Damascenes, Charming Streets and Syrup Drenched Sweets
My trip to Damascus came with no expectations. It was not my first trip there, but for some reason, every scene in Damascus was full of the charm that one only encounters during the first visit to a new city.
I wore the soles of my shoes out on the cobblestone streets of Old Damascus, discovering hidden alleyways, old churches and a million different souks. I found candy factories that would have remained hidden if the smell of hot melting sugar did not bid me to look past the green canopies and non-descript doors left ajar (I’m sure they were left open for wanderlusts seeking all that is sweet to take a peek inside). I rediscovered childhood treats I used to devour by the bag: pastel shoe-shaped sweets that were half hard candy and half marshmallow, colorful lokum and shiny black licorice pellets. I also stumbled upon a specialty shop that makes candy Christmas tree ornaments, from colorful sugar flowers, to birdcages and ornate sugar eggs. Covered in glitter and dust I wonder how I ate those when I was a kid.
My trip to Damascus was filled with serendipitous findings: neroli essence that I have been on the hunt for since 2008, a recipe for pomegranate molasses, courtesy of my great aunt, and a halawa (halva) factory that reminded me of just how underrated halawa is (I had it fresh out of the oven, and it’s all I’ve been having for breakfast since!) More from the Damascene sweet front were the bags of Ghazl El-Banat that I bought; they are the Arabic version of cotton candy, laced with flour and orange blossom essence and topped with unsalted pistachios, boxes of neatly arranged mabrouma, baklava, and other nutty Arabic sweets drenched with aromatic syrups, and a tub of natef; a gooey white spread (almost like a soft marshmallow) that is used to top semolina cookies filled with pistachios called Karabeej Halab.
Damascus, a city so old it dates back to the Stone Age, has so much to offer from a cultural, historical, and culinary perspective. The souks in the old city weave a maze of smells, flavors and intricate workmanship around old mosques, palaces, churches, schools and public baths that one cannot help but imagine what the city was like once upon a time. The old city, which was heavily influenced by the Ottomans still boasts archeological relics and Ottoman traditions both in society and elsewhere: the kitchen.
I got lost in the spice souk, what the people of Damascus call the 'bzouriyeh', discovering new aromas and spices to uplift my dishes. I fell in love with the fabric souk, colorful and inspiring, with buttons and ribbons galore and antique fabrics that would make your grandmother cry. Last but not least, I walked down an alley riddled with brass workshops selling antiques dating back to a time beyond our imagination; this alley led me to the best lemonade of my life. Even though it was a cold December evening I risked getting a cold by tasting the zesty lemonade that was churned into a slushy in an antique ice cream machine.
I sealed my trip with one of the most memorable meals of my life. In a quaint kitchen of an old Damascene home I sampled Ottoman dishes that are on the verge of extinction and was reminded how important it is to document recipes. Last but not least, in a city not too far from Syria, I met a journalist, Carole Corm who had just published a guide book about Damascus (get it here), I bought the book and have been itching for a brand new trip to Damascus to discover new things and put this gorgeous guide to use!