A Time-Honored Tradition – The Origins and Inspiration of Syrian Cuisine


A.D. Cohen

Sito’s skillful hands nimbly crinkle the sambusak closed. She smiles at her granddaughter’s attempts and closes her wizened hands over the child’s young fingers and begins to show her yet again the art of the sambusak’s intricate pattern. Our traditional food is interwoven in an exquisite tapestry of family and pride. We offer here the fascinating roots and geneses of the Syrian traditional fare so that the next time you eye a lehembagine on the Shabbat table, or dip a kaak into a steaming cup of coffee, you will appreciate our Syrian delicacies that much more! 

Diffusion of Cultures

Syrian cuisine is a diffusion of numerous cultures of societies that settled in Syria, particularly during and after the Islamic era, beginning with the Arab Umayyad conquest (711-788) and subsequent Persian-influenced Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258), and ending with the strong impact of Turkish cuisine stemming from the Ottoman Empire (1299–1923).

Differences naturally arose between the dishes of the Sephardic Jews who settled in Syria and those who settled in other parts of the world. For instance, cumin, cinnamon, and allspice are the Syrians’ preferred spices, while Tunisians are partial to “harissa,” a zesty hot spice. Saffron, the crimson threads from the stigmas of a flowering crocus, is the choice spice of Persians and Moroccans. Moroccans simmer their tagines (stews) with olives and whole preserved lemons, whereas the Syrians rely heavily on a sweet-sour extract distilled from tamarinds, and Persians add pomegranate juice to their sauces. Greek and Turkish bakers soak their pastries in honey; Syrians pour a more delicate rose water or orange-blossom syrup over their sweets.

Influences and Impact

Syrian food is not actually “Jewish” food, says Mrs. Poopa Dweck, author of Aromas of Aleppo.

“Syrian food is authentic Arabic food. Upon publishing Aromas of Aleppo, the Moslem Arab community heavily praised the cookbook, relaying that all the recipes therein are perfectly authentically Syrian-Arabic.” Poopa shares an interesting meeting with the Ambassador of Syria, who told her that his mother, who lives in Syria, said that every single recipe in Aromas of Aleppo is exactly how they cook it!

Mrs. Jennifer Abadi, author of Fistful of Lentils, further explains the Syrian-Arabic influence on Jewish cooking. “The influence can be seen in the use of grains, legumes, vegetables and dried fruit commonly available to Jews in the markets of Aleppo and Damascus in dishes such as burghol m’jedrah (crushed wheat with lentils) and dja’jeh mish mosh (chicken with apricots).”

Interestingly, another influence on our traditional fare comes from Spanish Jews, the original Sepharadim, who brought the Latin-style cuisine with them to Syria. “Examples of this include the savory meat pie known as bastel to Syrians and bastiyeh to Moroccans, which can be traced to the pastelles that were prepared in Spain centuries ago,” Jennifer explains. “In Spain and Morocco, this meat pie is made with fila dough; the Syrian-Jewish version is daintier, almost bite-size, and made of pastry dough. Another Syrian-Jewish dish with Spanish roots is kalsonnes b’rishtah, cheese-filled pasta similar to the Italian tortellini.”

Although Syrian cuisine is very much a byproduct of our life in Halab and the Arabs amongst whom we lived, one obvious difference between our and ordinary Syrian-Arabic food is our kashrut guidelines.

“The only difference between the Syrian Jewish and non-Jewish food is our kashrut laws,” says Poopa. ”We don’t mix meat and milk and we slaughter our animals according to halachah. But it isn’t Jewish Syrian food; it’s Arab food with the modification of the laws of kashrut.”

Jennifer shares another Torah influence on Syrian food. “In addition to kashrut, we have the laws of Shabbat which forbid cooking, or lighting any fires, such as those in an oven. Syrian Jews, like Jews in other parts of the world, solved this problem by developing regional dishes that could simmer over a low flame for many hours at a time. In this manner, the housewife could prepare and begin cooking the food before Shabbat and keep it warm until it was time to eat in the evening. Sometimes, the women would bring pots of food to their Arab neighbors, who would cook it for them or keep it hot until it was needed for the Shabbat meal. The lunch meal on Shabbat could also be served warm, and the flavor of these foods improved with time and additional heating.”

Getting with the Times

“Out with the old, in with the new” is an oft-repeated adage that depicts the gradual process of modernization, and the preference for newfangled traditions over those of the past. Has this happened to our cherished culinary tradition? Is the “modernization bug” threatening  our long-established fare?

“I would say that overall, the Syrian Jews have started to cook food that is not traditionally Syrian, but uses Syrian/Middle Eastern spices for flavor such as cumin, cinnamon, and allspice,” says Jennifer. “Also, in general, our generation is much more health-conscious than our grandparents and great-grandparents had been, so we have cut out a lot of the meat except for special occasions, and make dishes lower in fat, or more vegetarian options. My mother makes a kusa b’jibbin using low fat cheeses and egg whites, which is much lighter and still tastes great, topped with a low fat yogurt for the lebneh.”

Poopa agrees that we have become more health conscious in certain ways, but adds that our traditional fare is healthy to begin with. “We have modernized our food by using less sugar, and a lot of people are replacing natural butter with a healthier substitute, but my point of view is that Syrian food has always been authentically healthy. We have always cooked with vegetables, grains and pure olive oil. The same food that was made hundreds of years ago is still the same healthy food that we are eating now. It isn’t that we modernized the food, but that we now realize and appreciate how ahead of the time our food really is.”

Fine Dining

If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then surely the way to a woman’s heart is through her eyes. “To Syrians in general, especially from Halab, how the food was served is just as important as how it tastes,” explains Jennifer. “It should be as attractive to the eye as it is to the stomach, and there should always be a variety of dishes served with different colors, textures, and flavors. Syria was one of the most sophisticated lands in the Middle Eastern world, and was influenced by the greater Ottoman Empire, where the Sultans took great pride in having the best of foods by the best of cooks.”

Poopa concurs, and further elucidates the pride of the Syrian women. “Halab was known as the queen of the mechshis! If you were to ask the Middle Eastern countries where the best food comes from, they would unequivocally answer Halab! Halab was the gem of the Ottoman Empire.”

Why were the highest culinary standards found specifically in Halab?

Poopa explains that geographically, Aleppo was situated in the heart of the Middle East, and its residents thus had access to all the market’s spices and the caravans selling their exotic wares. Furthermore, Aleppo was part of the Fertile Crescent and was a wealthy, sophisticated commercial center. The Sultans of the Ottoman Empire would thus hire the top chefs from Aleppo to cook for them.

Poopa points out that particularly on Shabbat and holidays, Jewish women took special pride not only in the taste and quality of the food, but also in the serving and dining. “We understood the significance and elevation of the holidays and Shabbat,” she says. “We appreciated this elevation and served the meals much nicer!”

Origin of Sambusak

The name sambusak originates from the Indian food samosa, a fried or baked pastry with a flavorful filling. Interestingly, sambusak has been enjoyed for over 1,000 years in the Middle East. The following poem was recorded in 947 A.D. in a historical work entitled Meadows of Gold, by Mas’udi, one of the first Arab historians. The poem’s focus? Sambusak!

“…And when the burning flames have dried it quite,
Then, as thou wilt, in pastry wrap it round,
And fasten well the edges, firm and sound;
Or, if it please thee better, take some dough,
Conveniently soft, and rubbed just so,
Then with a rolling-pin let it be spread
And with the nails its edges docketed.
Pour in the frying-pan the choicest oil
And in that liquor let it finely broil…”

Renaissance and Rebirth

“The previous generation took tremendous pride in preparing Syrian cuisine, and everything was made from scratch,” says Poopa. “Then, for a few decades, Syrian women turned to an easier form of Syrian cooking.” Among all the generations of Syrian women who worked tirelessly making their own dough, filling their own kibbe hamda and such, there were only a small handful of women who opted for ease.

“Now I see a resurgence of preserving and getting back to the basis of our traditional cooking and the pride in serving,” Poopa enthuses. “People excitedly tell me that they had just made kaak and kibbeh. This is one of the reasons why I wrote Aromas of Aleppo – because I didn’t want to lose that excitement and pride. And I knew that through a greater understanding of our culture and traditions, there would be a returning to the roots, and, baruch Hashem, that happened!”

Jennifer opines that many Syrian women are working these days and don’t have time to cook as their mothers did. “But all Syrian women appreciate when Syrian food tastes good and is well prepared,” she says. “Especially during the holidays, Syrian women cook and serve more elaborate dishes.”

Families are going back to the basics and finding the joys of Syrian cuisine that was so much a part of their ancestors’ lives. “We’ve always cooked,” declares Poopa. “it’s the trend that never ends!”

Mrs. Poopa Dweck can be contacted through her website www.poopadweck.com or via email poopa@poopadweck.com. Mrs. Jennifer Abadi can be contacted through her website www.fistfuloflentils.com. Some of the historical information provided in this article is derived from Jennifer’s cookbook “Fistful of Lentils.”

The Etymology

Here is the fascinating etymology of the names of some other common Syrian foods, translated from their Arabic names:

Lehembagene – “meat on the dough.”

Kibbeh – “ball,” referring to the mazza’s oblong shape.

Kanafe – “shredded dough,” referring to the pastry’s texture and appearance.

Kaak – “cookie.”

Ma’amoul – “filled.” A nut filled cookie, this is the anticipated dessert served on Purim. A similar cookie, called karabij, is topped with marshmallow fluff, and is also a made as a Purim delicacy.