What I remember most about Syria is how friendly the people were. Not just the people you usually expect to be friendly like the hotel receptionist or the tour guide. No – everyone we met was extremely kind and helpful. Our slightly run down little Toyota tour bus was just refuelling at a petrol station when my grandmother (or Teta as she would be known in Arabic), spotted a small, beautiful tree with delicate pink blossoms. Teta complimented the petrol station attendant on the tree – who then insisted he dig it up and gift it to my grandmother for her garden. No amount of persuasion could convince him otherwise. We sat and waited while him and an employee started digging, then carefully lifted the tree out of the ground, protecting the fragile roots in layers of jute bags.
My aunt and uncle were taking me along on a little car trip together with my two cousins, my grandmother and her sister back in the summer of 2009. It is a trip I cannot help but to think back on every time I read the news. Rising at sunrise we drove to the north of Lebanon and crossed into Syria. Our first stop was Homs where we marvelled at the giant wooden watermills and Roman aqueducts. We wandered along the main street of Palmyra – the sun burning down from above, desert all around us. I was torn between the need to escape the 40 degree heat in the air-conditioned van and taking in every last stone of the beautiful ruins. I still regret not braving the heat and spending more time exploring.
In Aleppo we wandered along the cobbled streets of the souk – the market. The air was heavy with spices and baking bread. Pyramids of tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and courgettes that look they are ready to topple over, bags upon bags of dried pulses, shelves bending under the weight of jars of pickles. Elaborately carved chairs, exquisitely decorated backgammon board and delicate coffee tables. There was so much to see! Cats were everywhere – lazily lying on the steps leading into peoples apartments, climbing around in the bin or getting underneath your feet. Merchants are pulling carts, shouting at you to get out the way. I purchased a silk scarf which I still treasure to this day.
Food was naturally delicious and no meal was complete without muhammara – a dip made of walnuts, roasted peppers, garlic and olive oil. muhammara is found across the Middle East but it is definitely more prevalent in Syria. The foundation lies in the sweet smokiness of the roasted peppers which is so well balanced with the slightly bitter walnuts and the tanginess of the pomegranate molasses and lemon. It works well as a dip for bread or crudités – just as a nice little starter to your meal. Alternatively it would also be delicious with some simple pan fried fish or roasted chicken.
My aunt and uncle Rima and Bassel with whom I took this trip to Syria with. My uncle moved from Lebanon to the US when he still was a medical student and has remained there since. Sadly I do not get to see them as much as I would like but we do occasionally meet in Lebanon. I was very touched when my uncle flew all the way from the US to Lebanon and then to France just to take part at my wedding. This recipe will forever remind me not only of Syria but of them.
Secrets to Success:
- You really want the peppers to have a smoky taste. If you have a gas hob, place the peppers directly onto the fire and keep turning them until they are black all over. Literally, char the living daylights out of them. Alternatively, cook on high under the grill until soft
- Putting roasted peppers into a sealed plastic bag after heating creates steam, which allows you to peel the peppers very easily
- When purchasing pomegranate molasses look for those that contain the least amount of sugar. Cheap pomegranate molasses tend to contain lots of sugar to make up for the fact they contain less pomegranate
- If you do not have pomegranate molasses replace with extra lemon juice (roughly half a lemon
- If you want to make this gluten free, replace the bread with an extra 60g of walnuts