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An Irish chef's road to Damascus

Feature Mark Dougherty only intended to visit Syria for 'a couple of days' at the end of his travels. But the young chef fell in love with its ancient culinary traditions and stayed on.

Mark Dougherty only intended to visit Syria for 'a couple of days' at the end of his travels. But the young chef fell in love with its ancient culinary traditions and stayed on. He tells Rasha Elass about the cookery book the country has inspired him to write.

Mark Dougherty keeps a duckling named Ful on his terrace. It is an experiment, he explains, much like the pigs raised in the south of Spain that are fed a diet of herbs and acorns. They end up as Iberico ham, which is renowned for its exquisite taste. "So Ful the duck has now been on a strict diet of basil and chilis to see if he will have a special taste," Dougherty says.


But already there is a problem. Ful, which means fava bean in Arabic, is too cute for slaughter and Dougherty is no longer certain he can go through with his plan. Nonetheless, Ful already seems to be serving a purpose for Dougherty. Most people in the West are now totally divorced from the origin and production of the food they eat, he says. Media reports in the US often describe urban children who do not know that the eggs in their refrigerator come from a hen, and the milk from a cow.

Butchers in the West create a sanitised facade, wrapping their meat in plastic and minimising the blood and guts to encourage us to forget the realities that lie behind food production. "In the West, people don't know where their food comes from. We're so removed from it. We don't see dead sheep hanging." This is in stark contrast to Dougherty's experience over the past couple of years since he left Ireland to travel in India, Morocco and finally Syria.

"In Fez, I remember the slaughterhouse where people brought their sheep and socialised together at the same time. This was normal." One of the things he relishes so much about shopping for food and indulging in the local cuisine of old countries such as Syria is the "realness" of it all. Fruit and vegetables in the souk are local and organic, without the fanfare that accompanies locally grown organic produce in the West. In Syria, local and organic are the norm, which probably explains why shopkeepers do not bother to advertise these facts. And the butchers here are not bashful about the gore at the heart of their profession, often hanging their newly slaughtered prize beast in the window.

For anyone trying to get back to the basics of food, perhaps Damascus, the world's oldest continuously inhabited city, is a good place to start. Dougherty would agree. He first visited Syria in March last year with the intention of staying "a couple of days". "Now I won't leave until I finish my book," he says. He is gathering the best recipes from all regions in Syria and he plans to publish them in a cookery book "full of pictures and illustrations and no writing - except for the recipes, of course".

Dougherty grew up in Ireland appreciating the cuisine of Europe, crediting his Swiss grandmother, who "hated to cook but still made excellent food", for sparking his interest in the culinary arts. His palate was well accustomed to spicy dishes, too - Mexican food was his favourite cuisine growing up. He started working in kitchens when he was still at school, "doing odd jobs" during the summer holidays. He originally intended to go to art school but felt it was "too pretentious" and decided to pursue a career as a chef instead. "Cooking is a real art," he says. He received no formal training, but "learned from working" in kitchens at half a dozen restaurants in West Cork and Kerry. After three years, it was time to explore the world and its cuisines.

"If you're in a kitchen, you're in a kitchen six days per week. I got tired of my job in Ireland." Since leaving Ireland and travelling, Dougherty has found that the way he cooks and eats has changed. He now enjoys a back-to-basics home-cooked meal shared with loved ones. "Before travelling, I was focusing on making tiny little stars," he says, referring to the small and pretty pieces of food he used to produce.

"The little stars are still amazing, but I like eating with my hands. And I like communal eating. "In the West we've moved away from eating together. People go to restaurants to eat together. People go to restaurants to eat together. They think this food is so fancy, we can't make it at home, but the best food is made at home. And we don't have that so much in the West." Whipping up a feast for a crowd may be a newfound pleasure for Dougherty and it has made him a sought-after guest for local women who "always invite me to their kitchen" to exchange culinary tips.

"When women find out you're a chef, they want to show you their cooking," he says. "In return they want me to show them cheesecake. They all want to learn cheesecake. So I show them cheesecake and they show me yallanji. It's great." I first met Dougherty in Azzazin, where he lives on the top floor of a four-storey building. His neighbourhood, near Bab Touma, a Christian quarter and one of the seven gates into the Old City, is a typical food market full of fresh fruit and vegetable stands, butchers and bakers.

It was impossible to miss him, not because of his large, blue eyes and long, wavy brown hair but because he towered above everyone else. At 190cm tall, weighing "12 or 13 stones" (76-82kg), it is no wonder that when he goes shopping people often stop and stare. "My friend is from New Zealand, and he is even taller," he says, referring to Willie Searle, the photographer collaborating with him on his book. But I guess if Arabs came to a supermarket in Ireland and started taking pictures of the meat stand, people would think they are weird."

His book will contain five sections - drinks, mezze, lunch, grills and sweets. All recipes are Syrian, and Dougherty will make no adjustments or concessions to western palates. "There are plenty of Lebanese or regional cookbooks, but there are no specific Syrian ones," he says. One of the main challenges of compiling recipes is figuring out the amounts required for each ingredient. Ask Syrians how they make a dish, and they will name the ingredients with ease. But ask them for the exact amounts, and the best they come up with is: "A little bit," or "a lot" or "as much as you like".

"As a chef, you know what to do with ingredients when someone tells you which ingredients to use. And the typical Syrian will also know how much to use of each ingredient. The hardest thing in writing these recipes is going back and adjusting the measurement. Before we finalise the book, we'll ask someone to cook all our recipes so we can make final adjustments to the measurements." "Syrian food is somewhat simple, but it's a refined simplicity," says Dougherty. "Many recipes contain only a few ingredients, but what ingredients. Tomatoes have zest. Olive oil is complex and alive. Spices are subtle but confident. Methods are age old and follow basic principles. Dishes have magic and the wisdom of yesteryear.

"Syrian food is a bastard child whose mother sometimes has trouble remembering the father's face, let alone his name. Her influences are from far and wide. From the moment people planted the first crops in the fertile crescent, Syria has been at the centre of culinary history."


Upside down rice with aubergines, lamb and tomatoes

250g lamb, minced 3 aubergines, sliced thickly 2 large tomatoes, sliced 1 onion, chopped 3 cloves garlic, chopped 1 tsp baharat 1 tsp coriander seeds Salt and pepper 2 tsp tomato paste 2 cups chicken stock 1 tbsp butter Almonds Pine nuts 2 cups rice, soaked Yoghurt sauce with mint and garlic 2 cups yoghurt 3 cloves of garlic, chopped Salt and pepper 1 tbsp olive oil Pinch dried mint Soak the rice in hot water for about half and hour. Fry the nuts in a little oil until just golden. Drain them on a paper towel. Slice the aubergines into thick slices. Fry them in hot oil until they begin to soften. Set aside. Fry the onions until they begin to soften. Add the lamb, spices and salt and pepper. At the last minute add the garlic.

Line a pot with a layer of the aubergines. Pile the meat on top of this, then the tomato slices. Warm the chicken stock and stir in the tomato paste. Drain the rice and add it on top of the tomatoes. Pour in enough stock to barely cover the rice. Bring to the boil and turn the heat down to the lowest level. Cover it and cook for about half an hour. When the rice is done add the butter and let it melt into the rice. Pack the rice firmly down and then quickly upend the pot on to a large plate. Inshallah, it will stay together. Garnish with the nuts. To make the sauce, mix all the ingredients together and serve with the ma'lube.

Walnut and orange flower biscuits

2 cups flour 1 cup semolina 2 sticks butter 3 tbsp milk 2 tbsp sugar 1 tbsp orange flower water 2 cups walnuts, finely chopped 4 tbsp sugar 1 tsp. cinnamon Work the butter into the flour with your fingers and slowly add the milk and orange flower water till the dough just comes together. Roll it into a ball. Mix the chopped walnuts with the sugar and cinnamon.

Take a small lump of dough and make a ball. Hollow the ball out with your thumb to make a little bowl. Fill the hole with some of the walnut mixture and bring the dough over the opening. Flatten the biscuit slightly with your hand. Make a design with a fork or a ma'amoul mould. Bake the biscuits for about 20 minutes in a hot oven but make sure they don't brown. Allow to cool and sprinkle with icing sugar.

Kebab with cherries

500g lamb, minced 1tsp allspice 1/2HALF tsp cinnamon Salt and pepper 500 g cherries, pitted and roughly chopped, reserving the juice 1/2 tsp cinnamon 1 small onion, chopped 1 tbsp butter 1 tsp sugar Pita bread Cinnamon Parsley Pine nuts, toasted Season the lamb with the spices and roll into little meatballs. Fry the onion in a little oil or butter until soft and then add the cherries, the cinnamon, the sugar, salt and pepper. Add a little water and bring to the boil and turn down and let it simmer.

Fry the meatballs in a little butter until they are just browned on the outside and add them to the cherry sauce. Let them cook for about 20 minutes until the sauce is thick and sticky. Add the butter to the sauce and stir it in. Cut the pita into triangles and toast lightly. Arrange on a platter. Spoon the cherry sauce over the pita, arrange the meatballs on top and garnish with a pinch of cinnamon, a handful of parsley and some toasted pine nuts.


Updated: August 21, 2010 04:00 AM