Damascus lays claim to being the world’s oldest continually inhabited city; but what can it claim with respect to its food? The first thing that jumps to mind at the thought of Arabic cuisine is probably falafel – that deep-fried ball of chickpeas increasingly popular after a late night in Durham and with hip young Londoners. And it’s true, falafel definitely has a presence in Damascus, providing a cheap, quick lunch, and at the equivalent of about fifty pence, it’s barely a bank breaker. But neither is it all this area has to offer.
Levantine food, although not necessarily the most varied of cuisines, has some real gems to offer. Another cheap lunch favourite is foul; grab a couple of fresh-baked flatbreads from the service window of a street bakery and pop into the next-door shop, find a seat amongst trays of piled-up chickpeas and order a small bowl of foul: fava beans, with chopped onions and tomatoes, drizzled in olive oil and yoghurt. The complementary plate of pickles (and they aren’t shy on the pickle) isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the foul themselves are tangy, smooth, and moreish – and again, delightfully cheap at about seventy pence a dish. Hummus, another classic, is also widely found. In fact, quite often the cheap-and-cheerful dishes are the most favoured among foreign students, and not just because of the price; fattoush, a salad with lashings of balsamic vinegar and squares of deliciously deep-fried flatbread, is often considered a poor man’s food, and a foreigner’s enthusiasm for it can even provoke a laugh from locals.
That’s not to say that there is a lack of fine dining. One of the most tempting restaurants in Damascus’ Old City area, wisely designed with glass walls so the innocent passer-by cannot help but drool over the sight of the food inside, is apparently popular with the Syrian president. Damascus now even boasts a Four Seasons hotel, with the country’s best chef (from Aleppo, supposedly a foodie’s delight, yet somewhere I have repeatedly failed to make it to) heading up the city’s best restaurant, Al-Hallabi. The menu, including classic kibbeh (a sort of wheat croquette stuffed with mince) with quince and pomegranate sauce and the chef’s own take on hummus, sounds like the perfect balance between Arabic street food and haute-cuisine; although, with a Four Seasons price tag, the closest most students get to the high end of Damascus dining is reading about it in their ever-faithful Lonely Planet guide.
A far cheaper and quite appetising alternative, and one that puts on offer a good example of Damascus food, is Beit Jabri, a beautifully decorated courtyard restaurant that serves everything from the mini pizzas and shwarmas found along most winding streets, to classic Arabic salads, to mixed grills that have a somewhat Iranian flavour. On the other hand, desserts are not strong on the menu; ice cream and chocolate crepes, if they have them in, are about all there is on offer, and I can’t remember ever seeing any of the Arabic patrons eating one. That’s not to say that the Levant doesn’t know what to do with sugar; apart from piling it in their hot drinks, the Arabic bakeries are not to be missed. Fresh chocolate croissants (or rather korsans, clearly a word whose pronunciation in any language is an exercise in guesswork) make a great mid-morning snack, although Arab tastes seem to differ somewhat from that of the foreign students here, with a frequent preference for croissants filled with rubbery cheese and even local olives (unfortunately not a patch on the Mediterranean variety). But that’s not all, with fresh dates, baklava, ice cream dipped in chopped nuts, deep-fried cream-stuffed scotch pancakes also easily found: while not all particularly healthy, you could always balance it off with something from a fresh juice bar – so long as it’s not an indulgent banana, milk and honey “cocktail”.
The growing western influence in the Arab world has not left the food untouched, however. MacDonald’s may not have made it to Syria but fries seem now to be part of the staple diet, and take-aways and pizza places are increasingly popular, although the eponymous hamburger is yet to get a real foothold. This clash of cultures was obvious in the last lunch I shared with my Damascene landlords, where American fries and battered chicken pieces shared the table with native fattoush and mutabal, a deliciously smooth aubergine dip. Several Belgian waffle kiosks can be found across the Old City – another linguistic confusion here, when I was repeatedly offered gauvra, and only on spotting the shop did I realise that it was an arabisation of the French for waffle. When staying in Amman, Jordan, over one religious festival, the only food place open for dinner was a deep fried chicken takeaway – the very worst of the western food influence, shown by the speed in which the dinner conversation turned to cannibalism…
So what is the future of Arabic cuisine? Growing globalisation may have both a positive and a negative influence – whilst chips and Pepsi gain popularity in Arabic countries, traditional Arabic dishes are making a name for themselves around the rest of the world. And even though the Golden Arches may one day crack the Damascus scene, and even though American influence is famously persistent in popular culture everywhere, the Arabic world seems far from ready to relinquish its culinary delights. It appears that both cultures have something to learn from the other; whilst in Syria my taste buds sorely missed good cheese and a fresh white loaf, back at home I find myself savouring the Aleppan spices I brought back with me. Maybe it is through food that we will come to better understand and appreciate each other, and all we have to offer. My stomach certainly hopes so.