The armenian influence

The armenian influence

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
8 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667661
Photographer
Matt Harvey

In the dawn light our villa at lattakia looked no more welcoming than it had the night before. The first glimmers of daylight threw the charmless place into stark relief, and even at this early hour the air smelt of rotting fish. Across the cold grey sands, past the mounds of driftwood and rubbish, a small group of men sat huddled around a charcoal brazier warming their hands and drinking tea. Lattakia was a miserable place and it was time to move on.

Things improved immediately once we hit the road, and as the port town’s outskirts fell away behind us, so did our black mood. The drive north-east to Aleppo took us through hills thickly covered with oaks and pines, and past ancient olive groves that stretched far into the distant north to Turkey. Rivers and lakes watered lush valleys, and the fertile central plains of northern Syria were dotted with cherry orchards, their branches a fluffy mass of pink and white blossom.

branches a fluffy mass of pink and white blossom. We reached Aleppo with a renewed sense of optimism, cheered by the day’s warm sunshine. Our hotel had been recommended to us and after negotiating our way through the narrow traffic-filled streets, we found it tucked away at the end of a laneway on the edge of the Old City. El Mandaloun was a delightful boutique hotel in a converted seventeenth-century merchant house, its rooms arranged in two storeys around a tranquil courtyard. Our rooms were an Orientalist’s dream come true: the exquisite antique tiles were cool underfoot, ornately carved wooden shutters opened onto the courtyard below, and the wrought-iron beds were made up with crisp white linen and locally woven silk bedspreads. It was all we could do to drag ourselves away from the bliss of it all, but the lure of Aleppo’s famous souks was stronger.

The hotel was located near Jdeideh, Aleppo’s Armenian quarter, an area of flagstoned laneways and honey-coloured merchant houses. Intricately carved wooden balconies jutted out above the street and the metal signs of exotically named restaurants swung gently overhead. Central courtyards are a characteristic feature of Arab architecture, and every now and then an open doorway offered a tantalising glimpse of a secret world: a tinkling fountain and vine-laden trellises, a brief flash of coloured robes as a young woman flitted behind half-open shutters, an old man snoozing in the sunshine and a skinny cat darting into the shadows.

Aleppo is Syria’s second-largest city, and it has been a trading centre since ancient times. Its history is drenched in blood, as its strategic position on the timeworn trade route between the Mediterranean and Asia made it subject to a series of invasions: Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols and Ottomans all seized Aleppo, practising increasingly monstrous acts of violence upon each other.

Today, most trading activity centres around the souks, as it has done for centuries. The rambling rabbit-warren of laneways and covered alleys extend through the Old City to the foot of Aleppo’s great citadel, and before long our noses led us through the ‘meat quarter’ to a shawarma stand. Clouds of garlic-scented smoke billowed out from the griddle and a queue of customers stood eagerly waiting for their lunch. Another vendor offered toshka, Armenian toasted cheese sandwiches made from puffy rounds of Arabic bread. Opposite, a man dished up steaming bowls of foul medames, a peasant dish of broad beans that is popular in many Middle Eastern countries. The Aleppan version was delicately spiced with red peppers as well as cumin, garlic and lemon.

And then we were in the souks, a whirling profusion of chaos and colour under a high, vaulted corrugated-iron roof. Jostling crowds thronged past us, pushing in all directions. Young boys with trays of pastries balanced on their heads ducked neatly past groups of chattering chador-clad women; housewives fingered their way through mounds of lacy underwear and haggled over the price of soap powder; a shrunken old man pushed a donkey and cart piled high with scrap metal; and a teenager sorted through a huge pile of pumpkin seeds. As one, and from all sides, shopkeepers urged us to inspect their goods. Did we want fresh dates or sheep’s intestines? What about a very nice tablecloth?

Come my friend. You are welcome in my shop!’

‘You speak English? Come, I make you coffee.’

‘You want carpet. I have very good quality. You come on magic carpet ride with me!’ This last uttered with a cheeky grin.

We stumbled out into the sunlight, blinking, to find we’d been deposited at the foot of the citadel that dominates the city of Aleppo. It rises high on a natural mound at the east of the souk and measures a staggering fifty metres from the depths of the moat that surrounds it to the tip of the minaret on its peak. We strolled openmouthed beneath the massive portal and wound our way along a dog’s leg of dimly lit passages, through soaring stone chambers to the summit. It was curiously quiet above the relentless activity of the street life below and we paused for moment gazing out through the ramparts upon a montage of rooftops, minarets and domes, and there in the distance, just beyond the edge of the city, gently belching factory chimneys.

‘Come on. We’re on a mission,’ announced Greg. We were off to visit one of Aleppo’s famed sausage-makers. Many of these are Armenian, grandchildren of those refugees who survived the genocide committed against them by the Turks more than a century ago. Along with other minority Christian groups, Armenians were driven out of Anatolia and many thousands found refuge in Syria.

It is the Armenian influence that is responsible for the very different kind of flavourings found in Aleppan food. In particular, they make liberal use of dried ground red peppers – milder than chilli peppers, but hotter than paprika – which add an exciting piquancy to many dishes. The city’s Armenian butchers are famous for their small goods, in particular, bastourma and soujok. The former is a kind of pastrami – air-dried beef that is coated in a thick fenugreek spice paste. Soujok are highly spiced beef or lamb sausages, usually cut into chunks and fried, often with an egg on the side.

Nizar Abdou, the chef at the highly regarded Yasmeen restaurant in Jdeideh, had given Greg directions to his preferred butcher. We had no name, but a series of directions: past the Planet Hotel … second set of traffic lights … petrol station on the right … take the one-way street … It wasn’t promising, but somehow we ended up outside the front of the Awajet al Joub butcher, admiring the mounds of sausages strung up in the window. To the amusement of Zeno and Mahmoud the butchers, Greg was in heaven. They offered us tastes of bastourma and soujok at varying stages of maturity, and we also sampled an interesting kind of mortadella sausage made from chicken and stuffed with pistachio nuts.

Later than evening we ate at Beit Wakil, one of several old Arabic houses in the Armenian quarter that have been converted to restaurants and which had come highly recommended. As with many of the old merchant houses in Jdeideh, Beit Wakil is built on top of a series of stone cellars that run in an interconnecting labyrinth beneath the entire quarter. In addition to serving as a cool store, legend has it that they were also used as a place of hiding by Christian families fleeing from Arab persecution. Today they serve a more prosaic function, typically being converted into cosy bars where you can enjoy a weak Syrian beer before dinner or a fat post-prandial cigar.

Beit Wakil’s building dates back to the sixteenth century and it has been immaculately and faithfully restored. The restaurant is hidden away down a narrow winding alley and from the front it is little more than a simple wooden door set into a tall stone wall. Inside, however, is a wealth of exquisite detail, from the arched Arab windows and their intricate laced stonework to the geometric marble floor tiles, and its courtyard dining area is perfumed with the seductive scent of jasmine and citrus blossom.

The menu offered plenty of Aleppan specialties. We tried a version of muhammara, a dip made from finely crushed walnuts and red peppers with a splash of tangy pomegranate molasses, as well as that curious mortadella-style sausage. Greg went into raptures over a lamb’s tongue salad that came finely shredded with tangy pickles, parsley and tomato, and we both worked our way through Aleppan-style kibbeh nayee, which had a definite crunch from the burghul and a big chilli and cumin hit – quite different from the Lebanese version. Next came a za’atar salad made from fresh wild thyme topped with shredded, mildly salty cheese, and soujok roulo – a kind of bread pinwheel spread with spicy soujok sausage. The only disappointment of the evening was that Aleppos’s famous cherry kebabs were not in season, but we made do with another speciality of the house, lamb kebab al chama.

By now the restaurant was filling up and a short man with carefully styled hair got up to sing a repertoire that was restricted to old Nat King Cole numbers. It was our cue to head for bed.

Recipes in this Chapter

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