tasted Syrian cuisine, try the recipes in this issue of Food & Nutrition or visit your local Syrian community or restaurant. They’ll be sure to say ahlan wa sahlan (welcome)!

References

2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website. Published December 2015. Accessed October 25, 2018.
Definition of Halal. Halal Food Authority website. Accessed September 24, 2018.
Herbst ST, Herbst R. The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.; 2009.
Schaefer A. Travel to Eat: The Top 10 Healthiest Cuisines. Healthline website. Published February 10, 2016. Accessed October 25, 2018.
Syria profile – Timeline. BBC website. Published April 24, 2018. Accessed October 25, 2018.

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Rahaf Al Bochi
Rahaf Al Bochi is a Registered Dietitian and owner of Olive Tree Nutrition LLC. She specializes in intuitive eating and diabetes prevention and management. She also has a special interest in the Mediterranean eating pattern. Rahaf is a media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You can visit her online at Olive Tree Nutrition and follow her on Instagram and Facebook.