STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We can at least take you on this next journey with no risk at all. You can stay at home as we go to one of the oldest cities in the world: Aleppo in northern Syria. It has prided itself on its food for a thousand years or more. And now it's a destination for adventurous food tourists, as well as for NPR's Deborah Amos.

DEBORAH AMOS: The romance begins at the outdoor food market � radishes as big as apples, fresh white cheese bobbing in milky water; shiny olives, hundreds of pickles, and thick pomegranate molasses. Then there's the spice markets, with yellow turmeric, pink rose petals, and red sun-dried pepper pastes.

This city, surrounded by olive, nut and fruit orchards, is famous for a love of eating, the cuisine, a product of fertile land and location. Along the Silk Road, an ancient trading route.

Mr. PIERRE ANTAKI (Syrian Academy of Gastronomy): Thanks to this melting pot of caravans which took place in Aleppo especially, all kinds of produce, fresh and preserved, used to pass by Aleppo.

AMOS: That's Pierre Antaki, head of the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy. The International Academy in France awarded Aleppo its culinary prize a few years ago. Thanks, 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.

Mr. 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.

AMOS: The Turks are here again, this time as tourists. Turkey and Syria lifted visa restrictions in September, 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.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: This was 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. A family business owned for more than 70 years, the owner ladles the ful into plastic bags for the to-go crowd � workers as well as businessmen � because it's the best in town.

Mr. SAMIR AKKAD: Abu Abdo, Abu Abdo, the name now it becomes a kind of trademark for the ful in Aleppo.

AMOS: Samir Akkad, a native of the city, says the food culture is easy to explain.

Mr. AKKAD: In Aleppo, we like our stomach, we like good food � rich of fat and - you know kibbe.

AMOS: Kibbe? Anybody who has ever eaten in the Middle East knows kibbe, a deep-fried oval of cracked wheat with ground meat inside, often greasy and tasteless. In the hands of Aleppo's chefs, kibbe is an art form � and the artists 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 Pierre Antaki.

Mr. ANTAKI: The demand was high, the promotion was fast. A chef today gets ten, fifteen-folds what a chef would get 10 years ago.

(Soundbite of singing)

AMOS: On most nights serious eaters gather here in a dining hall above a hotel. This is a private food club with 600 local members. Their prosperity is on display on the coat rack � mostly mink. This club is known for bridge games, birthday celebrations and a long menu.

Ms. LUCIENNE SALOOM (Club Member): Here our food is very, very good, and always it's the best in town.

AMOS: Lucienne Saloom says she misses the food whenever she's away from home.

Ms. SALOOM: It's made of very different ingredients. We are using everything that we can find. Yes, very complex.

AMOS: This treasured cuisine is opening Syria to more extensive tourism, says Antaki.

Mr. 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.

AMOS: And when it comes to opening the economy � and the country � it turns out that food is a better draw than ancient history.

I'm making a story about Aleppo food, I'm going to eat this tonight.

Unidentified Man #2: Aleppo food is great.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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