“I pity every person who has not been to Aleppo,” says Marlene Matar, a Lebanese author and cooking instructor whose magnificent recipe book, The Aleppo Cookbook, has just been published in English.
Mater compares the city’s rich tradition of culinary excellence to that of Paris – “in Aleppo, wherever you eat, you eat well” – and writes with wonder of the 13 kilometre-long Souq Al Madina, where she saw spices layered in glass containers “like a Picasso of different colours and shapes”.
She recalls eating the parsley omelettes there that are one of many Aleppian street-food specialities, and sitting at a tiny restaurant, where only one dish is served, made with a kilogram of meat, a kilo of yogurt and 10 eggs, and eaten with spoons right off the counter top.
“I want to go again and eat the same dish,” she says – although she knows this will not happen for some time. As many as 1,500 shops at the souq were damaged or destroyed by the fighting in 2012, and Aleppo has become a deadly frontline of Syria’s interminable war.
Now, Mater says, “I have tears in my eyes when I see the suffering of Aleppians”.
While it is not food but conflict that Aleppo has come to signify in the eyes of the world, The Aleppo Cookbook helps ensure the distinctive cuisine of one of the world’s oldest cities is preserved for a time, as the book’s introduction says, “when the sights, sounds, and aromas of its souq are recovered”.
The 350-page book is a comprehensive compendium of the city’s culinary history, researched meticulously over several years before the country’s civil war erupted. With the support of the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy, Matar visited Aleppian restaurants, tried home-cooked family specialities, read widely and recreated dishes in her hometown of Beirut with the help of an Aleppian chef.
There are pages dedicated to staple Aleppian ingredients: how to dry mint, boil pomegranate to make molasses, cook freekeh (roasted green wheat) and combine spices such as black pepper and cloves to make the mix known as daqqa.
There are also hundreds of pages of recipes for more complex dishes, which demonstrate the cultural influence of the Turkish, Persian, Armenian and Chinese traders and immigrants who have played a part in Aleppo’s multi-cultural history. Some flavour combinations exist in no other city on Earth. Quince is used in sweet and sour dishes, for example, Matar says, in a way she has never seen elsewhere. In a recipe for quince stew, she explains how to boil the astringent fruit in meat stock with sour pomegranate juice, crushed garlic and mint.
While The Aleppo Cookbook found its way on to the “best of 2016” lists at the Washington Post and Publishers Weekly, another recipe book dedicated to Syrian cuisine made it to the presses just in time for the holidays. Cook for Syria (stylised as #CookForSyria) is the culmination of a campaign launched on October 31 by two London-based foodies, Suitcase magazine founder and chief executive Serena Guen, and the Instagram star known as Clerkenwell Boy.
After seeing so many thoughts and prayers being offered for Syrian civilians from social-media accounts in the West, with “no outlet for actually acting”, Guen explains, the pair decided to do something concrete to help.
With the help of London’s best chefs, they hosted an elaborate Syrian-themed banquet on Halloween night, donating the proceeds to Unicef’s Children of Syria fund. They encouraged others to follow suit, and soon dozens of Syrian supper clubs were taking place across the UK, raising more than £125,000 (Dh566,000) for the cause.
The movement is set to go global this year but in the meantime, Guen and Clerkenwell Boy have put together a collection of Syrian-inspired recipes from a constellation of top chefs, including Yotam Ottolenghi, Jamie Oliver and Angela Hartnett, which was published last month.
There are instructions on how readers can host their own #CookForSyria charity meal, and profits from each copy sold will also go directly to Unicef. Among the recipes are fried pancakes with ricotta, dates and cardamom honey; lamb and sour cherry meatballs; and milk and orange blossom pudding. A celebration of Syrian food was chosen, Guen says, as a way of generating aid for Syrian kids because “food is so easy to understand – there are no borders or stigmas.”
Contributors Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley have talked about cooking as “an expression of love”, and Jamie Oliver points out its power to “unite people, families [and] communities”.
Regional cuisine is also a potent trigger for emotions and memories, and can be more effective than words in communicating the spirit of a place.
By documenting and celebrating Syrian cooking, these two books allow outsiders a chance to connect with the daily life of people who are often depicted to the world only as victims, and to ensure that their unique and ingenious food culture isn’t lost.
• The Aleppo Cookbook and Cook for Syria are available at Magrudy’s and on Amazon