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Archive for September, 2010

And we’re back!

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Well, that was fun. None too shabby as far as honeymoons go.

15 months, 40 countries, 4 farms, many family recipes, and a countless number of the best meals a backpacker could buy.

To our family and friends, thank you for your immense generosity. Thank you for housing us, feeding us, showing us your favourite grazelands and watering holes, taking time to hang out with us on your home turf or faraway places and putting up with undoubtably too many obnoxious “when we were in <insert exotic location>” stories.

To all of you who have spent some time here, thank you for coming along for the fun and sharing your thoughts and questions. I hope our journeys together here are just starting. I haven’t yet figured out how to write at the speed of life, so I’ll be posting about our adventures here for some time yet. I’d be delighted if you kept reading!

So. We’ll see you on the other side.

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A full Eid ul-Fitr late, no doubt, but still quite fresh in our memories! (It’s true. Time flies when you’re having fun)

IMG 4243Through some half-baked planning and a touch of luck, Babs and I found ourselves in paradise for Eid. By that I mean Damascus, Syria. Legend has it that when the prophet Muhammed gazed upon Damascus from a nearby mountain, he refused to descend, proclaiming that man should enter the gates of paradise only once, and he would save his entrance for the paradise above.

I’m beginning to wonder if that was partly why the biblical Saul of Tarsus was struck blind on his way to Damascus. Would he have been too distracted by the bright lights, big city of that era to find Ananais on the Roman (and still existing) Straight Street and meet his destiny as St Paul otherwise?

But I digress.

Eid ul-Fitr, the festival at the end of Muslims’ month-long fast, is traditionally an affair celebrated with new outfits, with family at home. Even though Shamsuddin seems to be a popular family name in these parts, Babs and I didn’t have any family to visit here. Nonetheless, we decided on a whim that we would haggle ourselves a new traditional Syrian outfit each (right), and roam the old city in them to mark the festival day.

Many of the city’s businesses were shut for the day, as we expected. But many of the city’s festive feeders, bless them, were up and about doing a roaring trade of making sure that today’s feasting would outdo a month of iftars (the break-fast meal at the end of each fasting day).

For brunch, we joined a queue of boys at this schwarma stall, all dressed in their dandy Eid best and determined to spend their Eedis (small cash gifts given to children during Eid) as quickly as possibly.

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We’re more used to Turkish-style doner kebabs, where the slivers of meat are stuffed — or sometimes dramatically overstuffed, as in Berlin — into a pita or fluffy baguette envelope. But these Damascene schwarmas were demurely and tightly rolled up, and nowhere near as drippy with garlicy yoghurt as a London-style doner kebab. Well. Less risk of messing up our new frocks I suppose.

Next, on a tip from a reliably fabulous foodie friend Goz (thanks Goz!), I dash into legendary local ice-cream parlour Bakdash in the Al-Hamidiyah Souq for some of their signature pistachio-covered booza. The perfectly colour coordinated accessory for my Syrian dress!

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Bakdash, said to be established circa 1885, makes a curiously chewy and melt-resistant ice-cream by hand. The booza mixture, held in vats, is pounded and stretched by giant bats by the Bakdash boys, and then hand-churned and stretched some before rolling the stuff around in trays of pistachios.

The secret ingredients in the recipe include mastic and salep. Mastic is the resin obtained from the Mediterranean Mastic tree. Its popular name is arabic gum, and one of its first culinary uses was as a chewing gum (hence the English word ‘masticate’). Salep is the flour ground from the dried tubers of a species of orchid. Its popular name is fox-testicles in Arabic, or dog stones in English — a graphic description of orchid tubers.

Charming.

I’m now wondering if this cheery chappie was really posing for me or just laughing at me.

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Well. Onwards into the back alleys of Old Damascus. After a couple of hours I wonder if we’re walking in circles. Maybe I’m just seeing circles.

We come across one man churning out palm-sized pides

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… and another slapping and spinning naans in and out of a tandoori like the best of DJs at a turntable.

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And this just takes the cake.

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I’ll stop my meanderings here for now. May your days ahead be sweet, and may all the nuts that cross your path be tasty ones!

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Eid Mubarak, folks! And for Malay speakers closer to my native Singapore, Selemat Hari Raya!

We’re currently in Sao Paolo, Brazil, but I just wanted to share a quick postcard from the last Iftar of Ramadan in Damascus, Syria last year.

Al Khawali was our eatery of choice for the evening feast. Word on the (Straight) Street was that it was much beloved by locals and visitors alike, and wasn’t likely to need selling an organ to finance the meal, unlike the uber-hip, uber-posh Naranj nearby.

I popped into Al Khawali in the morning to ask for any table at any time slot they could spare that evening. I was quickly turned away. It was (understandably) a big night and they were full. I slunk back onto Straight Street downcast to give Babs the bad news.

We decided that we’d try our luck for a table for the following night, and this time Babs went back in make the booking. He emerged smiling, very pleased with himself, and told me that he got us a table for that night, no problem.

The Shamsuddin name may sometimes garner extra checks at US airports, but here in Syria all it seems to garner is wide smiles, spontaneous hugs, enthusiastic handshakes, and now special-favour tables.

We came back that evening and — in the style of traditional Arabic houses — walked through the dark narrow entrance passage to enter into a vast, beautifully restored mansion.

Our table was perched on a balcony, a great vantage point to view huge extended families celebrating in the main courtyard dining room below.

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The last Iftar of Ramadan feast at Al Khawali (and I suspect) many other restaurants was a set menu, with the first course of many mezzes all set out and ready to go in the late afternoon, so that all guests can tuck (dive?) in all at the same time immediately after the evening call to prayer.

We sat down to a table full of (from right, anti-clockwise) dates, hummus, fatoush (a salad of tomatos, lettuce, sometimes purslane and fried pita pieces), a mushroom and lettuce salad, and a bowl of chickpeas and broadbeans in oil, vinegar and garnished with chopped tomato and parsley.

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The evening call to prayer comes and goes, and the clinking of silverware begins throughout the restaurant. A waiter comes by to dole out cream of mushroom soup to everyone. In the tradition of Prophet Muhammed, we start the feast with a date.

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As we make our way through the mezzes, more treats show up. We each get a kibbe, a fried torpedo-shaped shell of bulgur filled with spiced mincemeat, rice and cashews. We also get a large bowl of unphotogenic but very comforting meatballs doused in a thin yoghurt and spiked with paprika, and garnished with more fried pita pieces.

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Babs and I now come to a very familiar point in any great Middle Eastern meal we’ve had. We’ve made decent progress with the mezzes and we’re feeling sensibly full. So it’s of course time for the main dishes to arrive. Tonight, it’ a giant platter of savoury rice and chicken pieces, topped with rice noodle (I think) segments and cashews.

And just in case that wasn’t enough, a separate plate of rice for buffer.

Like many a meal we’ve had at Goldmine, our favourite Chinese diner in London, we’ve now run out of space on the table, and the waiters do some strategic stacking.

How on earth are we going to do this justice?

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Um. We do, somehow, as we tend to do. Our current roundness bears (a lot of) evidence. Here’s Bab’s mirroring my sheepishness.

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But I do surrender by the time dessert arrives — a plate of baklava (filo with LOTS of honey and pistachios), grapes and watermelon.

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I don’t know if the meal reflects the usual palette of Al Khawali’s chef, or the difference between the cuisine of Damascus and Aleppo, or if that night’s dishes were designed especially for diners who want a gentle segue into meal after fasting all day. Except for the tartness of the lemon juice in many of the mezzes, I was surprised by the very mild taste of all the dishes. The meal had very little of the seductive fragrance or scintillating spices of the lunch we had at Beit Sissi in Aleppo. This was more akin to tucking into one’s favourite Mum-cooked dish of choice — say soup or congee — when one is a tad under the weather. The place was packed to the gills so the cuisine is obviously popular, but personally I think for a such a celebratory meal I prefer more kick than Khawali.

Al Khawali
Off Straight Street, on corner of Maazanet al-Shahim
Damascus, Syria
+963 11 222 5808

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