Imagine a souq, an old covered market in the heart of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, built hundreds of years ago by covering narrow connected alleyways with arched roofs. Each souq became known by the products sold there but Souq al-Attareen, the Perfumer’s Market, also had the spice-selling merchants.
Now imagine the pungent aromas filling the stalls, fresh whole spices in burlap sacks such as rough, thick, tightly coiled cinnamon, burning to the tongue; whole cardamom pods with pungent seeds inside; the dried red-orange stigmas of the saffron crocus flower which flavor a dish and give it a bright beautiful color.
Before Syria’s civil war and the destruction of the old souq, you could select whole spices for your personal spice mix, and have them ground by the merchant to a fine powder.
Seven-spice powder is basic in many cuisines across the region: it is known as Daqqa in Syria, Sabe’ Bharat in Lebanon, or Baharat in Israel. Baharat, literally translated from Arabic, means “spices.”
The selection of spices varies depending on availability, local tastes, and the different uses. And, as I would learn, the number seven changes too. One chef’s go-to version includes ten spices; another chef achieved the robust mix from eight. I’ve noticed that ginger, fennel, nutmeg, both sweet and hot paprika, and star anise can show up.
On my second visit with Rokhash and Rokan, it felt like forever for the oil to get hot enough to fry chicken. What would we talk about? I wondered how our conversations would be. They didn’t know me. Would we be leaving things unsaid and then see if that silent space would do the talking. Well it didn’t. Because no matter what you watched or read in the unavoidable news cycle, one story does not tell the story of others.
I was careful not to ask about making a home in America and certainly not the risks of their journey. I hoped that would come as they gained trust in me. But at that moment I needed a conversation opener, an icebreaker, with girls the age of my own children.
“Can you show me your spices?” I asked Rokhash. Her inventory numbered seven—cinnamon, black pepper, dry onion, coriander, garlic powder, citric acid, and one labeled “Syrian Spices.” Whatever that was. The label lists a blend of cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, anise, cardamom, and other spices.
The owner of Midland Distribution in Harvey, Illinois, wouldn’t say what other spices meant.
“I’m sure you are who you say you are,” a food journalist trying to help refugees start a catering business, “but all you need to know is on the jar.” Not really. And that’s how it went for the next few minutes until he finally said, “If I tell you, everyone will copy me.”
I didn’t want the curtain to fall on their road to a great—at least good—catering business. Just google “foodborne illness 2018 America” and see what comes up. So I banned his Syrian Spices from catering jobs, only to be used for feeding their own families.
And then it hit me. Why don’t they make their own blend?
I brought in some whole spices from a recipe in The Aleppo Cookbook: Celebrating the Legendary Cuisine of Syria. Allspice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and black peppercorns. Since Mother’s Day was coming, I bought each cook an inexpensive coffee/spice grinder. The fine powder would keep in a sealed container for up to eight weeks.
Rokhash ground her spices for shawarma: one teaspoon each of allspice and salt, 1-1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns, 5 teaspoons coriander, and 2 teaspoons each of sweet paprika and garlic powder. Rokan’s blend was for tabbouleh, and fattoush which is an Arab salad, chopped salad, Israeli salad, whatever you want to call freshly chopped vegetables, that uses grilled or fried leftover pita for a crunch. Rokan used equal amounts of dried mint, citric acid, salt, and sweet paprika.
I took on the homework myself, using a recipe in #Cook For SYRIA, a collection of Syrian-inspired dishes to raise funds for UNICEF’s Syria Appeal. One teaspoon each: sweet paprika, coriander, ground nutmeg, ground cinnamon; two teaspoons each ground cumin and ground black pepper, and one whole ground allspice berry.
I sprinkled my mix (the reddish one) on a batch of freshly baked Arabic flatbread. The darker green spice with sesame seeds is za’atar.
—good bread is my affliction—then tore one in half to eat.
Clearly this little-known cuisine so rich in flavors and traditions might be the best-kept secret in Middle Eastern cuisine.