My mother has this saying, “It’s hell having a good time.” Best uttered near the tail end of a party, when exhausted, or when the logistics of entertaining oneself prove very challenging.
Also, to oneself when lying in bed, bloated with delicious food.
I signed up for a culinary tour of Syria because I love Syria and I love Syrian food. Makes sense, right? Let’s just say I didn’t really think through the implications of the phrase “group trip”–ie, that we did everything as a group. And that was a lot of things, and never really included naps.
Maybe I do more stuff in a day when I’m on a research trip, but, hey, that’s work. Syria was my big vacation. So when I had to roll out of bed the first day after just five hours of sleep, it felt a little rough. Actually, it felt like karmic payback for nearly wrecking my mother during my research trip to Spain.
Granted, I’m inherently lazy, and there’s something to be said for making me do stuff. But, ohhh, I never thought I would complain about having to eat so much in such a short time. But here I am.
What we ate was remarkable. It happened to be the season for rose-petal jam, so there was quite a lot of that. Also, of artichokes–though I think the Syrians are so into sour that they sometimes forget salty, and artichokes need a lot of salt; some we ate were quite bland and didn’t have that special zing.
It was also the season for desert truffles, or kama’. I’d never had them before, and I started to get worried that we wouldn’t get any, because it was supposedly near the end of the season. Not to worry–at a massive dinner at the Club d’Alep, they were served two ways. I could only muster a couple of bites, though, because yet again, I’d managed to eat too much that day, and each bite of that dinner felt like it might be my last, before a Monty Python-esque explosion.
They were intriguing. Nice dense mushroomy texture, with a mellow, kind of all-purpose spring-vegetable taste that lasted a surprisingly long time. Nothing at all like European truffles, of course, but then neither are Mexican truffles, or huitlacoche. “Truffle” is the new “Riviera,” in terms of creative naming.
We also tasted quite a lot of varieties of kibbeh. I rarely order it myself, because it just doesn’t seem all that interesting. But we had a very nice grilled rendition, filled with a molten center of pomegranate molasses and nut paste, and the more I looked around, the more varieties I saw and tasted.
One night mid-trip, I was lying in bed, again in some digestive misery, and it dawned on me that my money would probably have been better spent on, say, a trip to China, where I really do need someone to lead me around and translate, and to explain the food to me.
And then I woke up the next day, and we went to Pistache d’Alep, a fancy bakery, and visited the kitchens. Not being a huge sweets fan, I wasn’t expecting much. But, whoa. Words cannot begin to convey the complete niftiness of the industrial equipment at work, and the depth of craftsmanship in all the meticulous handwork. I put up a whole separate Flickr set just for the bakery trip. Don’t skip the videos.
After having my mind boggled by all the weird sweets-producing technology, we had coffee (and more sweets!) with Willy Wonka himself, who used to live on Long Island. His right-hand man, Hassan, expounded on food in a philosophical way that reminded me of Ali.
We absolutely must eat seasonally, he said, because our health comes from nature–not only is it wrong to eat oranges in the summer, he said, it’s bad for your health too. While he was saying this, however, this was going on outside the windows of the cafe:
I cannot explain…
The other really outstanding thing we did was go to the house of a woman chef for a cooking demonstration and big lunch. I could’ve sat there for days and watched her stuff eggplants. We occasionally were put to work, but kind of botched it. Here she is impatiently emptying out a mis-stuffed eggplant and refilling it the proper way.
I also learned the dirty secret to muhammara, the red-pepper-and-walnut paste: sugar. Loads of it. Also, citric acid. Apparently all the restaurants use citric acid instead of lemon juice, because the flavor doesn’t go off as fast. Of course purists frown on this, but still fascinating to know. Will mentally file with judicious use of MSG.
Solo in Damascus
After that was all over, and I bid fond adieu to my fellow travelers (the actual group part of the ‘group trip’ was excellent), I got on a train back to Damascus. On previous trips, I’ve spent just about all my time in Aleppo, so aside from a memorable nap in the Umayyad Mosque and some excellent blackberry juice just outside it, I had little impression of Damascus.
So it was a double treat to explore a new city, and to do it completely on my own terms with no schedule whatsoever. I really just wandered aimlessly for three days, eating street snacks and taking photos.
I did get a good scrub at a hammam, and drank myself nearly sick on frozen lemonades and mulberry juice. My last night in Damascus, after the one lemon slush I really didn’t need, I collapsed on my bed in a mild sugar shock.
Some random observations: Syrian men are exceedingly polite (I even witnessed a man chide his son for making flirtatious noises at me–export to Egypt, please!), but they are also giant hams. Some of the most fun I had was taking pictures of all the guys who begged me to. I was very glad to have a digital camera.
Syria seems like a notably less paranoid place than when I first visited 10 years ago. Change is happening. And here’s hoping the US doesn’t somehow screw it up with some ham-fisted negotiations.
It’s also a far less cheap place than when I first visited. That’s probably rough for Syrians, but OK by me–it used to be embarrassing how cheap it was. Now it’s on par with Egypt, roughly.
Syria is still the only place in the world I’ve gone back to just because I like it so much–if it’s possible to have a crush on a country, I suppose I do. And I’d still go back–maybe next time in the fall, for a whole range of different seasonal treats.