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Spices were traded from the Far East for centuries, by the Arabs, the Moors, and the Phoenicians before them. Middle East foods are known for their spiciness, not hotness, but foods filled with flavor from rich spices. The spices of the Middle East will flavor your nostrils and the aromas will send you to heaven and back. It is imperative when cooking to use good quality spices.

If possible, use imported high quality spices available in large barrels in Middle East grocery stores. Syrian cooks will also seek out the freshest herbs, such as parsley, to enhance their foods. Many recipes use orange water, known as ma’zaher, or rose water, known as ma’war’id. Just a few drops of these perfumed waters are used in sweet confections.

Many grains are used in Syrian cooking. These include burghul, a wheat that has been boiled, dried and crushed. When purchasing burghul, look at the size of the grain. Some recipes, like tabouleh, call for fine ground. Bazergan calls for medium ground and course ground is used in cooking. Another important grain is semolina, used in many pastry doughs, such as Sambusak.

Rice is a staple. For a Syrian woman, knowing different types of rice and what they are used for as well as preparing different rice dishes is like making scrambled eggs, easy and basic. Other grains we use include smead (semolina), and flour, of course, which is used in our precious Syrian bread (flat round bread with a pocket). Couscous (either coarsely ground semolina or pasta based) is used in many Middle East countries.

Another important source of flavor is oot, or tamarhindy, a paste made from tamarind leaves. This can be purchased in Middle East grocery stores, as only a little is used in many recipes. More ambitious cooks may try this time consuming recipe.

Fresh and dried fruits, as well as nuts are served with dessert, especially after dinner. Fruits in season, such as melons or berries will be served on a platter. When there is not an ample supply of fresh fruit, then dried fruits, such as apricot, fig or dates, will be served. There are also bowls of different kinds of nuts placed on the table after dinner. Nuts were stored in the freezer to preserve their nutty freshness and served in small candy dishes alongside the fruit and pastries.

Photos above by Mark Greenberg

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