There’s more to Middle Eastern cuisine (of which I’m a big fan) than just shawarmas and hummus.
Though there are overlaps, each country in the region often has its own version or twist to a dish and sometimes even completely unique signature ones make their way to the menu.
Syrian cuisine has a lot in common with its counterpart Lebanese, which is the most popular of all Arabic cuisines. That explains why most Arabic restaurants tend to be called Lebanese restaurants instead. While the usual hummus, fuul tend to be common in all the neighbouring countries, do not leave Syria without trying out the below dishes. They were our few indulgences on a tight budget trip around Syria.
For the die-hard foodies: I have 2 words for you “Cherry Kebab”. Unique in taste, delicious beyond a doubt and highly recommended! Sweet sour and meaty – will be like nothing you’ve tried before!!
For the seriously gastronomically adventurous: There’s the Raw Meat dish. (I don’t know the Arabic name for it, but this is what it was called on the menu too).
I have to admit I wasn’t brave enough to order it, but a another traveler we’d met and were having lunch with did and insisted I take a bite once he saw me squirm at the very mention of it. Tried it, with just the right amount of spices it was alright. Try it if you’re up for it!
Another favourite – Kabseh : For those of you who’ve tried and miss ‘Biryani’ from India you’ll love this. Rice cooked with spices, pine nuts and meat it comes quite close to surpassing Biryani in taste.
Do look for the ‘Grape Leaves’ restaurant in Damascus, they make it pretty well. And have it with the ‘Cucumber & Yoghurt salad’.
Sides/Salads: Fresh salads are a large part of any meal in the Arab world. Though they can found anywhere around here do try them if you haven’t yet.
Of these I’d pick Fattoush as the best one. Fresh vegetables, with bits of crispy fried bread thrown in and dressed with pomegranate sauce. Yum!
Breakfast: For the simple and standard breakfast you will often receive Labneh (something between cream cheese and yoghurt), olives, apricot jam, eggs and bread. Mix the labneh with olive oil zaatar and have with bread for a great blend of tastes.
If you miss having a piping hot breakfast (my Indian stomach did so quite often) do try ‘Fatteh’- A tasty baked bowl of chickpeas, strained yoghurt, cumin, olive oil and pieces of toasted bread.
Most often we try the food but give the drinks a miss..so here are our favourites.
Tea (Shay): A social lubricant and extremely popular. Be careful to ask for it without sugar though if you don’t like it tooth-achingly sweet!
Lemon n Mint - Ground with fresh mint leaves and lemon juice, complete natural goodness in a glass!
‘Ugarit’ – To cool off on a hot day, skip the usual Pepsi and reach for a can of these. Referring to a small village to the north of Syria, these fruit flavoured drinks were extremely refreshing after hours of strolling the streets and alleys of Aleppo! They’re available in all local grocery stores/supermarkets.
To warm up on a cold day (In the 2 weeks there we faced heat, rains, wind and cold all on the same trip changing within a few hours of each other) : Kammun – A tangy drink served piping hot with black salt. We spotted it on the table next to us at a shisha place and asked for it out of curiosity- we soon ordered a second round.
Now on a really really hot day in Syria when all you need is a beer: again skip the usual Heineken and ask for ‘Al Maza’, brewed in nearby Lebanon. Was an instant favourite for us!
Well there you have it! Of course plenty of other dishes were had too, including many many shawarmas :) but these here deserved a special mention.