Freshly baked bread is spread out on any available surface while it cools, a morning ritual in Aleppo, Syria. The northern Syrian town is making a name for itself as a tourist destination for food lovers.
Aleppo, in northern Syria, is one of the oldest cities in the world. For a thousand years — maybe more — the city's residents have had food on the mind. Now, this Middle East gourmet capital is registering on the itineraries of food tourists — and giving Paris and New York some competition.
The romance begins at the city's outdoor food markets — radishes as big as apples; fresh white cheese bobbing in milky water; shiny green and black olives; hundreds of pickles; and thick pomegranate molasses. Then there are the spice markets, with yellow turmeric, pink rose petals and red sun-dried pepper pastes.
Surrounded by olive, nut and fruit orchards, Aleppo is famous for a love of eating. The cuisine is the product of fertile land and location — along the Silk Road, an ancient trading route.
The markets of Aleppo brim with fresh vegetables and spices. The city's cuisine is the product of fertile land and location — along the Silk Road, an ancient trading route.
The markets of Aleppo brim with fresh vegetables and spices. The city's cuisine is the product of fertile land and location — along the Silk Road, an ancient trading route. Deborah Amos/NPR
"Thanks to this melting pot of caravans which took place in Aleppo," says Pierre Antaki, head of the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy, "all kinds of produce, fresh and preserved, used to pass by Aleppo."
The International Academy of Gastronomy in France awarded Aleppo its culinary prize in 2007. But Aleppo was a food capital long before Paris. Aleppo's diverse communities — Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Circassians, a sizable Christian population — all contributed food traditions, since Aleppo was part of the Ottoman Empire, says Antaki.
"The Sultan of Istanbul would send his chef to Aleppo to spy, to see what the caravans are bringing, what's new that he doesn't know," he says.
The Turks are in Syria again, this time as tourists. Turkey and Syria lifted visa restrictions in September, and there has been a flood of cross-border trade. Restaurant owners now speak some Turkish and English, for Western tourists who come on gourmet tours. But the test of any city's food culture is in the small, traditional shops.
One, known as Abu Abdo, specializes in ful, a typical breakfast meal: fava bean soup with a splash of olive oil, lemon juice and Aleppo's red peppers. The family business has been open for more than 70 years. On a recent day, the owner ladles ful into plastic bags for the to-go crowd — workers as well as businessmen — because it's the best in town.
Abu Abdo has become a kind of "trademark" for the ful in Aleppo, says Samir Akkad, a regular customer and a native of the city.
He says Aleppo's food culture is easy to explain.
Abu Abdo is a small, family-owned restaurant in Aleppo, Syria, that specializes in ful, a fava bean soup flavored with olive oil, lemon juice and Aleppo red peppers that is traditionally served at breakfast. Here, an employee holds a ladle of ful.
Abu Abdo is a small, family-owned restaurant in Aleppo, Syria, that specializes in ful, a fava bean soup flavored with olive oil, lemon juice and Aleppo red peppers that is traditionally served at breakfast. Here, an employee holds a ladle of ful. Deborah Amos/NPR
"In Aleppo, we like our stomach, we like good food — rich [in] fat," says Akkad, who works in guest relations at the city's Sheraton Hotel.
Take kibbe, for instance. Anyone who has ever eaten in the Middle East is familiar with kibbe, a deep-fried oval of cracked wheat with ground meat inside, often greasy and tasteless. But in the hands of Aleppo's chefs, kibbe is an art form — lightly crispy on the outside with delicately spiced, fragrant lamb in the middle. In Aleppo, there are more than a dozen varieties that include additions of rice, pistachios and pine nuts.
And the artist-chefs are finally being rewarded. Syria is opening up its economy after decades of state control, which has revived restaurants and created stars in the kitchens, says Antaki.
"The demand was high; the promotion was fast. A chef today gets ten-, fifteenfold what a chef would get 10 years ago," he says.
In a dining hall above the luxury Yasmeen d'Alep House hotel, serious eaters gather on most nights as part of Club d-Alep, a private food club with 600 local members. Their prosperity is on display on the coat rack — mostly mink. The club is known for bridge games, birthday celebrations and a long menu.
On a recent night, the two-page menu included Aleppo specialties such as meat with mint, green olives dressed with pomegranate molasses, spicy lamb in sweet cherry sauce, plus 17 different kinds of kibbe and 10 different kinds of hummus, or chickpea dip.
"Here, our food is very, very good, and always it's the best in town," says club member Lucienne Saloom, who is impeccably turned out in a black dinner dress and pearls.
She says she misses the food whenever she is away from home.
"It's made of very different ingredients. We are using everything that we can find. ... [It's] very complex," Saloom says.
This treasured cuisine is opening Syria to more extensive tourism, says Antaki.
"Slowly, slowly, we have had groups of people coming just to taste the food — and see some stones — but their main purpose was to enjoy some good meals," he says.
When it comes to opening the economy — and the country — it turns out that food is a better draw than ancient history.