A taste of Syria in Sharjah

Sweet and Sour

A TASTE OF SYRIA IN SHARJAH

BY ARVA AHMED

Photograph by Many Toh

Tomato. A touch of sugar. Vinegar perhaps? No, it’s pomegranate. Obviously pomegranate. Nahla and I attempt to reverse-engineer the sweet and sour sauce pooled around the kibbeh and wedges of stewed quince. Abu Omar returns to check on our progress, clutching his prayer beads and shaking his head. He is unimpressed. We had been entrusted with two of his star dishes for 10 hearty minutes but our preoccupation with the sauce had slowed us down. “You’re pecking at it like pigeons!”

Seroop is a Syrian restaurant in Sharjah that recreates traditional tabeekh dishes from home kitchens in Aleppo. Artist and urban researcher Nahla Al Tabbaa swears by their kibbeh bi-safarjaliyeh, a dish of lamb, kibbeh and quince in a sauce that celebrates the elegance and sensuality of Aleppian cuisine.

As we continue pecking, I am reminded of my conversation with Dubai-based Syrian Chef Mohammad Orfali. “Aleppian cuisine is one of the founding culinary arts of Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s an art form of cooking inspired by several ancient civilisations, including Turkish, Persian, European, Chinese, Indian and Armenian.” Chef Orfali hails from Aleppo, a city that historically served as a geographic, commercial and culinary nexus of cultures traveling along the Silk Road. He is an ambassador of Aleppian food through his cooking, his TV appearances and his book Ana Halabi (I Am an Aleppian). He lauds his hometown as one gifted with abundant seasonal produce and culinary superiority in butchery, grilling and confectionary. “It is the land of stuffed vegetables, of kebabs and of kibbeh, of baklava. We are the fundamental,” he proudly affirms.

But, he laments, “Syria is at war and our amazing Aleppian cuisine is at risk of falling into extinction.”

Arva Ahmed, right, Nahla Al Tabbaa, left, and Chef Abu Omar. Photograph by Mandy Toh.

Many Syrians embraced Sharjah as their home long before the war broke out. While growing up in Syria, Abu Omar dreamed of travelling abroad. Sharjah became a popular choice for many Syrians like him seeking professional opportunities, both before and since the war.

Nahla, whose paternal roots lie in Damascus, believes that Sharjah offers a kindred conservative and communal spirit for Syrian migrants. She recounts the fluid movement of people between the Gulf and Syria before the war. In fact, for the first 10 years after Seroop opened its doors, Abu Omar lived in Sharjah for only part of the year. He and his brother took shifts, one working in Sharjah and the other back home in Aleppo.

During her stint at the Sharjah Art Foundation, Nahla had stumbled upon dishes that “brought tears to my eyes because these were the dishes my grandma used to make every Friday.” Sharjah nurtures an intimate community for people who cherish relationships like the ones with their neighbourhood butcher or grocer—relationships that are often hard to maintain in larger cities. Nahla recollects an evening when she introduced a group of people to the Syrian food community along Jamal AbdulNasser Street. Her face lights up as she describes having to beg for the bill because the owners refused to let her pay.

Soft-spoken Abu Omar is one of the owners that Nahla had forged a connection with while rediscovering flavours from her grandmother’s kitchen. Son of an Aleppian butcher, Abu Omar shares how his father was determined that his 12 children would study rather than apprentice in the kitchen. Yet years later, after training as a chemist and working in Aleppo’s soap industry, Abu Omar circled back to the world of food. In the early 1990s, he followed his brother’s footsteps to work in restaurants in Sharjah, and in 2002 they opened Seroop. 

Seroop rubs shoulders with other Syrian restaurants and bakeries, not just across Sharjah but on the very same street. Mashawi Halabiye (Aleppo Grills) is a five-minute walk away and is rated highly by Chef Orfali because the “kebabs taste like they do in Aleppo.” I follow his advice and am rewarded with smoky pistachio shish kebabs, juicy meat shawarma and a sweeter-than-expected muhammara. “This is the right way,” explains Chef Orfali as he rattles off the ingredients for a typical Aleppian muhammara: crushed walnuts, breadcrumbs, Aleppo peppers, Aleppo chilli paste, pomegranate molasses, caramelized onions and lots of olive oil. “Sometimes they even add Turkish coffee.”

Artist and urban researcher Nahla Al Tabbaa swears by Seroop’s kibbeh bi-safarjaliyeh, which marries lamb, kibbeh and quince in a sublime sauce. Photographs by Mandy Toh.

Syrians can be proud and passionate purists at the dinner table, especially those from Aleppo, where the cuisine boasts an unparalleled sophistication in both technique and local ingredients. Nahla shares how, back in the day, her father’s family in Damascus regarded Aleppo as a distant land accessible only by a five-hour train ride. Travellers who made the journey would be rewarded with a dizzying variety of kibbeh, legendary kebabs and exotic sweet-savoury dishes like the ones Abu Omar is serving us: kibbeh bi-safarjaliyeh or laham b’il karaz, meat with sour cherries.

“Now I don’t want to start a [culinary] civil war,” Chef Orfali says, only half-jokingly, “but in Lebanon they serve these kebabs with sweet cherry jam!” The original Aleppian dish is a painstaking one, with smoky chargrilled meatballs simmered in a reduction of sour cherry juice, sugar and lamb fat. It must be garnished with a trifecta of cinnamon, parsley and pine nuts.

Ready-made cherry jam is not entertained at Seroop. Abu Omar reveals that the restaurant makes its own preserves when sour cherries are shipped over from Aleppo during the summer harvest. Before the war, sourcing Syrian ingredients in Sharjah was so effortless that the restaurant would even procure its complimentary pickles from Syria. Abu Omar’s preferred pickle vendor in Aleppo would seal the freshly filled jars and plan for them to ferment in transit as they journeyed to Sharjah. There was no cause for a proud Aleppian to deviate from the sweet taste of home.

Not surprisingly, the war soured everything. Syrian ingredients have become harder to come by and are often replaced by Turkish or even Russian substitutes. Abu Omar sent his family to Turkey and moved to Sharjah in 2013, no longer making trips back home. His childhood dream had sadly come true.

I barely understand Abu Omar’s Arabic, but I don’t need Nahla to translate the tears in his eyes. As I turn back to the feast in front of me—tabeekh from mothers’ kitchens in Aleppo reincarnated at a restaurant in Sharjah—I try to process what it means to preserve a culinary legacy that is so ancient, elegant and complex. A legacy tied firmly to the produce of the land, a legacy held by hands that are now displaced. I feel despair because we shouldn’t have to live in a world where cultures fear extinction.

But because we do, every attempt counts.

Abu Omar opening a Syrian restaurant in Sharjah. Chef Orfali showcasing Aleppian gastronomy in the modern-day context. Nahla brokering conversations with the Syrian community in Sharjah. Every thread matters because humanity expresses itself far more gracefully through food than through images of war. The Syrian table can shift the narrative from refugees seeking asylum to proud artisans who want nothing more than to return home.

And I pray they do return home, because as Abu Omar mourns, his soft voice swollen with pride and sadness, “it turns out, the world is empty without Syria.”

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