Syrian cuisine is arguably the best in the Middle East and quite varied, even if you’re a vegetarian.
Breakfast in hotels tends to be a mix of Western and Mediterranean with a boiled or scrambled egg, bread, jam, processed cheese, olives and perhaps some fruit. Either tea or Nescafe is available to drink. This is not what most Syrians eat for breakfast, however. They tuck into hummous with bread, pickles and vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers for their first meal, always washed down with a large pot of sugary tea.
For lunch or supper, the famous vegetarian falafel wrap is on every corner as is shwarma; chicken or lamb meat stuffed inside flat bread with pickles and mayonnaise before being toasted. Hungry cyclists can also tuck into spicy sandwiches in Aleppo and stands selling roast chicken with bread and garlic mayonnaise are another popular choice. The bean soup fuul makes for a hearty and cheap meat-free lunch, especially if ordered with a side salad of fatoush (tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and mint in a vinaigrette, topped with toasted bread and sometimes cheese).
Carnivores will enjoy kebab restaurants, where you order by weight and enjoy freshly grilled skewers of meat and tomatoes along with salads and bread. A good rule is to ask for 250 grams of meat per person. In more upmarket sit-down restaurants you will find treats like mezze, lentil soups and a wide variety of main dishes.
If cooking for yourself, it won’t take long to realise that large supermarkets are rare in Syria. The market is dominated by small shops and almost every town or village is likely to have at least one store selling the basics such as pasta, tuna, processed cheese, jam and flat bread. In larger centres there are both corner stores selling a little bit of everything and shops specialised in things like dairy products, olives or coffee as well as markets for fruit, vegetables and meat. When buying fresh produce, you can take a little of this and that in one bag but you’ll get the best price if you buy in quantities of at least a half-kilogram per item.
Bakeries can be separated into two categories: ones that just sell flat bread and others that branch out into rolls and various types of sweet cookies and muffins. On top of this there are patisseries, which sell cakes and syrupy treats like baklava.
The bakeries that sell bread are often hole-in-the-wall operations, only identifiable by the huge queues of Syrians (mostly men) lining up to get fresh bread and then spreading it out on nearby tables and even the pavement to cool. Yes, you read that right — they cool it on the sidewalk or road. Not the most hygenic so you may want to buy your own bread to ensure it’s as germ free as possible!
When invited to someone’s home, you may get to sample any number of homemade stews, lamb cooked in a yogurt sauce or grilled chicken and potatoes as main dishes. Rice accompanies many meals. Side dishes include freshly sliced vegetables, hummous or perhaps a salad made with shinklish, a powerful goats cheese normally mixed with onions and tomatoes. Dishes of oil and the spice zataar may also be set out. Dip a little bread first in the oil and then into the zaatar and enjoy.
Typical costs for food are:
- Falafel – 15 SP
- Chicken shwarma – 25 SP
- Bowl of fuul – 30 SP
- Half roast chicken – 100 SP
- Kebabs for two – 250 SP
- Bananas – 40-60 SP/kg
- Potatoes – 25 SP/kg
- Lebeneh (thick yogurt) – 65 SP/kg
- Can of tuna – 40 SP
- 350g pasta – 25 SP
- Large bag of flat bread – 25 SP
- Flat of 30 eggs – 120 SP
- Bulk instant coffee – 400 SP/kg