ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters Life!) - Chef Yann Ghazal minces onion, bulgur, lamb and sun-dried chili paste according to an ancient recipe for quince kubbeh, a sweet and sour delicacy influenced by Aleppo’s trade with China.
The blend is shaped into an oval and filled with meat, nuts and onions. A sauce of quince pieces, garlic, pomegranate molasses and mint distinguishes the dish from 40 kubbeh varieties still made in homes across one of the oldest inhabited cities on the planet.
“If you mince the raw kubbeh too much you lose the crunchy taste. The meat is young lamb that is grazed on nothing but wild pastures,” Ghazal said, while mincing by hand and adding water to the mixture in a clay bowl.
“All ingredients are organic and most are grown around Aleppo. There is good appreciation of taste here,” said the 25-year-old chef who trained at the Pourcel Brothers in France before returning to his home city.
With silk road fame and cosmopolitan prosperity, today’s Syrian city of Aleppo was the culinary capital of the Middle East before cultural and commercial decline took its toll.
Syria is opening up its economy in the last few years after decades of nationalization and state control and reviving interest in the city’s cuisine.
A recipe for quince kubbeh was found documented in an 800-year-old book on Aleppan cooking. The cuisine traces its origins to various invaders who coveted the great city, from Seljuks, Mamluks, Ottomans as well as Armenian and Circassian refugees. Recipes have even come from Africa through Yemen.
Aleppo shares with the Iraqi city of Mosul a specialty for rice kubbeh, which does without the traditional bulgur, a crushed and partially boiled cereal mix. The two cities have ancient family and trading links.
Thousands of Iraqis refugees fled to Aleppo after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and a lot of Iraqi dishes are being incorporated into menus at food stalls which dot the streets.
But Abu Nabhan, an Aleppo institution in the Khan al-Wazeer district, still does brisk business only selling grilled or fried liver, called melak mutajan, the same phrase used to describe an overbearing person. A street in Bab Jenin district is dominated by shops selling zatar, a thyme mix.
Unlike a number of Aleppo restaurants, Ghazal does not use copious amounts of fat and has built upon his French training to develop dishes he first learnt from his mother.
Now Ghazal serves ice-cream with mamounieh, the simpler of usually sophisticated Aleppan desserts. Mamounieh is made from water, sugar, ghee butter and semolina. Ghazal has also created a dish of humus mousse cake wrapped in a layer of dried meat as part of a buffet he oversees at Aleppo’s Mirage Hotel.
“Chefs in France have started mixing Aleppan and European food and customers like it,” Ghazal said.
The young chef was lured back to Syria by Nauman Wannes, a founding member of the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy, which started a few years ago in Aleppo to preserve and develop the city’s culinary tradition.
The international Academy of Gastronomy in Paris has awarded Aleppo a cultural gastronomy prize and a delegation from the Istanbul branch lately visited Aleppo, which has dishes similar to ones known in Turkey.
“Aleppo’s location has been key. There are also dishes that are not found even just outside city limits,” said Wannes, whose upbringing reflects the turbulence, tolerance and cultures that crossed Aleppo and influenced its cuisine.
Wannes’ father Najdat studied pharmacy during the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul, where he met his Austrian wife. He returned to Syria and became a leading opponent of the 1920-1946 French occupation but still sent his son to study medicine in France.
Academy member Aida Gorani said Turkey’s influence could be mostly seen in Aleppan pastries and vegetarian dishes.
“It’s still common to find Aleppans who speak Turkish or have a Turkish aunt or grandparent,” said Gorani while sampling an aubergine filled with chickpeas and bulgur.
A lunch organized by the academy showcased salads, appetizers and main courses from daily Aleppan home cuisines that take hours to prepare.
Thyme leafs decorate olive salad, another salad combines pickles and vegetables, parsley omelettes have no milk and served cold, yogurt sauce covers a zucchini (courgette) dish and green peppers are stuffed with frikeh, or roasted green wheat.
“I live between France, Egypt and Lebanon, but this food is unavailable anywhere,” said Abboud Ghantous, a Syrian who runs a steel trading conglomerate.
Majd Hinedi, another expatriate businessman who is planning to settle back in the city, said they were still families in Aleppo who guard famous dishes they have been exclusively making for centuries.
“Get a few Aleppans together and the conversation naturally turns toward food,” Hinedi said. “In Aleppo, cuisine is the equivalent of art.”