The Aleppo Cookbook - Interview & Recipe

The Aleppo Cookbook: Celebrating the Legendary Cuisine of Syria by Marlene Matar is "a loving tribute to a little-known cuisine rich in flavors and traditions."
 
Aleppo was a food capital long before New York, Paris or Rome thanks to its fertile soil and location between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates - at the intersection of the Silk Road. Syria's largest city has an incredibly rich and dynamic cultural heritage.
 
Marlene Matar captures the beauty of Aleppo within the pages of this book and the love she has for this war-torn city is palpable. It breaks my heart that such a truly vibrant, visually stunning city has been reduced to rumble. It is my fervent hope that it can return to its former glory. With books like Cook for SyriaSoup for Syria and this beautiful book, we can all learn to appreciate and feed our hunger with knowledge of other cultures. With knowledge and understanding comes acceptance, tolerance and eventually love and appreciation.  
 
The recipes contained within the pages of this special book were obtained from the kitchens of prominent families, cherished restaurants and great chefs, states Matar, who is a highly accomplished chef and cooking instructor. Matar starts with the basics - the fundamentals of Middle Eastern cooking and builds up to more complex dishes.
 
Over 200 recipes - all of which can be easily replicated in our kitchens include Meatballs in Sour Cherry Sauce, Red Pepper Bread, and Arabic-Clotted Cream Pancakes. The photographs of the food, the landscape, the people - are beautiful and reinforces the simple human truth that we are all so much more alike than different. I am deeply moved by The Aleppo Cookbook and I trust that you will be as well. 

Update March 2nd - The Aleppo Cookbook won the 2017 Art of Eating Prize! So well deserved.
 
I was fortunate enough to interview Marlene Matar. After the interview, please check out a recipe to try now from the book which is currently on backorder (second printing) but will be available in late March. Then, head over to our contest page to enter our giveaway of two copies of this book.  
 
First, I would like to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions about your fascinating book. I place The Aleppo Cookbook on my top ten books of all time.
 
Q: I am immediately drawn to books that feature the cuisine of the Middle East and this type of cookbook has become very popular. What do you think attributes to this popularity?
 
Middle Eastern cuisine covers various geographical areas, different cultures and different ways of life. It is an exquisite cuisine so different from Western cuisine with its use of grains and legumes, vegetables, fruits,  burgal, olive oil, flat bread, garlic, sumac, nuts, rose water, orange blossom water and particularly the use of herbs and spices which are considered as sensuous. So, one reason for its popularity is the desire to experience the new and exotic in a world so different form the West.
Another reason for its attraction is the increasing interest of nutritionists and cookbooks authors in the health benefits of ME ingredients. From older times, the ME cuisine, particularly the Mediterranean, was labeled as healthy due to its use of olive oil in cooking and its vegetable cold dishes, lamb and vegetable stews. This coincided well with the greater interest in healthy living including healthy eating. All this was exacerbated with the popularity of TV food channels, the ease of travel, the internet, the social media and the availability of food ingredients that travel well as fresh, frozen, dried or vacuum packed.

We have experienced this in the Middle East in reverse as many restaurants opened during the last 15 years offering Italian, French, Japanese food, etc. There are numerous sushi restaurants with conveyor belts and many hamburger and Kentucky fried chicken joints.

Lately the interest in cookbooks is moving toward the Levantine cuisine called Almashrek, particularly that of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq where there are many similarities in dishes with more mezze dishes and the preponderant use of vegetables, kibbeh, lemon juice, rice, stews and burgal. This cuisine which is close to the Mediterranean cuisine is becoming very trendy and will stay for some time.
 
Q: I know the book's publication was delay and I can see why because the book is quite an accomplishment. When did you start this project and how long did you work on it? How was the process for you?

I was first introduced to Aleppian cuisine through my Aleppian students who invited me to their homes and introduced me to excellent heritage dishes prepared from recipes inherited from their mothers and grandmothers.

The first trip to Aleppo was in 2008 with a TV crew when I videotaped 10 Aleppian dishes from various restaurants and hotels. I met at the time members of the Syrian Academy of gastronomy who were doing their best to bring Aleppian cuisine known to the world through various articles that appeared in the West. Their wish coincided with my desire to document their cuisine. The project saw light when they offered me accommodations and opened the doors for my entry to Aleppo's best restaurants and upper society family kitchens.
 
Q: Did you spend time in Aleppo gathering research or did you do most of it from your home in Beirut?

My research was mainly done in Aleppo during long visits between 2009 and 2011. I was lucky to be introduced to families with whom I spent unforgettable hours in their kitchens and on their dinner tables.

I was granted permission to visit restaurants' kitchens where I cooked with the chefs who were so considerate and gracious as to make me taste many of their dishes. I spent a few days in the basement of two sweet shops where precious tips and techniques were passed on to me.

I woke up early every morning with the Academy's cook preparing the meal of the day taking note of all the ingredients and the recipe, went up to the roof top to char-grill kibbeh. I spent a number of days with a professional photographer who photographed the old city with me. One has to feel the city's tempo, the geography and the weather, mix with the people, chat with them and eat their food to be able to produce a cookbook of a country you were not born in. I am thankful to all those people who helped me. My hope is to go back to Aleppo and to make sure that they are all safe.

I spent 2012 in Beirut where I cooked with an Aleppian Chef in my kitchen perfecting a number of dishes and their ingredients. But the bulk of the research work was done in Aleppo itself with Aleppian ingredients. The first Aleppo book was published in Arabic in 2012. The process of editing with the publisher took a long time adapting it to American standards.

Q: To someone new to Syrian cuisine - which recipes would you recommend they start with to familiarize themselves with the ingredients? Which are a few of your favorite recipes from The Aleppo Cookbook?

I am not new to Syrian cuisine because many Syrian dishes are similar to Lebanese dishes with slight variations, but I consider Aleppian cuisine quite different and I dare call it "International Middle Eastern Cuisine" because it is greatly influenced by the West which occupied the city, or passed through it since ancient times and particularly during the Silk Road era. There is a rivalry for the trophy of good food between Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo which is considered the second capital of Syria.

I would recommend for readers of my book to try the appetizer "Red Pepper and Walnut Spread" which is prepared with three main ingredients, that highlight Aleppian cuisine and which I call "the trinity"; first is the red pepper paste prepared from red pepper and is such an added taste to any tomato sauce and to which the West has called Umami the 6th taste. The second is pomegranate molasses adding a sweet and sour taste to many dishes, the third is Aleppo pepper which is much superior in taste than paprika, it has a more vivid red color, slightly coarser, rubbed with olive oil and sun-dried. It is added to kibbeh and serves as a beautiful decoration on many dishes.

To familiarize themselves with ingredients "Freekeh with Chicken" is a good one to try, so is "Bulgar and Yogurt Dip". "Aleppian Batersh" is another dish easy to prepare but one has to be a little generous with fat by adding little ghee or butter to the olive oil in the recipe. "Travelling Jew" prepared with coarse burgal is good to try so is "Fish Fillet with Aleppian Spices"

The reader should try the round small kibbehs which are easy to core compared to the elongated egg shaped kibbeh or prepare "Butcher's Kibbeh" that needs no coring. I love their signature dish "Kabab Karaz" and their two sweet and sour dishes prepared with quince "Quince Stew" and "kibbeh with Quince". I devour "Fried Vegetable Patties" before they reach the table. I love all their dishes that fall between a soup and a stew and I often prepare them during winter, they are kibbeh dishes and usually have meat, kibbeh and a vegetable or more with a thin stock such as "kibbeh in sumac Stock" or "Kibbeh in Pomegranate Stock".  "Vegetarian Kibbeh with Spinach" is such a lovely vegetarian dish where the kibbeh is easy to core because of its thick walls, it is boiled and dipped in a no-cook delicious sauce.
I love every dish that has pomegranate molasses. But there is a great difference between the real where pomegranate juice is simmered for a long time and the fake where sugar, citric acid or color is added to the juice.   

Q: When I read books that focus on Middle Eastern cuisine it always brings the world a little closer to me and I realize, once again, that we are far more alike than different. What is the most important thing you hope the reader take away from your book?

The reader will be amazed at the uniqueness and diversity of Aleppian heritage dishes and sense the stamp of many civilizations and traditions that crossed the roads of Aleppo since ancient times and how the people have incorporated aspects of these civilizations in their own cuisine.
 
The reader will feel the effect of the Silk Road on nations and cities in terms of history, culture as reflected in the dishes prepared by the area.
 
Certainly the reader will feel empathy with the loss of lives and destruction of this ancient city which is one of three oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and which had a lot to offer to humanity.
 
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your career in Beirut? Do you have a collection of cookbooks yourself and if so what are a few of your favorites?

After I graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris with a Grand Diplome in Cooking and Pastry, I started my "Cooking Courses" in 1998 and was on NBN TV channel for 10 years.

I am a cookbook writer and published my first book in Arabic in 2010 "Maidat Marlene min al Sharq wa al Gharb" now in its 5th printing; it was partially translated to English "Marlene's Best Recipes from East and West" in 2010. In 2012 I published "Maidat Marlene min Halab" in Arabic. "Nights of Lebanon" was published in English in 2015 for Chef's cut in Holland. "Maidat Marlene min Halab" was published in English by Interlink books in 2016.

I have a big collection of cookbooks about International and Lebanese cuisine, one of which I consider the bible of all cookbooks is "Joy of Baking" and advise all my students to buy it. I cherish books by Claudia Rodin about the Middle East; I love Julia Child books such as "Baking with Julia", I like Madhur Jeffrey's books about Indian cuisine and "A taste of the far East".  The design and layout of Poopa Dweick book "Aromas of Aromas of Aleppo". "Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume" by Silvena Rowe is nice and colorful and fun to look at the pictures.

Try this recipe shared with permission of Interlink Books and Marlene Matar.
 

STUFFED ZUCCHINI
Koosa Mahshi

Serves 4-6
Preparation Time: 25-30 Minutes
Cooking Time: 30 Minutes

Serve this delicious dish with Garlic Yogurt with Mint (p. 98). You can use the inner flesh in Zucchini and Garlic in Olive Oil (p. 46), or Zucchini Omelets (p. 65).

2 lb/1 kg small zucchini (about 9), at room temperature
A few lamb or beef bones (optional)
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil

For the stuffing

1/ 3 cup/2½ oz/70 g short-grain rice, preferably Egyptian
7 oz/200 g lean ground lamb or beef
¼ cup/60 ml olive oil or melted butter
1 teaspoon Aleppo spice mix or seven-spice powder
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1.  Using the tines of a fork, make thin grooves along the length of the zucchini (optional). Cut off the stem.

2.  Hollow the inside with the help of a corer, leaving a thin shell.

3.   Prepare the stuffing: Wash and drain the rice, then mix in the rest of the stuffing ingredients.

4. Fill the zucchini with the stuffing, pressing lightly and leaving ½ in/1 cm empty at the opening to allow the rice to expand.

5. Place bones (if using) in a large pot. Arrange the stuffed zucchini on top and cover with water. Add the salt and oil.

6. Place an upturned plate on top of the stuffed zucchini in the pot, and place a weight on top of the plate. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 30 minutes until the zucchini is tender and the rice is cooked.

7. Transfer the stuffed zucchini to a serving platter, reserving the cooking liquid for reheating any leftovers. (Stuffed zucchini can be made 1 day ahead and stored in the refrigerator.)

4 Comments

  • radhablack  on  2/23/2017 at 2:38 PM

    The book looks beautiful - I'm looking forward to trying the Garlicky purslane soup with chickpeas and wheat (Shorbet baqleh)

  • hippiechick1955  on  2/23/2017 at 8:45 PM

    I would be interested in trying the vegetarian potato kibbah (?)

  • Micklerlr  on  2/23/2017 at 10:05 PM

    Though there are countless recipes I'm eager to try, I will begin my journey with Kabab Karaz (lamb meatballs in sour cherry sauce,) which according to the author, "may well be Aleppo's most famous dish."

  • zen888  on  2/24/2017 at 12:28 PM

    The recipes sound delicious. I would love to try the white beans in oil.

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