Syrian cuisine with Anas Atassi
and his recipe for mujaddara

Umayyad mosque, Damascus

Mahmod 5cy / Shutterstock.com

Syria

When cookery writer Anas Atassi remembers his summer holidays in Syria, it is the endless Friday breakfasts at his grandmother’s house that spark the brightest memories. The hardships the country and its people continue to endure make an imminent reunion with his extended family unlikely. However, he has been inspired to bring the generosity of Syrian food culture to life through his book Sumac, which includes a recipe for one of his favourite dishes: mujaddara, or spiced lentils and rice topped with golden caramelised onions.

What food did you grow up eating?
“Everything you see in my book Sumac is what I grew up eating” he chuckles. “It’s the food my mum used to make, but also food we had in restaurants and even the street food. I collected everything I liked in the book.

“My favourites are the dips and mezze – having lots of them reminds me of celebrations we had. Apart from that, I love the comfort food. The mujaddara that we’ll get to later is a very comforting type of dish. Another one is spinach with meatballs, or peas with tomato sauce and carrots.”

Sounds comforting indeed! You were born in Homs, Syria, but you grew up in Saudi Arabia. Is that right?
“Yes. My dad worked as an engineer in Saudi Arabia, and my mother was a teacher in kindergarten. Every year we would go back to Syria for three months to spend the summer holidays with our family. But in my eyes, my mother is a chef of course! I think she makes the best food and I grew up with delicious meals. She definitely enjoyed cooking, and I think her joy and love of feeding others resonated with me.

“She would also throw a lot of parties, be it in Saudi Arabia or Syria. Wherever she is, she’ll invite people around for food. I only remember us having people in the house around the dinner table. Everybody is always welcome to have a meal in our house!

“I also have very fond memories of Friday breakfasts at my grandmother’s. It’s a story that’s very personal to me, but ask any Syrian what they did on Friday mornings and they’ll tell you they had breakfast at their grandmother’s. All my cousins, aunties, uncles would gather – twenty or thirty of us – all around this huge table in her backyard. She’d have these typical breakfast dishes: jam and cheese, za’atar, labneh, dishes with beans or chickpeas. Those were the festive dishes that made you realise it was the beginning of the weekend.

“It wasn’t just the food, it was the company as well. We would just hang out, relax, have breakfast for three hours or even longer, linger around, have tea… some more food, some coffee, a bit of fruit. It’s kind of the ritual we had every Friday, and that was very special.”

Sumac

Flowering sumac tree

It sounds like you have very fond memories of your summer-long trips to Syria, but unfortunately things have changed since 2011, right?
“Yes. The last time I was in Syria was in February 2011, right before it all started. For me, Syria is a place of celebration, because we used to go there every summer when all my cousins were off from school. All the graduations, weddings, anniversaries – they were all celebrated during the summer. Now a large part of my extended family has left Syria because of the situation. But if you ask any Syrian if they’d like to go back, everybody would say yes. If things get better, I would love to return. But the longer you’re away, the more difficult it gets to come back.”

Do you still have relatives in Syria?
“The entire younger generation of my extended family has left Syria, but my grandmother still lives in Homs, as do a few of my uncles and aunts. The situation now [March 2021] is definitely a bit better than before, during the early times of the war. There’s no more bombing or shooting anymore but now Syria is faced with a huge economic crisis and poverty. People over there are struggling to make ends meet because of the high inflation. It’s quite difficult. I hear many sad stories of families who were well established before, but now cannot survive without support from relatives who live outside of Syria. The situation is really difficult. The severity of the situation differs from place to place, where for example Homs and Aleppo have been more heavily affected than people in the capital Damascus, but the economic situation is bad throughout the country.”

Syria's capital, Damascus

The capital of Syria, Damascus

How’s your family coping right now?
“Luckily, my grandmother is doing well. Her house is still intact so she didn’t have to move. She and my extended family can support themselves, and there’s no need for help from others. My mum would love to visit, but because of the covid situation, we cannot even travel freely within Europe – let alone to Syria.

“I hope we can reunite soon. If it’s not over at my grandmother’s, we will make the best out of it wherever we are. I live in The Netherlands and my mother lives in Germany, so we’re quite close to each other. We sometimes meet together with other relatives who live in Europe, and recreate a mini Friday breakfast ritual whenever we can.”

I really hope you can all get back together soon! Did living away from Syria or your family inspire you to publish the cookbook?
“Yes, when I left my family house, I really missed my mum’s cooking and the food that she used to prepare for us. That drove me to learn from her and ask her about certain recipes, or to help me prepare dishes. I used to have Skype calls with her every now and then, and send her pictures of my food so that she could teach me. Syrian cooking has a very important ingredient that you cannot buy: nafas. It means ‘breath’ but actually denotes the art of being able to understand the ingredients, and how to cook these to perfection. Once I found my nafas, I just fell in love with cooking and sharing the food with my friends here in The Netherlands – as most of them haven’t had experiences of those types of flavours and dishes.

“But I wanted the cookbook to be more than a collection of recipes. I also wanted to create a book that really shows the generosity and richness of Syrian food, and tells the stories of the people of this country. Stories around how we eat, when we eat and this whole heritage we have around food. I wanted to document this and present this to the world. The stories in the book are personal, but many Syrians can relate to them. I aim to shed a different light onto Syria, and provide a different perspective and narrative to what we always hear in the news.”

Anas Atassi with his mother

"When I left my family house, I really missed my mum’s cooking and the food that she used to prepare for us."

Anas Atassi

And your book Sumac really does a stunning job showcasing Syrian (food) culture! My next question would be about your favourite ingredients, but I think I can make a guess…
“Yeah, it’s sumac [a ground berry used to add sourness to dishes]. I really like it because it’s so versatile. It’s the type of spice with which you can elevate many types of dishes. Whether it’s fish, meat, salads, soups… I have yet to find a way to use it in a dessert!

“Other top ingredients that you must have in your cupboard to cook Syrian food are tahini and pomegranate molasses. I think those two are essential and yield a very special type of taste. Tahini gives such a nutty, earthy taste to hummus, for example, and pomegranate molasses is great in dishes that walk the line between sweet and savoury. Instead of bringing a wine to a friend’s house, I sometimes bring them a bottle of pomegranate molasses!”

Are there many regional differences, in terms of the food, in Syria?
“Well, what unifies it is the generosity and the love that has been put into the dishes. But otherwise, there are quite a few differences depending on where you go. Aleppo, close to the Turkish border, is heavily influenced by Turkish – Armenian cuisine, with a lot of sweet and sourness. They’re also way more adventurous there. Kebab karaz [skewered meat and cherries] for example – the cherries are cooked together with the meat. That’s quite adventurous for me!

Kebab karaz, cherry kebab

Kebab karaz

“The cuisine in the capital Damascus however, is known to be simple and subtle. They mainly use salt and pepper, and not many other spices. The south of Syria is more influenced by Jordan, for example, and knows a lot of pilaf dishes. A huge part of Syria borders Iraq and has quite a different food culture. The setting, for example, where people sit on the floor and eat with their hands, is common in both Iraq and eastern Syria.”

Sweets are quite important in Syria as well, aren’t they?
“Yes, especially around both Eid celebrations! [Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, Eid al-Adha two months later when many Muslims perform the Hajj pilgrimage.] Ramadan is already a month where you break the fast with a large variety and quantity of food - you probably eat even more than you would without fasting! But when Eid comes, the focus shifts a bit to sweets and desserts.

Baklava [layered pastry with chopped nuts and syrup or honey] is very traditional. It originally comes from Turkey, but the Syrians and many others in the Levant region took it over and gave it their own twist. What I like about Syrian baklava is that it’s less sweet and less heavy than the Turkish one. You can easily eat ten pieces! Eid is basically a three-day food coma…”

Mujadarra

© Sumac: Recipes and stories from Syria

The Dish

So what is mujaddara?
“It’s just three really simple ingredients: onions, lentils and rice with few spices. I think it’s magic how these three ingredients can be so delicious. Many people in Syria eat it with bulgur instead of rice, but rice is more popular in my family. The Egyptians have a similar dish called koshary that’s very popular and a street food even. It’s basically mujaddara but they add spaghetti and tomato sauce!"

It’s a perfect weekday meal. You serve it with the cucumber-yoghurt dip – anything else?
“Just a simple tomato, cucumber and lettuce salad goes well with it. It’s not a dish that you would cook if someone comes over to visit you. It’s a very basic dish. To be honest – if someone from Syria cooks this dish for you, it’s a compliment. It means that you’re actually part of the family, and they are so close that they can actually cook mujaddara for you!”

The Ingredients

Laban bi khyar (yoghurt dip)
400 g
Greek yoghurt
0.5
cucumber, very thinly sliced
2
garlic gloves, pressed
1
lemon, pressed
1 tbsp
dried mint or 1 bunch of fresh mint (minced)
salt
olive oil, to serve
mint leaves, to serve
Mujaddara
4 tbsp
olive oil
5
large white onions, sliced in thin rings
0.5 tbsp
ground allspice
0.5 tbsp
ground cumin
225 g
dried brown lentils, rinsed
225 g
white long-grain rice, rinsed and soaked in water for approx. 20 mins
salt
pepper
Laban bi khyar (yoghurt dip)
14 oz
Greek yoghurt
0.5
cucumber, very thinly sliced
2
garlic gloves, pressed
1
lemon, pressed
1 tbsp
dried mint or 1 bunch of fresh mint (minced)
salt
olive oil, to serve
mint leaves, to serve
Mujaddara
4 tbsp
olive oil
5
large white onions, sliced in thin rings
0.5 tbsp
ground allspice
0.5 tbsp
ground cumin
1 heaped cup
dried brown lentils, rinsed
1 heaped cup
white long-grain rice, rinsed and soaked in water for approx. 20 mins
salt
pepper

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 1 hour | Yield: 6 servings | Category: main

Laban bi khyar (yoghurt dip)

  1. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Salt to taste and set aside cold. Serve drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled with mint leaves. 

Mujaddara

  1. Heat the oil in a large non-stick pan on medium heat. Fry the onion rings for about 15 minutes, stirring regularly, until they caramelise and turn dark brown. Do not have the heat set too high because onions burn easily.
  2. Line a plate with paper towels. Remove half of the caramelised onions out of the pan and place them on the paper towels to drain off excess oil.
  3. Push the remaining onions off to one side of the pan, add the ground allspice and ground cumin, and roast the spices for one minue. Add he lenils and room emperature water to the pan until the lentils are covered by 1 cm (1/2 inch) of water. Turn the heat to low and simmer the lentils for about 15 minutes, or until cooked.
  4. Mix in the uncooked rice with the lenils and add water until the rice and lentil mixture is covered by 1 cm (1/2 inch) of water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and then turn the heat to low. Simmer the mujadarra for about 12 minutes, or until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is cooked.
  5. Take the pan off the heat, cover and let the mujadarra rest for 5 minutes. Serve warm, accompanied by the reserved fried onions and the yoghurt dip.
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