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An appetite for Aleppo

During a seven-day excursion into Syrian cookery, Anna Sussman discovers an astonishing variety of gastronomic delights that has visitors coming back for more.

At an indeterminate point in Aleppo's main market street, the Souq al-Attarine, but most likely somewhere between observing a pair of goat testicles dangling off a skinned carcass, and running into a bloody, matted camel head hanging on a large metal hook, I lose my appetite. This is a shame, because we are due to lunch at Bazar al-Charq, a restaurant known for its myriad preparations of the ground-meat dish kibbeh, itself an Aleppan speciality.

I'm trailing Anissa Helou, the London-based, Syrian-Lebanese cookbook author and docent of delicacies, on a culinary tour through Syria. A tall, elegant woman with an attention-grabbing puff of silvery hair (small children compare her, sotto voce, to Cruella de Vil), Helou gives regular cooking classes in London and, once or twice a year, steers small groups of hungry travellers to the region's gastronomic epicentres - Damascus and Aleppo in Syria, Istanbul and Gaziantep in Turkey - where they eat themselves to a standstill.

On this trip, the occasional cultural interludes, such as excursions to the Roman ruins of Palmyra and the Crusader castle of Krak de Chevaliers, feel like flickering film static interrupting a week-long highlight reel of Syrian cookery. Syria has become a relatively popular tourist destination in the past five years, and not only for backpackers bouncing around the region on falafel-fuelled gap years.

A mandatory pit stop on both the Silk and the Spice Roads for hundreds of years, Aleppo's residents (both welcome and unwelcome) have included Turkomen, French, Greeks, Indians, Italians, Chinese, Jews, Ottomans, Armenians and Kurds, all of whom bequeathed at least a trace of their cookery to the city. Damascus, the capital, has many lovely courtyard restaurants, but it is best known for its spectacular variety of street food.

Aleppo, on the other hand, has evolved a tradition of more elegant, elaborate dining. Pierre Antaki, the co-founder and vice president of the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy, attributes this to economic factors: most Aleppans still go home for lunch, snooze a bit, then work again until evening, whereas Damascenes often work far from their homes and eat a quick bite in or near their shops or offices before finishing the day's work.

"In Damascus, hardly anybody goes home for lunch," says Pierre. "They work one shift, and live far outside of the city. Here, if the big fat boss doesn't go home and eat and have his siesta, it's not a day." Aleppo in particular is known for the quality of its raw ingredients; despite a brutal drought in the north-east of the country (and in neighbouring Jordan), the land surrounding the city is, and always has been, rich and green. The famous Aleppan pistachio, fistik halabi, for example, wears many hats in the local cuisine, appearing in both sweets and savouries.

We arrived just as the season kicked off, early October, and it's difficult to turn a corner without encountering a mountain of fresh, unpeeled nuts, looking rather majestic for something the size of a nut, in their matte magenta robes. The lush environs also nourish those higher up on the food chain; lambs are usually fed on an all-grass diet, resulting in top-quality meat that, know-how aside, sets Aleppo's kibbeh apart. Florence Ollivry, the author of Les Secrets d'Alep: Une grande ville arabe révelée par sa cuisine, counts 58 different preparations, sculpted into various shapes, raw, baked, or fried, and served with everything from a simple drizzle of olive oil, a few mint leaves and a green onion to savoury yoghurt or tomato sauces.

At Bazar al-Charq, just outside of the old city in a 300-year-old building, we taste at least half-a-dozen of these. While two travellers recline on cushions at an empty table, recuperating from the various stomach plagues that Syria visits upon foreigners, I try to banish the testicles and hanging camel head from my mind and focus on the kibbeh carnival unfolding before me. Bazar al-Charq has been around since 2003 and, according to Anissa, is one of Aleppo's most underrated restaurants.

The setting - a large, basement room with vaulted stone ceilings - is slightly heavy on the Orientalist kitsch, but the kibbeh are no joke. Among those we tried were a well-seasoned kibbeh sajiyyeh (cooked on the saj, or concave grill), which was relatively light (kibbeh is more frequently encountered fried), kibbeh bi-laban (fried balls swimming in yogurt sauce, with tender bits of lamb floating alongside), kibbeh with sumac and aubergine (in a sour, dark sauce whose colour contrasted with the light, lemoniness of the sumac) and the formidable kibbeh maajouqa, a kind of quesadilla that substitutes discs of greasy meat for tortillas, with a filling of cheese and red and green peppers.

If we put all the ground meat on our table together, we could probably have assembled a small lamb. Several of the diners are avid home cooks. What makes a perfect kibbeh?, they want to know. "The proportion of meat to bulgur is very important," Anissa begins. "Heavier on the meat. It should be well-seasoned and fatty without being greasy. And it should be grilled or fried until it's crispy." On our first evening, we ate at Yasmeen d'Alep, which opened in 1995 in the Christian-Armenian neighbourhood of Jdeideh. We sit down, a bit ragged after what seemed like endless hours on the bus from Damascus. And the mezze parade begins: eggplants stuffed with bulgur salad, nuts and potatoes, rice kibbeh, sausage casing stuffed with rice, ground meat and chickpeas, and several salads.

Along with excellent grilled meats, Yasmine d'Alep serves a superb rendition of kebab kerez, or cherry kebab, lovely little balls of spiced, minced meat swimming merrily in a sauce of sour cherries, topped with toasted flatbread. According to Antaki, the sweet-and-sour combination (arguably a Persian influence) is in fact a Chinese contribution to Aleppan cuisine, although the dish is considered Armenian. In lesser hands, it can taste as though someone opened a can of cherry pie filling onto a plate of meatballs; here the chef shows admirable restraint in tempering the tartness of the cherries.

The newest and perhaps most successful restaurant in Aleppo is Zmorod. It opened around a year ago, and the owner, Dalal Touma, was dining at a table by the door when we walk in, and the large courtyard, warmed by golden-rose light, is filled with mostly Syrian patrons. Anissa orders what sounded like two of everything on the menu, despite the fact that most of us were still wobbling from lunch. The service is excellent - Anissa barely glances at the menu, and instead embarks on a swift back-and-forth with the waiter in Arabic, who has a number of suggestions for what's freshest and most interesting. The highlights include a cold dish of chicken morsels covered with the thickest, richest tahini sauce imaginable, tender fish with spicy tarator (a tahini sauce spiked with red pepper), and a grilled red pepper salad.

Through her cookbooks, such as Modern Mezze (Quadrille Publishing, 2007), her occasional columns in The Financial Times, and her blog (www.anissas.com) Helou does her bit to champion Syrian cuisine, which despite its similarity to Lebanese food, is considerably less well known. This is most likely, she thinks, because Syrians never experienced the famine and political turbulence that, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, drove so many Lebanese into the diaspora, where they had to eat, of course.

"You can eat the same dishes in Syria and in Lebanon but they'll taste totally different," Helou says. "Kebab in Syria is actually kafteh (ground meat balls) whereas kebabs in Lebanon really means lahmeh meshoui (grilled chunks of marinated meat.) The Syrian fattouche is different in that the bread is fried and it often has cheese in it, and it is dressed with pomegranate syrup whereas in the Lebanese fattouche, the bread is normally toasted and the dressing is mostly sumac."

The two cuisines share many similarities - a mezze tradition, kibbeh worship, an emphasis on the fresh and the seasonal - but Syrian food has its particular charms. It also comes with an edge of danger. Judging from the number of travellers who fell ill on the tour (five out of seven, or everyone except Anissa and me), Syrians' enthusiasm for hygiene is nowhere near as rigorous as their devotion to flavour.

One place where we are assured a higher degree of protection was at the home of Maria Gaspard Smara, a successful caterer known for her sure hand with Aleppan specialities (she also contributed many recipes to Ollivry's book). She welcomes us with bowls of rosy, fresh pistachios and proceeds to demonstrate a series of classic Aleppan dishes, including muhammara, a dip made of red pepper paste, walnuts and pomegranate syrup, and a delicious snack of deep-fried aubergine slices dipped in egg batter and deep-fried again.

"There are four seasons in Aleppo, and each has its own cuisine," explains Smara. Late summer, for example, is stuffed vegetable season. "Also, Aleppan cooks don't waste anything," she says, illustrating her point by using the insides of hollowed-out courgettes (to be stuffed with a rice mixture) to make a garlicky dip. The main dish, frikeh, or toasted green wheat and lamb, she cooks in a meat broth flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon and pepper, topped with pistachios, almonds and pine nuts fried in semneh, or clarified butter, and served with a thick, plain yogurt. For dessert, it's all we could do to find room for a couple of large, juicy figs.

On our last morning in Aleppo, Anissa took a few of us to Hajj Abdo, the city's authority on beans. His beans - foul, or fava beans- simmer overnight in large copper vessels that appear to be as old as he is (66), and their hearty, faintly bitter smell hangs in the air around the corner shop he has been working in since he was 21. Having lived for a year in Egypt, I was traumatised by foul. Egyptians tend to turn it into something resembling mud, which, although I have not yet found an archaeologist to back me up on this, I believe it was used to bind the bricks of the Great Pyramids. But Anissa assured me this was something utterly different.

Eating under the scrutiny of a dozen pairs of eyes can be faintly uncomfortable for women travellers, but these beans demand to be savoured. There is one major choice to be made: shall it be with tahini or lemon? After this hurdle, everything else - chilli paste, garlic, salt, cumin, olive oil - is a matter of degree. Anissa and I prefer the tahini version, which has a certain unctuousness amplified by a ladleful (yes) of oil on top, and she goes for extra chilli, while I enjoy a spoonful of cumin.

The Aleppan leg of the tour wound down at an old favourite, Wanes, a modern-looking, rather characterless, and staunchly local eatery that has been open since 1977. "My mother and I used to come here in the 1980s for their grills," Anissa tells us as we sit down. After a morning of foul, we were too full for grilled meat, but Anissa orders an abundant spread nonetheless. (It is customary - and Anissa never strays from this custom - to order enough mezze so as to eliminate any negative space on the tablecloth).

The standouts are the jibneh kurdiyyeh (Kurdish cheese), a salty white cheese between two pieces of flat bread, with small but potent minced hot green chillies and slices of tomato, all pan-fried like a quesadilla, and the basterma, an Armenian speciality of spiced, pressed dried meat often served with thin slices of raw garlic and eaten drizzled with olive oil and freshly cured green olives on the side. For dessert, I hand out some plump, sweet figs I had picked up in the giant market outside the old city, and the group piles back into the bus to head to Palmyra.

If there was anything fabulous left to eat in Aleppo, it would have to wait until the next trip. travel@thenational.ae

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