Syria doesn’t really have a cuisine that is unique to itself, but rather shares a cuisine with Lebanon (and certainly overlaps with other Mediterranean countries, such as Turkey and Egypt). As you may know, Lebanese food is generally considered the most sophisticated and tasty in the Middle East (why so many Middle Eastern restaurants are called Lebanese restaurants), and so one could say the same about Syrian food.
The most common foods for the budget traveler, cheap, quick and ubiquitous, are felafel, shawarma and mini-pizzas. You are probably familiar with at least falafel, which are deep-fried chick pea patties usually served in a sandwich. Felafel in Syria is generally made in the form of a little doughnut, which increases the crunchy surface area relative to a sphere or disk, the other common shapes. The felafels are crushed on the bread as the first step of the sandwich assembly. I’ll miss felafel in the months to come–they are not only cheap and tasty, but the combination of the savory, crunchy fried felafel with the cool refreshing salad can be a real pleasure.
Shawarma, which comes in chicken or lamb, is a vertical spit meat (similar to doner or gyro) that gets gradually cooked by a heat source and sliced off, usually into sandwiches. The chicken variety is usually cheaper than the lamb, and also tastier. We were told that 30 chickens are used to put together a full shawarma “pole.”
Lamb shawarma on the fire
Chicken shawarma, being sliced
Raw chicken shwarma
Mini-pizzas (I imagine they have an Arabic name although I do not know it) come in many varieties, including perhaps most exotically a salty thyme (?) one that is green (I believe the Arabic is zaatar). They are baked in great big ovens, and if not fresh hot are reheated for you.
Variety–zaatar on left
More conventional pies, hot out of the oven
Stepping one step closer to restaurant food, but also cheap, common and served just off of the street in smaller shops, are foul and fatta. Both are derived from some combination of chick peas, tahini, olive oil, beans and perhaps some meat, served with bread.
From a restaurant in the Aleppo souk
Finally, the most common restaurant food, or what I think would be considered core Syrian-Lebanese cuisine. As with food in Turkey, my belief is that the foods below actually do not make up the bulk of what a Syrian household eats on a daily basis; rather, there is a sort of separate repertoire of dishes that one would cook at home. This latter category of food is somewhat inaccessible to tourists, but we were able to sample it at some simpler restaurants where pre-prepared food is served from bins (as we had once in Turkey and not dissimilar from the manner of serving at basic Latin American restaurants in the U.S.). This food is also delicious, but harder to describe as a cuisine–an assortment of stews served with rice, in contrast to most restaurant food, which is eaten with bread. I imagine that the split in the cuisine has a historical/ethnic history. [Speaking of rice, there are also restaurants that serve what is called “bedouin” food, including the dish mensaf which is a biryani-like mixture of seasoned rice with meat. My guess would be that the rice cuisine is of eastern origin while the bread cuisine is more natively Mediterranean.]
Anyway, back to the restaurant. You start your meal (as in Turkey) with mezze, which are hot or cold appetizers that are shared by the table. Each cold mezze generally costs something around 50 SP (or USD 1), although the serving size and quality of course differ. The most common cold mezze are spreads with which you are likely familiar: hummus, moutabbal, babaganoush, and so forth. Hot mezze, which are somewhat more expensive, include pastries with meat inside, sausages, grilled eggplant, etc. Also eaten earlier in the meal are fresh salads, most commonly fattoush (our favorite!) and tabbouleh.
“Arabian salad” in front, similar to fattoush though with different dressing, moutabbal on rear right and beans on rear left
Our favorite babaganoush, in a restaurant in central Aleppo
Muhammara, made with walnuts and pomegranate juice
In Turkey, we found and heard that mezze often takes over the meal, but in Syria we saw that people generally do order main dishes, which means grill items–some form of kebab. Predictably, there are chicken kebabs and lamb kebabs, the latter coming in ground (meatball-like) and unground (chunks of meat) form. In some restaurants, we found the standard of seasoning and preparation to be quite high.
Chicken kebab (shish taouk), served with fries
Kebabs grilled on the street, nighttime Aleppo
Note the bread being used as a plate–bread is always free in Syria and often used as a plate or cover for served kebabs.
Sweets. Some restaurants do offer desserts, but I believe the local sweets are eaten more often as snacks than after-meal finishers. Syrian sweets, which include a form of baklava, are sold everywhere, and are somewhat expensive. We also purchased (from the factory featured in my 4.19 post) really great marzipan-ny cookies that were in the form of macaroons (the mini-sandwich, not the coconut, kind). A more basic local dessert called muhalabiya is a form of rice pudding, though not as delightful as the Indian variety.
A sweets store in Hama
Pistachios are a common feature of sweets
Beverages. The most common beverage in Syria, as with much of the Middle East, is tea. Like in Turkey, it is served highly sweetened in small cups. In addition to tea, Syrians also drink yerba mate, imported from Argentina (the history of this may be related to Syrian emigration to South America). Coffee of the Turkish variety is also available, as is the universal “nescafe.”
Tea being sold in a shop. The tea is Syria is almost always from Sri Lanka.
From a coffeeshop near the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Fresh juice is also available from specialized stands, served in gigantic glass mugs for about 50 SP, or USD 1. The juice guys also make a pretty good banana milk.
One special drink we saw, and one that all foreigners seem to love, is lemonade with mint. One person we met said that it goes well with gin!