The ancient country of Syria is said to be home to the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Damascus, its capital, has evidence of civilization dating back to the 2nd millennium BC and its surrounding basin has been lived in since 9000 BC. That’s a long time! The language of Syria is Arabic, but since it used to be a colony of France, French is also spoken along with English. I had a friend from high school whose grandfather emigrated from Syria after converting to Christianity. His Islamic family forced him to flee, so he came to the US seeking less persecution. Although it is true that Muslims make up about 90% of Syria’s population, Syria is officially a secular state with no national religion. There is a good population of Christians living in Syria, but one’s religion is often more of an inherited thing than a choice. When my friend’s grandfather converted, he went against the norm and deified the social standard. Also, there are very segregated areas where the Christians and Muslims live. For instance, the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs have large Christian communities. I think it is really cool to study about cities today like Damascus that are mentioned in the Bible. It was on the road to Damascus that the apostle Paul was struck blind and came to know Christ. Learning and seeing more about cities like Damascus in modern times really helps to make the Bible seem more real and not so much like a far-off historical account. After seeing pictures of Damascus, I can just imagine Paul walking down that road and receiving a life changing experience.
The culinary scene of Syria is a mixture of Mediterranean, Levantine, Turkish, and French cuisines. Like many of the other countries from the area, the meze table is a common prequel to meals. Spices, especially the spice mixture baharat, are highly valued and often used in Syrian cooking. I actually used a combination of spices for my meal tonight that reflects the mixture in baharat. Maklouba (or maqlouba) is a fun to make and yummy to eat Levantine dish made of rice, meat, and fried vegetables such as eggplant and cauliflower. Everything is layered into a large pot, simmered, and then inverted to create a mountainous feast. “Maklouba” literally means upside-down, referring to the action of inverting it onto the plate. It’s eaten along with yogurt or Arabic salad.
8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken thighs½ tsp cardamom
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
1 bay leaf
2 cups reserved broth from boiling the chicken
4 cups cauliflower florets
1 large eggplant, peeled and sliced into ½” rounds
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
oil, for frying
1 cup basmati rice, soaked in water for 30 minutes
1 ounce pine nuts
1 ounce almonds
thick yogurt, to serve
Cover the chicken thighs with water in a small pot. Stir in the cardamom, cumin, turmeric, pepper, allspice, cinnamon, and bay leaf. Cover, bring to a boil, and cook for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large pan over medium heat. Fry the eggplant and cauliflower until golden. Set aside to drain on paper towels. Fry the onion and garlic until browned. Drain out any excess oil and set aside. Once the chicken has cooked, remove it from the pot and cut it into cubes. Discard the bay leaf. Arrange the chicken on the bottom of a large pot with a lid. (Mine holds 4 quarts.) Top the chicken with the eggplant and cauliflower followed by the onions. Spread the rice evenly over top and pour on 2 cups of the leftover chicken broth. Cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 40 minutes, or until the rice is tender. Add extra water if needed. While the maklouba is cooking, heat a frying pan over medium heat. Toast the pine nuts and almonds until golden brown. When the maklouba is done, allow it to cool for about 10 minutes before inverting it onto a plate. Top with the nuts and serve with yogurt.