Al Jdeideh: A Tasting Tour of Syria’s New City

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And I thought the paper round I had as a kid was hard going.

A fig tree had shed its soft green fruit onto the pavement next to an old black 1970s Chevrolet. Across the street, a prehistoric-looking bakery had laid that morning’s flatbreads out on carpets unfurled on the cobbles. A retro Volkswagen Beetle trundled one way, a man on a motorbike went the other, and two little boys emerged from the scene carrying the family’s daily bread on their heads, the packets flapping over their ears like deer stalker hats.

Fl-hat-bread is ‘the look’ in Aleppo

On the tiny Hatab Square there was a fishmonger rubbing spices into the scored flesh of a huge fish, while a mother, her young son and a big black cat looked on. Jdeideh was just waking up.

A boy for a fish – the ancient Arabian art of haggling lives on in Aleppo.

Al Jdeideh is the Christian Quarter. It was built in the 16th century but, since Aleppo is older than God’s godparents, it qualifies as the New City. It’s home to a mixed community of Maronite Christians, Greek Christians, Armenian orthodox Christians and no doubt one or two lapsed Christians. Churches great and small can be found among the grand merchant’s houses, which line narrow cobbled lanes.

The passageways and alleys are full of lanterns, gabled first-floor windows, wooden shutters and strangled electricity cables. If the scarred stone walls could tell tales, it would take a million and one nights to tell them all.

There are merchants’ houses that have been converted into inns catering to the growing trickle of tourists. Their courtyard restaurants occupy serene spaces decorated with orientalist tat, dark wood carvings, wrought-iron bannisters and ivy creeping across pale walls.

Beit Sissi, sitting pretty

At Beit Sissi (Sissi House) I had muhammara, a very spicy red pepper dip garnished with walnuts and cucumber, drenched in sweet pomegranate molasses.

Muhammara and fattoush, a great Syrian double act

The fattoush salad, feistily sprinkled with lemon juice and sumac, offered shards of crispy fried bread to scoop up the dip.

Zmorod, Zmorod, I love you, Zmorod…

A flatbread’s flip from Sissi was Zmorod. There I ordered what is perhaps the definitive Aleppian dish, the ultimate product of the region’s fertile land and mercantile history: kabab bil karaz, the famous cherry kebab. Rounded nuggets of minced lamb had been cooked on skewers to a state of succulence and slathered in a gooey slick of dark red cherry sauce.

The cherry kebab at Zmorod looked much better than this. Unfortunately I ate it before I could photograph it.

These were the locally grown wishna cherries that were just coming into season, like the ones I’d seen at the souk. It was a test for the palate, a sortie of flavours bombarding the taste buds with sweet and sour, before strafing it with spice. It was intense.

I upgraded from vinegary Syrian wine to arak, cloudily diluted with water. Its muted aniseed notes cut through the sweet and sour of the cherry kebab, and balanced the tart acidity of the accompanying fattoush. It played a similar palate-adjusting role to sake in Japanese cuisine, but, thankfully, it’s much cheaper to buy the good stuff.

Complete and utter basturma: meat in the Armenian quarter

I wandered into the Armenian quarter, which had flourished with refugees who had fled their homeland during the early 20th century genocide perpetrated by the Ottomans. At Kasr Al Wali, I was keen to see how Armenians had shaped Aleppo’s tastes. The basturma offered heavenly slices of cured meat, a blush of crimson flesh that intensified to a deep purple close to its spice-encrusted edge. I had yalanji, cold stuffed vine leaves folded into neat triangular parcels, and sojouk or spiced sausage meat rolled in flatbread. But when it came to the main course, I wanted to go off-menu.

“Do you like chicken?” asked the young waiter. “I have Armenian speciality. Not for restaurant but for house. Home cooking. Traditional. One hundred percent Armenian.”

The plate arrived with a mound of chicken pieces, peppers, mushrooms, sweetcorn and onion in a thick tomato sauce. It was accompanied by French fries and sauteed vegetables, and showered with grated parmesan.

“What’s it called?” I asked.

“Chicken Mexicana,” replied the waiter with a shrug. It was heartening to know that, in spite of their blighted past, the Armenians still liked a laugh.

The trad Armenian dish ‘Chicken Mexicana’ proved beyond doubt that Armenians like a laugh

James Brennan
James Brennan is a freelance food and travel writer. The former food editor of Time Out Dubai and restaurant critic for The National newspaper, he has contributed to a range of publications in the Middle East and beyond, from CNN Traveller to The Sunday Times.

He is the current Academy chairman of the Middle East region for the World's 50 Best Restaurants sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, and he has travelled extensively to discover the food, flavours and people of this fascinating and often misunderstood region.
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