Eating around the Syrian souks
Shouting, pushing, a crush of writhing bodies. No, it wasn’t the aftermath of some ‘axis of evil’ type terrorist act but a merely a scene in a popular Damascene ice cream parlour once Ramadan had ended.
Damascus’s main souq, al-Hamidiyeh, is an elegant structure with a soaring vaulted iron roof. It’s riddled with bullet holes from machine guns fired by French planes during the nationalist rebellion of 1925, tiny openings which let fine beams of daylight though. Shops line both sides of the thoroughfare while other traders simply stop their pastry-laden carts in the middle and let the crowds weave their way around them. And mid afternoon the crowds are intense.
It was our first day in Syria and we were stinging to get to the souqs. Eid, the end of Ramadan, had arrived and the local mood was jubilant. It was a public holiday and most families would have enjoyed lunch together at home. Girls would remain there or maybe visit friends’ houses but teenage boys were let loose on the street.
Come Eid, kids are traditionally given new clothes to celebrate as well as money which they promptly spend on sweets and ice cream, as you do. So the place was not just full of people, it was full of adolescent boys in sharp shoes and shiny shirts - on a sugar high.
Moving from one end of the souq to the other was grindingly slow but we were in no hurry. We’d been told the best ice cream was sold at a shop called Bakdash so rather than stop at any of the competitors along the way, we let ourselves be carried along by the crowds to test the recommendation. We knew we were getting close when the concentration of bodies per square metre doubled and noise levels escalated. Then we saw it. Anarchy.
Through the shop’s front window we could see a couple of harried guys at massive tubs scooping, filling cones, dipping them into crushed pistachios then thrusting them at grasping hands. Some customers were holding out tokens, shouting orders while others, once served would hold their cones overhead and try and squeeze their way out the door. The question was, how badly did we want an ice cream? Badly enough, it seemed, but only one of us should attempt entry. So with the request from my husband for ‘any flavour as long as it doesn’t contain embalming fluid’ by which he meant rosewater, I plunged on in.
A run up might have helped but there wasn’t enough room so my entry was more like pitching into a wall of warm jelly. I somehow managed to negotiate the token purchase and, having peeled off a tattered note, I pressed back towards the scooping zone. I was deluded enough to think I could select my preferred combination of flavours, but walked away with whatever these chaps could get into a cone fastest. It was mostly ‘éma’, the white, mastic-flavoured ice cream which is hand churned and traditionally flavoured with, you guessed it, rosewater. Luckily for my husband they’d either forgotten to add it to this batch or used it so subtly it was undetectable. There was also a fluorescent pink smear of some tangy fruit flavour, and both were good.
But eating in the souqs isn’t always this fraught. Anyone with a taste for wholesome street food and decadent pastries can happily graze from breakfast through to dinner. The courtyard at the end of Souq al-Hamidiyeh near the Umayyad Mosque was filled with industrious vendors grilling corn cobs, frying felafels and pressing mulberries and pomegranates for their jewel-coloured juice. And the pickings are just as rich 300 kilometres further north in Aleppo. One of the first places to raise its roller door, at around 8am, in this stone covered labyrinth is the foul (pronounced ‘full’) joint. If a person’s feeling flat or not thinking clearly there’s a saying in this part of the world that “he hasn’t yet had his foul and felafel”. A dish of these earthy brown broad beans is an important start to the day right across the middle east and this tiny place in the souq’s main drag serves nothing but.
It was full of men perched on stools at a marble bench and, despite being on my own that morning and worried that I might be crossing some cultural boundary by going in, I really wanted some foul. The single-dish menu made ordering simple and, as my breakfast was being scooped from a tall copper pot, I was told to go and take a seat. While I waited I watched how the dish was being tackled and decided there was no one rule. The plate of beans landed in front of me with a topping of diced tomato, a drizzle each of olive oil and tahini, and a generous sprinkling of sumac. On a side plate came a stack of fresh flat bread, a bunch of mint, a quartered, unpeeled brown onion and a green chilli. The man next to me alternated between mouthfuls of foul and scrunched mint leaves while the next one along fastidiously plucked his mint leaves from the stem and laid them on the beans before consuming them together. I employed a combination of techniques, avoiding the brown onion altogether, and liberally sprinkling salt from a communal pot. This stuff was filling and I went nowhere near finishing it, even though it was seriously delicious. But I ate enough to avoid insulting the cook to whom I paid my 75c on the way out.
I reckon the food is by far the most interesting thing on sale in the souqs and it often comes with some theatre. Get to the shops displaying massive pyramids of nut-laden pastries early enough and you’ll get to see the filo being rolled and stretched until it’s as fine as lingerie fabric. And as for lingerie, the souqs are full of it which, intriguingly in this modest Islamic culture, is as tarty as any I’ve seen. High-cut PVC bodysuits with G-strings and provocative cutaway panels, ostrich feather bras and knickers, sexy little slips shimmering with sequins, all for sale next door to the hijab shop.
There are plenty of textile and jewellery distractions for those times, say, post foul, when you’re not hungry, but even then food browsing is endlessly entertaining. One afternoon while checking out a particularly beautiful display of dried fruit and wondering what a particular type was, a kind young Syrian man came to my aid. He explained its flavour, its use and that, no, this wasn’t his shop, he sold jewellery nearby which, if I could just spare five minutes, he wanted me to see. The jewellery in Syria can be lovely and I did feel obliged after he’d told me so much about the fruit so, on the condition that it would be a quick visit, I went. His shop was deep within the maze and I wondered how, without a pebble trail, I’d ever find my way back.
After rifling through trays of earrings and necklaces and buying nothing I dashed away but could hear him calling that tomorrow when I had more time I should return. A couple of minutes later, a few streets closer to my hotel, he reappeared, and bailed me up again. “When you come back to my shop tomorrow, let’s not talk about business. Let’s talk about our future together.” Laughing, I told him not to be ridiculous. “No, seriously baby, you really are my cup of tea!” I loved that stilted phrasebook English and hoped it worked for him one day - on someone much younger than me and single. Meanwhile I had these womanly curves to maintain. There were crisp, sesame-encrusted biscuits to try and flaky, cheese-filled pastries that oozed syrup when bitten into. There were kebabs whose butchers controlled every stage of their production, from breaking down the lamb, dicing, threading and cooking it. What with the intoxicating smell of skewered meat grilling and omelettes being fried with herbs and green onion, it didn’t take long for my appetite to return.
The writer was a guest of Intrepid Travel
In Damascus we stayed at The Afamia Hotel, a centrally located, midrange option. Around $40 per double room per night. www.afamiahotel.com
Our accommodation in Aleppo at Dar Halabia hotel was a highlight. It was in an 18th Century stone house right on the edge of the souk with all rooms overlooking lovely courtyards. Around $50 per double per night.
As Syria was part of the ‘Cairo to Istanbul’ Intrepid tour we crossed overland from Jordan into Syria in an international taxi. A return flight from Sydney into Cairo and out of Istanbul with Singapore Airlines costs $2465 including taxes.
This was published in The Sydney Morning Herald here