Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Treat 12: Getting back to my (beet)roots

I feel very lucky to have hummus as a staple of my diet thanks to my Lebanese Mum but poor dad who barely can make toast has his Syrian heritage ignored most of the time.  All my life we happily labelled all the food we ate as Lebanese.  So when I stumbled upon Food Safari’s edition of Syrian food I had to ask – what does Syria have to offer?  My dad and his brother always claims anything Lebanese as Syrian, mind you this argument has stood the test of time with the Greeks, Egyptians and other Middle Eastern countries battling out as inventors of tabouli, baklava (betlawa as the Lebanese would say), kibbeh, hummus, kafta…you get my drift.  This is a result of the constant war in the Middle East with invasions and fighting leading to the infiltration of cuisine and also the stealing of recipes – so this makes it quite a complicated tale.  Now besides Food Safari introducing me to frekkeh, sumac and other Syrian delights, it also introduced me to a restaurant run in Darlinghurst by two Syrian sisters.  Almond Bar is a winner in my eyes for its small touches of hospitality.  From the complimentary almonds on arrival to the attentive service of the wait staff – I was excited to see what was on offer.  To make it clear you were at a Syrian restaurant, there was a map of Syria in the menu.  Could I find my dad’s hometown of Aleppo – I’m ashamed to admit that was a fail.  The food offering was different to what I grew up with – yes there were your regulars but there were a lot of new dishes and flavour combinations to try.  I had the difficult duty of choosing the selection of dishes for my friends.  The great thing about Middle Eastern cuisine is this concept of ‘Mezze’, which involves sharing a number of dishes for an amazing feast as evident below:  

·         ·        Trio of dipshummus, muhammara (chargrilled red capsicum, chilli, walnut & pomegranate dip, shawandarr (traditional roasted beetroot & yoghurt dip).
·         ·        Pumpkin Kibbeh - fried pumpkin & burghul balls stuffed with split chickpeas, carrot, onion, capsicum & all spice; served with mint yoghurt.
·         ·        Tabouli - diced tomatoes, organic, home-grown parsley, burghul & onion
·         ·        Mukloubi with chicken - layers of spiced rice, eggplant & chicken, finished with homemade yoghurt, almonds & pinenuts (chef’s favourite dish growing up)
·         ·        Shawarma & shanklish -  strips of beef cooked with baharat, onion, tomato & capsicum; served on a loaf of Middle Eastern bread & layered with shanklish (aged yoghurt cheese) & diced tomato
·         ·        Pomegranate lamb shanks - 8-hour cooked boneless lamb shanks stuffed with freekah (flame-grilled wheat), apple, cinnamon & walnut; cooked in a tomato & pomegranate molasses sauce
·         ·        Betlawa and Lebanese coffee

So my ordering is like my mum’s cooking, she always makes too much but that’s always good for leftovers.  The dips were amazing and the standout for me was the shawandarr, a beetroot dip I had never had before that was spiced lovingly with cinnamon.  That is definitely something I will attempt to make at home.  I do not exaggerate when I say hummus is a staple in my diet, it’s a cute story actually.  Everyday when my dad comes home from work (he’s still working hard as a labourer at 65) there is hummus, carrots and celery waiting for him.  I think I am quite biased with my hummus (mum's is always the best) but Almond Bar’s version definitely had that home-style element. The pumpkin kibbeh was a great alterative to the regular mince kibbeh we have at home.  I told my non-meat loving mum excitedly about the pumpkin kibbeh, only for her to dampen my hype with her knowledge of the dish.  I’m surprised we’ve never ate it at home – another dish for me to learn.  The tabouli provided the freshness we needed as we got onto the heavier meals.  The squishy taste of the eggplant complimented the chicken and rice dish and the yoghurt always is a welcome addition in most dishes I eat.  The shawarma was plated up in a similar style to the barbeques we have at home with the Lebanese bread soaking up the meat juices – delicious.  I also will mention the shanklish, which I was first introduced to by Food Safari.  Shanklish is an aged yoghurt cheese, smoother than a feta cheese but harder than labne and it was a revelation seeing my dad’s reaction as memories of his childhood flooded back from this cheese.  My dad’s love of cheese is not new to me, there was a cheese festival at our local deli and he came home with a selection of ten different cheeses.  This childhood memory though was a new revelation for me and so I looked high and low in my Sydney trip to bring back this childhood cheese to him.  The lamb shanks was the heaviest dish in the feast but definitely worth the food coma after.  The meat fell of the bone and the seasoned juices were amazing with the touch of pomegranate giving you the freshness required to lighten the heaviness of the lamb.  This is becoming quite a long treat but I can’t end till dessert is talked about.  In celebration of Kirsty’s unbirthday I did request a betlawa (filo pastry and pistachio layered dessert aka baklava) to go with the Arabian style Happy Birthday song.  If only my words could explain the tune but it definitely brings back childhood memories (and when I say childhood I’m lying - we still do that tune till this day with our own Khouri family touch).  I also attempted to read my friend’s fortunes from their Lebanese coffee cups but that is a gift I am still to learn from my mum and aunty. So what can I tell you about Syrian food - firstly it is different to Lebanese food though there is a lot of overlapping (makes sense since Syria has invaded much of Lebanon over time) but there are a lot of spices and recipes new to me.  I am still thinking about that beetroot dip and am so thankful to Almond Bar for introducing it to me.  If Middle Eastern cuisine is still new to you or if you feel like something different and homely I definitely recommend trying Almond Bar – your tastebuds will be delighted.

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