Above: overlooking the Old City from the Citadel.
From kibbe to cherry kebabs, this ancient crossroads serves up Syria’s most cherished cuisine
By Leisa Tyler
Photography by Leisa Tyler
“The cooks in Paradise are from Aleppo,” wrote the Syrian poet Al-Ma’arri in The Epistle of Forgiveness, an 11th-century book of Arabic philosophy. Famous throughout the Middle East for its distinct, zesty flavors—some of which are thought to have arrived from China along the Silk Road—Aleppan food was once prized in the courts of sultans and satraps, as were its chefs. Sultan Ahmed I, who ruled the Ottoman Empire in the early 1600s, was apparently so proud of his Aleppan cook that he had the man’s birthplace engraved on the kitchen door of the Topkapi Palace.
Situated on the rocky Mesopotamian plains of northern Syria, Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet. Its strategic location between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates made it a crossroads of European, Asian, and African trade since ancient times; at the height of its prosperity, Aleppo was considered the most important city in the Ottoman Empire after Constantinople (Istanbul) and Cairo. Celebrated too was its cuisine. Successive rulers—Roman, Byzantine, Mongol, Mamluk, and French, to name a few—influenced the local palate, as did the traders and refugees who brought with them spices and recipes from across the known world. Aleppo’s regional importance faded after an 1822 earthquake flattened the city and killed more than half its inhabitants, and waned further with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which diverted trade routes to the south. But its culinary traditions survived.
Tangy, spicy, and with sour overtones, Aleppan gastronomy is quite unlike its counterparts elsewhere in the Middle East, or elsewhere in Syria for that matter. One distinctive feature is the liberal use of pomegranate jus, a reduction made by boiling the blood-red native fruit into a tart syrup that is drizzled over dips and salads. Acid-heavy dishes using cherries, quince, and other fruit—Aleppo’s answer to Chinese sweet and sour—also make a prominent showing when in season. And spices, especially a heady blend of cardamom, nutmeg, curry leaves, paprika, cumin, cloves, and ginger, are preferred to herbs.
“The people of Aleppo put enormous emphasis on their food. We live and dream it,” says Mohammed Haddad, executive sous chef at the Sheraton Aleppo Hotel. With a chuckle, he adds, “Young women are taught that if they want to win the heart of a man, they need to know how to open the door to his stomach.”
I am following Haddad around Aleppo’s legendary souk. This medieval warren of stone archways and hidden courtyards was inscribed, along with other Old City sites—including the 13th-century Citadel and any number of madrassas, caravansaries, and hammams—as a World Heritage Site in 1986. Packed with hurried shoppers and peddlers who push and shout their way along worn cobbled lanes, it offers a tantalizing assault on the senses. We pass counters selling freshly made falafel rolls and piles of bright green immature almonds, loved for their bitterness. There are mounds of plump figs, boxes of honey-drenched baklava and semolina sweets, bars of olive oil soap, bags of cardamom-infused coffee, and mountains of za’atar—an aromatic condiment of sesame seeds, wild thyme, anise, and sumac that is eaten with olive oil and flatbread for breakfast. All this sits among shops hawking scarves, Iranian rugs, delicate gold jewels, water pipes, and pressed copper plates; in fact, almost anything you can imagine.
We wander the souk’s length—stretching across 12 hectares, it is among the largest covered markets in the world—then divert to the butcher section, an unappetizing alley where catfish squirm and sheep carcasses, complete with pendulous testicles, hang from the ceiling. Haddad explains that male mutton is the preferred meat in Aleppo; ewe mutton is considered tough, and beef and camel meat cheap substitutes. No part of the animal goes to waste; we spot intestines, used in a festival dish called sendawanat, and lamb feet, which are boiled into a thick broth and eaten with bread. The most prized cut of all is the lump of tail fat from the Awassi, otherwise aptly known as the fat-tailed sheep.