Food Safari ~ Syrian

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Maeve O’Meara explores the food of Syria—one of the most vibrant cuisines of the Middle East, full of herbs, spices and traditions stretching back many generations.  Maeve meets up with Melbourne Restaurateur Amal Malouf, who owns and runs Arabesque Restaurant, to get an explanation of the essential ingredients to make traditional dishes.

Sydney Restaurateur Carol Salloum takes Maeve through the classic mezze spread and explains the custom of eating the generous variety of little dishes, while her chef sister Sharon raids her mother's abundant garden for salad veggies and herbs to make a classic salad called fattoush.

We see how the traditional saj or mountain bread is made by a group of women at home, and then visit a traditional cheesemaker who makes the beloved yoghurt-based cheese called shanklish.  The national dish, kibbeh, is made by charming chef Najla Atmaja.

Chef Ayman Abbassi from café Zum Zum shows Maeve how to cook the beloved grain called freekeh, which is delicious served with poached chicken and Syrian truffle, pine nuts with almonds.  Syria is justly famous for its sweets, and Amal Malouf demonstrates a sweet easily made at home—a golden baklava baked with pistachio nuts and rose water syrup.

Click here for the recipes featured in this episode.

About Syria


Syria, officially the Syrian Arab Republic, is a country in Western Asia, bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the southwest.

The name Syria formerly comprised the entire region of the Levant, while the modern state encompasses the site of several ancient kingdoms and empires, including the Eblan civilization of the third millennium BC.  In the Islamic era, its capital city, Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, was the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate and a provincial capital of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt.

The modern Syrian state was established as a French Mandate and attained independence in April 1946, as a parliamentary republic.  The post-independence period was tumultuous, and a large number of military coups and coup attempts shook the country in the period 1949–1970.  Since gaining its independence, Syria has consistently had strained relations with its various neighboring countries, especially with Israel over territorial disputes.

Syria is currently facing massive protests as part of the Arab Spring—a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests occurring in the Arab world.

Ancient Syria:

Archaeologists have demonstrated that civilization in Syria was one of the most ancient on earth.  Since approximately 10,000 BCE, Syria was one of centers of Neolithic culture where agriculture and cattle breeding appeared for the first time in the world.  Finds of obsidian tools from Anatolia are evidences of early trade relations.  Cities of Hamoukar and Emar played an important role during the late Neolithic and Bronze Age.

Elba Civilization:

A great Semitic empire spread from the Red Sea north to Turkey and east to Mesopotamia from 2500 to 2400 BCE.  Ebla appears to have been founded around 3000 BCE and gradually built its empire through trade with the cities of Sumer and Akkad, as well as with peoples to the northwest.  Gifts from Pharaoh found during excavations confirm Ebla's contact with Egypt.

Scholars believe the language of Ebla to be among the oldest known written Semitic languages.  The Eblan civilization was likely conquered by Sargon of Akkad around 2260 BCE; the city was restored as the nation of the Amorites a few centuries later and flourished through the early 2nd millennium BCE until conquered by the Hittites.

Successive Foreign Occupations:

During the 2nd millennium BCE, Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites (Phoenicians) and Arameans as part of the general disruptions associated with the Sea Peoples; the Phoenicians settled along the coastline of these areas as well as in the west (now Lebanon and the current Syrian coast.  Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Hittites variously occupied the strategic ground of Syria during this period, as it was a marchland between their various empires.

Eventually, the Persians took Syria as part of their hegemony of Southwest Asia; this dominion was transferred to the Ancient Macedonians after Alexander the Great's conquests and the Seleucid Empire.  The capital of this Empire (founded in 312 BC) was situated at Antioch, part of historical Syria, but just inside the Turkish border today.  But the Seleucid Empire was essentially just one long slow period of decline, and Pompey the Great captured Antioch in 64 BC, turning Syria into a Roman province.  Thus control of this region passed to the Romans and then the Byzantines.

Roman & early Christian Era:

In the Roman Empire period, the city of Antioch was the third largest city in the empire after Rome and Alexandria.  With an estimated population of 500,000 at its peak, Antioch was one of the major centers of trade and industry in the ancient world.  Syria's large and prosperous population made Syria one of the most important of the Roman provinces, particularly during the 2nd and 3rd centuries (CE).

Syria is significant in the history of Christianity; Saul of Tarsus was converted on the Road to Damascus, thereafter being known as the Apostle Paul, and emerged as a significant figure in the first organized Christian Church at Antioch in ancient Syria, from which he left on many of his missionary journeys.  (Acts 9:1–43).

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Middle Ages & Early Modern Era:

By 640 CE, Syria was conquered by the Rashidun army led by Khalid ibn al-Walid, resulting in the area's becoming part of the Islamic empire.

Umayyad Caliphate:

In the mid-7th century, the Umayyad dynasty, then rulers of the empire, placed the capital of the empire in Damascus.  Syria was divided into four districts:  Damascus, Homs, Palestine and Jordan.  The Islamic empire stretched from Spain and Morocco to India and parts of Central Asia; thus Syria prospered economically, being the capital of the empire.  Early Ummayad rulers such as Abd al-Malik and Al-Walid I constructed several splendid palaces and mosques throughout Syria, particularly in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.

There was great toleration of Christians in this era and several held governmental posts.  The country's power dramatically declined during later Ummayad rule; mainly due to the totalitarianism and corruption spread among the empire's leaderships, conflict between its general staff, and the successive revolutions by the oppressed and miserable groups.

Abbasid Caliphate to the Ottoman Turks:

Ummayad dynasty was then overthrown by the Abbasid dynasty in 750, who moved the capital of empire to BaghdadArabic—made official under Ummayad rule—became the dominant language, replacing Greek and Aramaic in the Abbasid era.  In 887, the Egypt-based Tulunids annexed Syria from the Abbasids, and were later replaced by the Hamdanids originating in Aleppo founded by Sayf al-Dawla.

Sections of the coastline of Syria were briefly held by Frankish overlords during the Crusades of the 12th century, and were known as the Crusader state of the Principality of Antioch.  The area was also threatened by Shi'a extremists known as Assassins (Hassassin).  In 1260, the Mongols arrived, led by Hulegu with an army 100,000 strong, destroying cities and irrigation works.  Aleppo fell in January 1260, and Damascus in March, but then Hulegu needed to break off his attack to return to China to deal with a succession dispute.

The command of the remaining Mongol troops was placed under Kitbuqa, a Christian Mongol.  A few months later, the Mamluks arrived with an army from Egypt, and defeated the Mongols in the Battle of Ain Jalut, in Galilee.  The Mamluk leader, Baibars, made his capitals in Cairo and Damascus.

In 1400, Timur Lenk, or Tamerlane, invaded Syria, sacked Aleppo and captured Damascus after defeating the Mamluk army.  The city's inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand.  It was during the conquests of Timur that the indigenous Christian population of Syria began to suffer under greater persecutions.

Before 1516, historical or Greater Syria was part of the Mamluk Empire centered in Egypt.  The Ottoman Sultan Selim I conquered Syria in 1516 after defeating the Mamlukes at the Battle of Marj Dabiq near Aleppo in northern Syria.  Selim carried on his victorious campaign against the Mamlukes and conquered Egypt in 1517 following the Battle of Ridanieh, bringing an end to the Mamluk Sultanate.

By the end of the 15th century, the discovery of a sea route from Europe to the Far East ended the need for an overland trade route through Syria.  Shattered by the Mongols, Syria was easily absorbed into the Ottoman Empire from the 16th through 20th centuries, and found itself largely apart from, and ignored by, world affairs.  The Syrian economy did not flourish under the Ottomans.  At times attempts were made to rebuild the country, but on the whole Syria remained poor.  The population decreased by nearly 30%, and hundreds of villages virtually disappeared into the desert.

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Modern Syria:

Territory of the Greater Syria until 1918 under the Ottoman rule included modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, and parts of Turkey and Iraq.

French Mandate:

With the end of World War I and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire as an ally of Germany, the Anglo-French Declaration of November 1918 pledged that Great Britain and France would "assist in the establishment of indigenous Governments and administrations in Syria and Mesopotamia by "setting up of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the free exercise of the initiative and choice of the indigenous populations".

In 1920, an independent Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under Faisal I of the Hashemite family, who later became the King of Iraq.  However, his rule over Syria ended after only a few months, following the clash between his Syrian Arab forces and regular French forces at the Battle of Maysalun.  French troops occupied Syria later that year after the San Remo conference proposed that the League of Nations put Syria under a French Mandate.

On August 23, 1925, Sultan al-Atrash officially declared revolution against France, and soon fighting erupted.  Al-Atrash won several battles against the French at the beginning of revolution.  After rebel victories against the French, France sent thousands of troops to Syria and Lebanon from Morocco and Senegal, equipped with modern weapons; the rebels were lightly armed.  This dramatically altered the results and allowed the French to regain many cities, although resistance lasted until the spring of 1927.  The French sentenced Sultan al-Atrash to death, but he had escaped with the rebels to Transjordan and was eventually pardoned.

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Independence and the Syrian Arab Republic:

Syria and France negotiated a treaty of independence in September 1936, and Hashim al-Atassi, who was Prime Minister under King Faisal's brief reign, was the first president to be elected under a new constitution.  However, the treaty never came into force because the French Legislature refused to ratify it. 

With the fall of France in 1940 during World War II, Syria came under the control of Vichy France until the British and Free French occupied the country in the Syria-Lebanon campaign in July 1941.  Syria proclaimed its independence again in 1941, but it was not until January 1, 1944 that it was recognized as an independent republic.  Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups and British pressure forced the French to evacuate their troops in April 1946.

Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of independence, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s were marked by upheaval.  Between 1946 and 1956, Syria had 20 different cabinets and drafted four separate constitutions.  In 1948, Syria was involved in the Arab-Israeli War, aligning with the other local Arab nations who were attempting to prevent the establishment of Israel.  The Syrian army was pressed out of most of the Palestine area, but managed to keep their old borders and some additional territory (this was converted into demilitarized zones under UN supervision; the status of these territories have proved a stumbling-block for Syrian-Israeli negotiations).  It was during this period that many Syrian Jews, who faced growing discrimination, emigrated from the country, as part of Jewish exodus from Arab countries.

Israel and Syria met again on the battlefield in two other military conflicts:  the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (also known as the Six-Day War) and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War (also known as the Yom Kippur War or the Ramadan War).

The humiliating defeats suffered by the army was one of several trigger factors for a large number of military coups and coup attempts shook the country in the period 1949–1970.  Syria was under Emergency Law from 1962–2011, effectively suspending most constitutional protections for citizens, and its system of government is considered non-democratic.  Bashar al-Assad is the current president, and was preceded by his father Hafez al-Assad, who was in office since 1971.

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"Arab Spring" (the 2011 Arab Revolutions):

Syria is currently facing massive protests as part of the Arab Spring—a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests occurring in the Arab world.  Protests in Syria started on 26 January and were influenced by other protests in the region.  Protesters have been calling for political reforms, for the ruling Baath Party to allow other political parties, to end extrajudicial killings and torture, equal rights for Syria's ethnic and religious groups, and broad political freedoms, such as freedom of press, speech and assembly.  Like the revolutionary movements in Tunisia and Egypt, it has taken the form of protests of various types, including marches and hunger strikes, as well as vandalism of government property and rioting of shops, in a sustained campaign of civil resistance.

As protests continued, the Syrian government used tanks and snipers to force people off the streets.  More than 2,000 protesters have been killed, many more injured, and thousands detained.  The Syrian government has made several concessions, though widely considered trivial by protesters demanding more meaningful reform.


Syria is a middle-income country, with an economy based on agriculture, oil, industry, and tourism.  However, Syria's economy faces serious problems and challenges and impediments to growth, including:  a large and poorly performing public sector; declining rates of oil production; widening non-oil deficit; wide scale corruption; weak financial and capital markets; and high rates of unemployment tied to a high population growth rate.  As a result of an inefficient and corrupt centrally planned economy, Syria has low rates of investment, and low levels of industrial and agricultural productivity.  Its GDP growth rate was approximately 5% in 2009, according to CIA World Factbook statistics.


Syrians today are an overall indigenous Levantine people.  While modern-day Syrians are commonly described as Arabs by virtue of their modern-day language and bonds to Arab culture and history.  They are, in fact, largely a blend of the various Aramaic speaking groups indigenous to the region who were Arabized when Muslim Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula arrived and settled following the Arab expansion.

In 2009, Syria had a populuation of 21.9 million of which 74% are Sunni Muslim, with a 12% Shia and Alawite Muslim population, 10% Christian and 3% Druze.  Combined, some 86% of the Syrian population is Muslim, which largely includes Arabs and significant minoroties of Kurds and Circassians, while some 10% are Christians, which mainly includes ethnic Assyrians, but also Arab Christians and Armenians.  The ethnic minorities include Kurdish (9%), Assyrian/Syriac, Armenian, Turkmen and Circassian populations, while the majority is Arab (90%).  Syria hosted a population of refugees and asylum seekers number approximately 1,852,300.  The vast majority of this population was from Iraq (1.3 million), but sizeable populations from the former British Mandate of Palestine (543,400) and Somalia (5,200) also lived in the country.

Arabic is the official, and most widely spoken, language.  Arabic speakers, including some 400,000 Palestinians, make up 85% of the population.  Many educated Syrians also speakEnglish or French, but English is more widely understood.

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Syria is a traditional society with a long cultural history.  Importance is placed on family, religion, education and self discipline and respect.  Ancient Syria's cultural and artistic achievements and contributions are many.  Archaeologists have discovered extensive writings and evidence of a brilliant culture rivaling those of Mesopotamia and Egypt in and around the ancient city of Ebla.  Later Syrian scholars and artists contributed to Hellenistic and Roman thought and culture.  Syrians have contributed to Arabic literature and music and have a proud tradition of oral and written poetry.  Although declining, the handicraft industry still employs thousands.


Non-Arab visitors to Syria reached 1.1 million in 2002, which includes all visitors to the country, not just tourists.  The total number of Arab visitors in 2002 was 3.2 million, most from Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Syria offers several prominent historial and archaeological sites containing ruins from Roman, Byzantine, and Muslim times.  Key UNESCO World Heritage Sites include:  the ancient cities of Aleppo, Bosra, Damascus, as well as the ancient villages of Northen Syria, the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, and the Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din rank among the best-preserved examples of the Crusader castles.

The Ancient City of Aleppo is noted for it's 13th-century citadel, 12th-century Great Mosque and various 17th-century madrasas (educational institutions and academies), palaces, caravanserais (roadside inns along ancient trade routes) and hammams (Turkish baths).  The Ancient Roman city of Bosra features a magnificent 2nd-century Roman theatre, early Christian ruins, and the Al-Omari Mosque, one of the oldest surviving early Islamic-era mosques, within its great walls.  An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world.

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Syrian Cuisine

The Syrian cooking tradition is one of the oldest in the world.  Cooking ingredients are varied and dishes are full of hearty flavors and aromatic spices.  Vegetables are mostly the main ingredients of Syrian everyday cooking.  Meat dishes are typically served during feasts and special celebrations.

Syria is situated at the crossroads of civilization and many chefs believe its culinary traditions offer the finest representation of Middle Eastern cooking and culture.  Syrian cuisine is a diffusion of the cultures of civilizations that settled in Syria, particularly during and after the Islamic era beginning with the Arab Umayyad conquest, then the eventual Persian-influenced Abbasids and ending with the strong influences of Turkish cuisine, resulting from the coming of the Ottoman Turks.  It is in many ways similar to other Levantine cuisines, mainly Lebanese and Palestinian.

Muslims do not eat pork or drink alcohol.  They eat halal meat, which has been specially prepared by the butcher according to Muslim dietary laws and traditions.

A spice mixture called baharat mshakale is widely used in Syrian cooking.  Garlic, olive oil or purified butterfat are used in many dishes.

The national food is burghol (bulgur), which is wheat that has been steamed, dried and ground.  It is added to many dishes, including the national dish, kibbeh, which is made with ground lamb.

Presentation is everything.  Syrians like to decorate their table with different appetizers and salads.  Individual hor d’oeurves are stuffed with vegetables, and vegetables are stuffed with meats.  Even the most basic dishes are garnished.  A typical Syrian meal begins with mezze, a spread of hor d’oeurves, salads and appetizers, as well as an assortment of nuts and pickles.  Za'atar, minced beef, and cheese manakish are popular hors d'oeuvres.

Main Dishes:

Main meals include lamb, chicken or fish, with a vegetable, salad, and rice dish or flat bread.  The Syrian cuisine includes dishes like wara' enab, tabbouleh, fattoush, labneh, mujaddara, shanklish, pastırma, and sujukHummus (a puree of chickpeas), baba ghanoush (an eggplant puree) and falafel (a fried ball or patty made from ground chickpeas) are popular Syrian foods.  Makkadem (sheep’s feet) is a traditional dish, and is considered a delicacy.

Shawarma is a popular sandwich-like wrap of shaved lamb, goat, chicken, turkey, beef, or a mixture thereof.  The meat is placed on a spit, and may be grilled for as long as a day.  Shawarma is a fast-food staple across the Middle East.  It is eaten with pita bread, lavash, tabbouleh, fattoush, taboon bread, tomato and cucumber.  Toppings include tahini, hummus, pickled turnips and amba.

Fetté is another popular meal, especially in the capital of Dasmascus.  Fetté eaten in breakfasts as well as in the evenings, always starts with a stack of khubz bread, topped by strained yogurt, steamed chickpeas and olive oil that are crushed and mixed together.  In the next step, a teaspoon of cumin is almost always poured into the mixture.  After that, virtually anything can be added to the bowl.  Some fettés are made of eggplants and julienned carrots topped with grilled chicken and pine kernels while some contain lamb shanks, different spices and yogurt.


Syrian desserts are stuffed with different nuts, cream, cheese or dates.  A typical Syrian meal is followed by tea of coffee, platters of fruit and home made pastries filled with nuts and sweetened with sugar syrup.  Ba'lawa is made of filo pastry filled with chopped nuts and soaked in honey.

Syrians are also well-known for their cheese.  The very popular string cheese, jibbneh mashallale, is make of curd cheese and is pulled and twisted together.  Syrians also make cookies to usually accompany their cheese called ka'ak.  These are made of farina and other ingredients, rolled out, shaped into rings and baked.  Another form of a similar cookie is filled with crushed dates mixed with butter and eaten with their jibbneh mashallale.


Drinks in Syria vary depending on the time of the day and the occasion.  Arabic coffee, also known as Turkish coffee is the most well-known hot drink usually prepared in the morning at breakfast or in the evening.  It is usually served for guests or after food.  Arak, an alcoholic drink, is also a well-known beverage served mostly on special occasions.  More examples of Syrian beverages include Ayran, Jallab, White coffee, and a locally manufactured beer called Al Shark.



AFRICAN:  Wherever you are in Africa, no meal is complete without a starchy porridge known as fufu.

BRAZILIAN:  An exuberant, colorful mix of Portuguese, African and native foods including some from the Amazon.

CHINESE:  Two thirds of households own a wok and use it regularly, but not everyone knows how to use it properly.

EGYPTIAN:  Beans are used extensively and creatively as a source of protein, fibre, and comfort.

ENGLISH:  "Meat & three veg" originated in the UK with dishes like roast beef, steak and kidney pie, and many more.

FRENCH: The French have elevated food into an art form. Nowhere else is so much attention paid to what people are going to eat and how.

HUNGARIAN:  A fusion of simple peasant food & the elegant, highly developed cuisine from the days of the Austro Hungarian Empire.

INDIAN:  A vibrant, intensely colorful cuisine. Each region of India has its own style of cooking and distinct flavors.

INDONESIAN:  One of the most vibrant and colorful cuisines in the world, full of intense flavor and varied textures.

ITALIAN:  An long-awaited introduction to the kitchens and restaurants of Australia’s top Italian chefs and home cooks.

JAPANESE:  Refined and elegant, its preparation and presentation honed over the centuries so its flavors are pure and delicate.

JEWISH:  While flavors of the Jewish palate are influenced by geography, the constant for Jews all over the world are the Kosher laws.

KOREAN:  Some of the healthiest food on earth, with a near obsession with the fermented vegetable kimchi.

LEBANESE:  Lebanese cuisine is generous and abundant, and this is some of the most exquisite food in the world.

MALTESE:  The rocky island of Malta is home to some beautiful rustic recipes that sing of Mediterranean flavor and freshness.

MEXICAN:  Authentic Mexican food is vibrant, spicy, delicious and fun. It varies according to which region its from.

MOROCCAN:  One of the most cleverly balanced cuisines on earth; spices are used to enhance the flavor of dishes.

PAKISTANI:  Full of marvelous and diverse dishes, it incorporates elements from its neighbors India, Afghanistan and Iran.

PERSIAN:  From simple dips to hearty stews, food preparation is taken very seriously in Iran and is often a labor of love.

SOUTH AMERICAN:  A fantastic fusion of culinary traditions from indigenous Indians, imported Africans, and the Spanish and Portuguese colonist.

SRI LANKAN:  This beautiful spice island is a rich melting pot of every nationality that has visited and traded with it over the years.

TURKISH:  Nestled between Asia and Europe, Turkish food is an unique and exotic fusion with influences from many countries.


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