For the past six months, you loyal readers (both of you) have indulged me in my quest for a better understanding of countries singled out in Trump’s travel ban through an investigation of their culinary traditions. My journey began at LAX, shouting and waving signs, and has ended with me being literally afraid to turn on the news. Every day is worse than the last. But in that time I have gained a vast appreciation for these countries. They are all suffering so much more than I can even imagine. Being on Trump’s stupid list is literally the least of their worries.
So far, I have covered the history and culinary traditions of Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Iran. I am finishing with Syria, for a few reasons. I’m guessing that, if you are not fully aware of the intricacies of the conflict, you at the very least are aware that the Syrian situation sucks. It has certainly gotten more media coverage than the other travel-ban countries, in no small part because of the staggering flood of nearly 5 million Syrian refugees. The death toll has surpassed 400,000; 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance; 6.3 million are displaced internally.
But in reality, I saved Syria for last because I have a special connection to that country. My brother-in-law is Syrian, which makes my sweet niece and nephew Syrian, and it means I have shared all of our family’s milestones with an extended Syrian family and have been a lucky guest at their tables. But to be honest, we have never really discussed the political situation in Syria. It is an understandably upsetting topic. Something I imagine akin to a bad break-up.
Really? Do we need to talk about it? Can we just move on?
Lucky for me, my brother-in-law has never shied away from sharing his cuisine with us. I have had my fill of (and learned the intricacies of) hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouleh. I have become a devotee of kanafeh, a superior variation of baklava made with shredded phyllo (kataifi), filled with cheese and soaked in a rosy sugar syrup. But my favorite, by far, is kibbeh. Oh, how I love the kibbeh.
Imagine the best, most succulent meatball you’ve ever had. Now add bulgur, nuts and exotic spices. I like it best grilled, but you also find kibbeh baked, stuffed and even raw (a Lebanese specialty), like a heavenly exotic tartare, served with mint, onion, olive oil, peppers and flatbread. Kibbeh is found across the Middle East, with dozens of regional variations. The meat is typically lamb or beef, but poultry and fish kibbeh are not unheard of. The meat can be mixed with fruit (such as quince, lemon, pomegranate or cherry) and sometimes yogurt. They are served plain, or swimming in thick sauces or floating in soup like a dumpling. Kibbeh means “to form into a sphere,” but it can take a number of forms apart from the standard meatball — oblong, football-shaped, patted into small or large discs, molded into long sausage shapes and teardrops or packed into an outer shell of bulgur or rice. There are also unique variations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, where there are a substantial number of Middle Eastern immigrants.
When I asked my brother-in-law about Syrian foods, he sent me his favorite recipes from a Lebanese cookbook. Granted, much of the region’s cuisine is similar, because of the long shared history. “But why not a Syrian cookbook?” I asked.
“Because Syria has been living under strong government control since 1963,” he replied. “No room for creativity.” I was aware of the repression, but I had no idea it extended to the kitchen.
A quick Amazon search proved him wrong. There were several Syrian cookbooks — except, wait — they were all published in the West. Suddenly I am feeling lucky that I have someone who passed these traditions down.
After Ottoman rule, French control under a League of Nations mandate, attacks on Christian and Assyrian populations, occupation by Vichy France during World War II, Syria experienced a short, tumultuous independence, suffering through 20 different cabinets and four constitutions. A brief union with Egypt from 1958 to 1961 ended in a transition to secular presidential government, putting power in the hands of the Ba’ath Syrian Regional Branch (socialist in its initial creation, but fascist in its final practice), making Syria the second Ba’athist state after Iraq.
In 1970, Hafez al-Assad declared himself president and created a government based on loyalty to the leader, whose wisdom was portrayed as “beyond the comprehension of the average citizen.” Government, military and intelligence organizations were soon dominated by Alawites (a minority branch of Shia Islam), and nepotism was rampant. His leadership dominated Syrian politics, and a new constitution in 1973 removed the mandate that the president be Muslim, which led to armed revolts by the Muslim Brotherhood. Regardless of opposition, Assad’s rule of this one-party state survived until his death in 2000. The nation’s first multiparty elections in 2001 placed his oldest surviving son, Bashar al-Assad, in power, and there was, for a brief moment, hope for democratic reform.
But in 2011, the Arab Spring emboldened the opposition, and those who called for reform and Assad’s removal were violently suppressed. The protests quickly devolved into an armed conflict, with the Assad government and its allies fighting against a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebels (the Free Syrian Army) and ultra-conservative Sunni fundamentalist Salafi jihadist groups, including the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).
Over time, moderate forces split off from their original groups and joined Islamist militant forces. In 2015 the mostly Kurdish militia called People’s Protection Units (YPG) led a multiethnic Syrian Democratic Force, hoping to create a democratic, secular Syria. But outside forces continue to support the war, directly and indirectly, with Russia and Hezbollah supporting Assad and NATO forces fighting ISIL. Also on Assad’s side are Iran, which provides financial, technological and training support, and Shia militias from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also in the mix are the pro-Assad Syrian Armed Forces, National Defense Force, Shabiha (an Alawite and Shi’ite militia created in the 1980s as the regime’s enforcers — considered semi-criminal gangs by critics) and anti-ISIL Christian militia. There is even a Female Protection Force, all-female Christian soldiers fighting ISIL.
Really, the conflict is so convoluted, so deeply ingrained, that there is no way I can shed much light on it here in my little food column. I haven’t even touched on the Damascus Spring, the intellectual salons, the socialists, communists, fascists, anti-Semites or anti-Persian factions. Nor have I discussed the mindboggling list of massacres, imprisonments, torture and rampant human rights violations. To summarize, this region — in the heart of the Fertile Crescent, inhabited since the Paleolithic era, ruled by ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Persians, Macedonians and Romans, and home to the great ancient cities of Palmyra and Dura Europos — is a goddamn catastrophe.
I urge you to familiarize yourself with Syrian history and to support the population in any way that you can. There are local resettlement agencies that could use your help, including the Episcopal Diocese of L.A.’s Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service (IRIS), Catholic Charities of L.A. in Glendale, the International Institute of L.A. and the International Rescue Committee, also in Glendale.
In addition, find a Syrian family and make friends. I will always be thankful for my husband’s sister’s exotic taste in men, which brought these people into my life. And I am thankful that my brother-in-law and his extended family and friends are here rather than there. I am grateful to have been given the chance to be a part of their family, and I am supergrateful for kibbeh.
There are at least 50 variations of kibbeh. This is the one I like best so far, but that’s only because it’s the one I have the most. I’m totally open to more kibbeh suggestions.
1 pound bulgur
1 pound ground lamb or beef
½ onion, minced
½ cup pine nuts
½ cup fresh mint, chopped
1 teaspoon bharat (see below)
½ teaspoon sea salt
1. Wash and drain bulgur, cover with an inch of cold water and let stand for 10 minutes. Rinse and drain again, pressing out excess liquid. It should be soft but not mushy.
2. Add the remaining ingredients to the bulgur and mix well. At this point, some cooks run the mixture though a meat grinder or food processor to create a finer meat paste. I do not, because I like a thicker texture. Also, I am lazy. Form the mixture into balls and skewer for the grill (cook at medium heat until marked and firm), or place in a baking dish (350° for about 30 minutes, or until firm to the touch). You can also press it into a baking dish and score it into 2-to-3-inch square or triangular portions before baking at 350° for about 40 minutes, until firm. Serve it with a minty yogurt sauce, a spicy tomato sauce, a heaping helping of hummus and baba ghanouj and flatbread, or just eat it, reheated in the microwave at 2 in the morning in your PJs, standing over the sink, which I have been known to do.
Combine ingredients below
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon crushed black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.