Aleppo, one of the oldest and most wonderful Syrian cities, will be our destination today to discover one of the jewels of Syrian gastronomy: muhammara.
Conviviality is one of the connotative traits of Syrian life. To gather around a table goes far beyond the simple consumption of a meal, it is an event that can last for hours.
In Syria, cooking is an art and, like other arts, such as painting, music or sculpture, culinary art is a characteristic feature of the country, a form of expression that, like others, reflects the finesse and prosperity of the people.
Syrian cuisine is a very old tradition. Its origins are related to the history of Syria whose capital, Damascus, can rightly be considered one of the oldest in the world. There is no doubt about the influence of Ottoman and French gastronomy on Syrian cuisine, and in the same way on those of neighboring countries.
Indeed, we are talking about the gastronomic culture of the Levant which includes the cuisines of the countries and regions of the south-east coast of the Mediterranean, the Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian cuisines. Those cuisines are very similar with only a few differences due to different religious beliefs.
The result in Syria is a wide variety of tastes and colors. Syrian gastronomy uses simple and fresh ingredients, in accordance with the rules established by the Qur’an.
To name just a few examples, here are some iconic Syrian dishes that will delight your palate: spinach fatayers, kibbehs, samboussaks, freekeh, makluba, meat aubergine stew (khoresht badejman), couscous, koftas, fattoush salad, tabbouleh, dolmas, maamouls, or the famous baklava.
What is muhammara?
Muhammara is a creamy Aleppo pepper dip, also popular in Anatolia and the Middle East.
The main ingredients are usually fresh or dried bell peppers, chopped nuts, bread crumbs, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. It may also contain pomegranate molasses and sometimes spices such as cumin. It can also be garnished with mint leaves.
Muhammara, which is a little what taramosalata is to Greece, or hummus to the Middle East, can be spread on bread or used as a dip. It is also used as a spicy dip to flavor skewers, grilled meats or fish, in the same way as the harissa of Tunisian cuisine.
What is Aleppo pepper?
Aleppo, a city in northern Syria, is the most populous city in the country, even before the capital Damascus. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also a city on the Silk Road where traces of civilization have been found dating back to 5000 BC. Aleppo pepper, from the town of the same name, is a common spice in the region that is moderately spicy but that also features a rich and fruity aroma.
Aleppo pepper has a moderate heat value of 10,000 on the Scoville scale (6 on the simplified scale). It is usually sun-dried and rubbed between the hands. It is then ground to maintain maximum flavor.
Aleppo pepper belongs to the same family of capsicum as bell peppers. This family is called capsicum annuum. There are three other important families of capsicum including:
– Capsicum baccatum featuring aji amarillo pepper that will surely be featured on our next visit to Peru (I already have aji amarillo pepper in my “secret” ethnic pantry)
– Capsicum chinense, which includes habanero pepper, widespread in Mexico
– Capsicum pubescens, which includes chili rocoto which has purple flowers and black seeds
Muhammara is a Mediterranean appetizer (also called mezze). Originally from Syria, this mezze is now widespread in Levantine cuisine. There are several recipes but the key ingredients are Aleppo pepper, pomegranate and walnuts. The combination of pomegranate molasses and walnuts is reminiscent of fesenjoon, the traditional Persian stew.
To accompany the mezze, I also prepared kibbehs. Some homemade hummus as well as a cucumber and tomato salad, and my Middle Eastern dinner was ready.
- 2 red bell peppers
- 1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper
- 1 cup walnuts
- ½ cup breadcrumbs , toasted
- 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
Cut red bell peppers in half. Remove the seeds.
Place on a baking sheet (cut side face down) under the oven broiler until the skin is black and blisters appear.
Place bell peppers in a bag and close. The steam will help peel the peppers after a few minutes.
Place the peppers in a blender with the walnuts and blend until smooth.
Add all the other ingredients except the olive oil and continue to mix.
Add the olive oil and blend slowly until the oil is completely incorporated.
Muhammara is served in a small bowl, at room temperature or refrigerated, with pomegranate seeds for garnish.