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
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
, Soup 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.)