Written by William Dobson
Kebab bil Karaz (or Cherry Kebabs) is a dish that I’ve mentioned a number of times in other posts, so thought it about time to include an actual recipe. Aleppo doesn’t get a huge amount of press compared to much of the rest of Syria but it really is a fantastic city. It’s similar in size to Damascus and, like the nation’s capital, is home to both modern sprawl and a charming old city. The citadel is magnificent, one of the oldest and largest castles in the world, and standing beneath the heavily fortified ramparts you are transported back to the days of crusaders, sieges and drawbridges. It’s also the city with, in my opinion, the most perfectly preserved souk in the region. Less ordered and more frenetic than ones in Damascus, it still retains that feel of being a place for locals to shop, rather than tourists to be ripped off; not always something that can be said about markets in the likes of Marrakech or Istanbul.
The cuisine there is wonderful too. It would make it into my top three food cities in the world, without a shadow of a doubt. It relies on traditional Levantine flavours but its proximity to the Turkish border, in addition to the fact that it has spent a considerable time as part of the Ottoman Empire, means that Turkish influences come through strongly. Grilled meats feature heavily on the menu, as one might expect, but this really is the dish that makes it stand out. In my experience, it’s almost completely unique to Aleppo. Indeed, even in Damascus, the only place I came across it was in a restaurant called Al-Halabi (the Arabic denonym for Aleppo).
The true version of this dish requires the use of St. Lucie cherries, a smaller and sourer version of the cherries we are accustomed to, but pomegranate molasses can be used to achieve a similar flavour. The tartness is important because, otherwise, the taste resembles cherry jam, whereas with sweet, sour and fruity flavours, with a hint of citrus and a dust of cinnamon, the sauce works wonderfully well with the meatballs, delicately spiced and with a burst of freshness from the parsley. There are various different versions of the dish but this is my take which, although perhaps not 100% traditional, is certainly absolutely delicious. Just serve with some freshly made Arabic flatbread or pitta.
- 500g lean lamb mince
- One finely chopped small onion
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 2 tsp cumin
- Pinch hot chilli powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- Large handful flat lead parsley, finely chopped
- 500g cherries, halved and pitted
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- Juice of half a lemon
- Salt & Pepper (to taste)
- 100g pine nuts, light browned in sunflower oil
Start by making the meatballs. Add all the ingredients into a large mixing bowl and knead until mixed together completely. Place in the fridge to firm up for about an hour. Preheat the grill to as high as it will go. Using slightly damp hands, mould into meatballs, about an inch in diameter and place in the grill for about 4 minutes on each side, just so they're cooked through and starting to carmelise on the outside.
While the lamb is in the fridge, you can start to make the cherry sauce. Put the cherries into a saucepan with a cup or so or water, the cinnamon, pomegranate molasses, lemon juice, sugar and a pinch of salt and pepper 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 or a potato masher to expedite this process).
When the sauce is the right consistency - it should be viscous and syrupy - add the meatballs and the pine nuts and let everything gently simmer for another five to ten minutes before serving with some delicious flatbread as an alternative for cutlery.