Written by William Dobson
While Damascus and Aleppo might both vie for being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, when it comes to which city serves the best food the contest is much less contentious. Ubiquitously in Syria, people champion Halabi food (Halab being the Arabic for Aleppo).
Aleppo, for me, has to be one of the most romantic cities in the Middle East, an almost Syrian Shangri-La if you like. It’s one of the few existent places which really evokes images of the Arab world as it might have been in One Thousand and One Nights . Yet, it continues to feel like a real city and not somewhere holding up the pretence for the sake of exotic-seeking tourists. The souk remains one of the most charming in the region. It’s dark, cavernous, richly fragrant – at times bordering on the pungent – but never feels like a honeypot. The shopkeepers and hawkers are friendly, cheeky and persistent but rarely pushy, rude or insistent.
The city itself is dominated both by the beautiful Ommayad Mosque, a smaller and more intimate version of the Damascene mosque of the same name, and the magnificent citadel which towers over the city and is believed to be one of the oldest and largest castles in the world; usage of the site dates back to 3rd Millennium BC. One of the other most interesting sites in the city is the grand Baron Hotel, apparently the oldest hotel in the region. Now just a vestige of its faded pomp and glory, it is a fascinating relic of what luxury travel must have been like during the peak of the Orient Express. Indeed, Agatha Christie wrote the first part of her novel, Murder on the Orient Express, while staying in room 203 and other notable guests include T.E. Lawrence, whose unpaid bar tab remains pinned to the wall.
The most famous dish in the city is kebab bil karaz or lamb meatballs in a sour cherry sauce. It’s the first thing anyone who has been there mentions. The St. Lucie cherries used in Aleppo are unique to the region. They are slightly sourer than the ones we generally find here. Having said that, interspersed with the deep crimson cherries we have, there are always some slightly less ripe ones, those that are a peachy orange colour inside and these, mixed with the riper cherries and some pomegranate molasses can give the sweet and sour flavours you’re looking for.
Levantine and Middle Eastern food in general is about sharing, eating with your fingers, and generally getting stuck in. There’s a great line in Homeless Rats by Ahmed Fagih when a seven year old boy is able to remember his left and right by the fact that it’s his right hand he uses to eat with (he could probably remember just as easily by thinking about what he uses his left hand for…). Sometimes though, you might want to take advantage of all the fantastic flavours used, while serving something a bit more ‘refined’, for want of a better word.
So, with this recipe I’ve substituted lamb kebab for individual roasted duck breasts which works wonderfully. Its ‘luxuriousness’ suddenly elevates this dish to something appropriate for a special occasion. It’s got bold and slightly gamey flavour and it goes brilliantly with fruit, robust enough to stand up to those sweet and sour flavours. From France to Vietnam, duck in orange sauce is a classic. The aubergine, or baba ghanouj, purée adds so much to the dish. The smokey, mellow sweetness simultaneously contrasts and compliments the slight tartness of the cherry sauce.
The potatoes use the Persian spice mix, panj puran, and are so exciting – fragrant, earthy, warming, and exotic with a bit of heat from the chilli powder and the ginger. Although perhaps technically not Syrian, spicy potatoes cooked like this are very common in the Levant!
The recipe here is for four people but double it and you’ve got your main course for a dinner party of eight, done in about an hour. It’s simple, it’s delicious and it will certainly impress your friends (unless they don’t like duck, cherries, both or are vegetarians)…
- 4 Duck Breasts
- 800g cherries, halved and pitted (the only annoying bit about cooking this – uses an olive de-stoner)
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 2 tsp sugar
- Juice of one lemon
- 31/2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- Salt and pepper
Panj Puran Potatoes:
- 300g Potatoes (chopped into 1” dice)
- 3 tsp panj puran
- 25g crushed garlic
- 25g crushed ginger
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp chilli flakes
- 1 tsp salt
- Freshly ground black peppercorns
Baba Ghanouj Purée:
- 2 aubergines
- 3 tbsp natural yoghurt
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- Salt and pepper
For the baba ghanouj purée, preheat the oven to 180C. Pierce the aubergine skins several times, all the way through. Don't forget this or you'll be cleaning up exploded aubergine from your oven for the foreseeable future. Liberally rub olive oil and salt over the skin, and place in the oven for about 45 minutes. When they are done – they should be soft and the skin should pull away easily – scoop out the flesh into a blender and add the yoghurt. Pulse until smooth. Meanwhile, fry off the garlic in some vegetable oil and then add the aubergine and yoghurt mix. Gently heat through and season to taste.
While the aubergines are in the oven, you can start on the duck. Once you've got over the annoying part of removing the stones from the cherries the rest is very easy. Put the cherries into a saucepan with a cup or so or water, the cinnamon, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, a pinch of salt and pepper and one teaspoon of sugar (you can add the rest later if it is too sour although you want a certain tartness to get through the fattiness of the duck), bring to the boil, and then turn down slightly and leave to simmer (fairly vigorously), stirring often, for about twenty minutes to half an hour or until the sauce has thickened nicely and the cherries have broken down (when they become soft, use the back of your wooden spoon to expedite this process). Check for seasoning and, if it is indeed too sour for your taste, just add a bit more of the sugar. Then, strain the sauce through a sieve.
Meanwhile, preheat an oven to 200C. Score the duck skin about four times with a sharp knife and rub some salt and pepper in. Add the duck, skin down, to a cold frying pan (this will result in crispier skin) and put on a high heat for a few minutes until the fat has started to render down and the skin has turned a deep, golden brown. Note that because of the large fat content in duck you don't need to add any oil to the pan. Then turn them over and seal for about a minute on the other side. Transfer the duck breasts into a roasting tin, deglaze the pan and add the juices into the roasting tin as well. Pop them in the oven for between 10 – 15 minutes depending on how you like it cooked, but it really should be pink and bloody inside.
For the panj puran potatoes, heat the olive oil in a saucepan on a medium heat, add the panj puran and put the lid on. When you hear a popping sound, lower the heat slightly and add the garlic, ginger, turmeric and chilli powder. Continue to cook for another couple of minutes, then add the potatoes and coat them in the oil and spices. Add a small amount of water to the pan, replace the lid and leave to cook gently, giving the pan a good shake every now and then, until the potatoes are just starting to fall apart.
Once the duck is cooked to your liking, put onto a carving board, cover with tin foil and leave to rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Then, slice the breast into thin strips at a slight diagonal and place on a warm plate. Add a generous serving of the cherry sauce, a big dollop of the baba ghanouj purée, and the panj puran potatoes for a twist on a Syrian classic for a more formal occasion.