Syria: An Appetite for Aleppo

  • Amid the bustling archways of Aleppo’s legendary souk; terrace seating at Sissi House.

    Amid the bustling archways of Aleppo’s legendary souk; terrace seating at Sissi House.

  • Aleppo’s quintessential cherry kebab, at the Sheraton.

    Aleppo’s quintessential cherry kebab, at the Sheraton.

  • Yogurt-cooked lamb (sharod) with  bulgur and crispy lavash bread, at the Sheraton Aleppo Hotel’s Al Mawal restaurant.

    Yogurt-cooked lamb (sharod) with bulgur and crispy lavash bread, at the Sheraton Aleppo Hotel’s Al Mawal restaurant.

  • A laneway in Al-Jdeida.

    A laneway in Al-Jdeida.

  • Chef Mohammed Haddad.

    Chef Mohammed Haddad.

  • Terrace seating at Sissi House.

    Terrace seating at Sissi House.

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“Our food is so rich that most people only eat twice a day—a late lunch, followed by an even later dinner. But when they eat, they fill the table to capacity,” Haddad says with anticipation as we take our seats at Al-Zawak. We have negotiated Aleppo’s lunatic traffic and crossed the city to Al-Jamiliyah, a leafy neighborhood of handsome 19th-century apartments built by Jewish families. With its kitschy decor and neon-green tablecloths, Al-Zawak isn’t the classiest restaurant in town. But it is one of only a handful of establishments that serve home-style Aleppan dishes, and Haddad promises me a sensational lunch.

It’s the end of March, and cherries are in season. I’ve been spotting the fruit on menus around town, and Aleppo’s famous kebab kerez is the first dish to hit our table. Swimming in a soup of dark cherry jam, it’s far too sweet for my tastes. Better is the tangy mohamara, a red pepper dip that blends sun-dried capsicum with crushed Aleppo chili peppers, cumin, pomegranate jus, cherry, tahini, and, oddly, a sprinkling of instant coffee. Next up is a parade of kibbe, meatballs made of bulgur and minced lamb. One is kneaded with spices and served raw (kibbe nayye), another is grilled with quince (kibbe safarjaliyye). Then comes the meal’s crescendo: qouaissat, a delectable lamb loin stuffed with rice and pine nuts and added to a thick tomato-based stew.

Filled to bursting, we nonetheless head to Al-Andalos Sweets, a patisserie a few blocks away that brims with baklava and other gooey pastries. I love the ballorieh, a sandwich of white rosewater pastry filled with roasted pistachios (the name translates as “coming from paradise”), but it is the mamounieh that wins my heart. The thousand-plus-year-old recipe of semolina porridge sprinkled with cinnamon and chunks of goat cottage cheese is usually eaten for breakfast, scooped up with pieces of bread. But it goes down just as well for dessert.

Eager to show me dishes found only in the home, the next day Haddad invites me to the Sheraton for a bespoke feast. In true Aleppan style, he prepares more food than we could possibly eat in a week, let alone a single meal; in Aleppo, he explains, a full table equals prosperity and health. We graze on chicken tarator (boiled poultry mixed with yogurt and marinated tahini), laham balagim (rounds of puff pastry topped with meat and pomegranate jus), and sharod (chunks of meat drenched in yogurt and clarified butter), a calorific delicacy usually reserved for festivals.

A stone’s throw from the hotel is Al-Jdeida, the old quarter built by Aleppan Christians after Tamerlane sacked the city in 1400. It’s enchanting: a quiet labyrinth of narrow cobbled lanes meandering past old courtyard houses, leafy public squares, and churches with spires that tower above arched tunnels. It’s also in the midst of a revival. Al-Jdeida’s mansions—each resplendent with fountains, mosaics, and intricate chandeliers—are slowly being converted into boutique hotels, cafés, galleries, restaurants, and grand private homes (French shoe guru Christian Louboutin recently bought a place here). Tourism is booming; some people are even tagging Aleppo as the next Marrakech.

An Armenian obstetrician named Garo Narbekian was ahead of the curve when he opened Al-Jdeida’s first tourist-oriented restaurant, Sissi House, 15 years ago. The food is a tad bland compared to my last few meals, but the setting —a 17th-century mansion—couldn’t be more captivating. Service is excellent, and tables are scattered around a tiled courtyard flanked by imposing stone walls. Both the Italian and Armenian presidents dined here in the week before my visit, a waiter tells me with hushed pride.

Sissi House is busier than ever these days, thanks in part to the handful ofcharismatic lodgings that have already opened nearby. Among them are the Jdayde Hotel, where some of the small but sparkling rooms have balconies that look over Sahet Al-Hatab Square, and Yasmeen d’Alep, with its elegant Arabic furnishings and a fountained courtyard. As I sit with the restaurant’s manager discussing the finer points of Aleppan cooking, I can’t help but think that the neighborhood’s revival bodes well for a city that has been out of the global spotlight for so long. I’m also grateful that I’ve had the chance to see it—and taste it—before the word gets out.

 

THE DETAILS:
Aleppo

Getting There
Domestic carrier Syrian Air (syriaair.com) operates several daily flights to Aleppo from Damascus, some 310 kilometers to the south. Better, hire a car and driver in the Syrian capital for the journey; the four-hour drive skirts the scenic Anti-Lebanon Range, mountains peppered with castles, forts, and churches dating back to the Roman era.

Where to Stay
The only international five-star address in town is the Sheraton Aleppo (Al Khandaq St.; 963-21/212-1111; starwoodhotels.com; doubles from US$215), an imposing if charmless business hotel with 199 rooms and all the usual mod cons. For a more intimate flavor, try the Yasmeen d’Alep House (Al-Kayyali St.; 963-21/212-6366; yasmeenalep.com; doubles from US$125), whose small but atmospheric rooms and Turkish hammam occupy a 17th-century courtyard mansion in Al-Jdeida.

Where to Eat
Al-Zawak (Eskandaroon St., Al-Jamiliyah; 963-21/326-9963) makes up for its lack of frills with a wide range of superb Aleppan dishes. Don’t miss the mohamara and qouaissat, and save room for dessert at the nearby Al-Andalos Sweets (Eskandaroon St.; 963-2/223-5560). Another excellent but boisterous local eatery is Al-Kommeh (Bab al-Faraj; 963-21/211-3550), famed for its prodigious kebabs. For old-world character, however, few places hold a candle to Sissi House (Jdeida Square; 963-21/212-4362).

Originally appeared in the October/November 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“An Appetite for Aleppo”)

 

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