The second day in Damascus we had signed up for a culinary tour. I had found the company, Damascus Fork, on the internet when I was researching restaurant, and what they offered was exactly what I (and Christopher) would enjoy doing. It involved a guided tour in Damascus, and to cook authentic Middle Eastern food with a Syrian chef.
The ‘group’ consisted only of me and Christopher, and we had two tour guides. One was the girl who started the company, and the other one her assistant. They both loved food, and what they showed us was amazing. They picked us up outside our hotel in the morning, and we took a cab to the Old City and the souq. Even though we had spent hours here the day before, we learned lots of new things with our personal guides.
The first stop on the tour was at Bakdash, an icecream parlour in the souq, which has existed in the same spot since 1890. The place is extremely popular in the Middle East even though they only have one flavour on the icecream. The icecream is made by hand and some pretty strong guys beats the icecream into the required consistency with a wodden club. It has a peculiar taste because it contains ground orchid root, which is used as a thickener. The icecream was nice, but quite different from the type we’re used to.
What tasted even better than the icecream, was this hot drink that tasted a bit like thin hot custard. It was lovely and soothing, and would be perfect to drink at night if you’re cold or before you go to bed.
Next stop on our walk was at a spice whole saler, where we got to smell and taste typical Syrian spices. The place had such a strong smell of different spices it nearly made you dizzy, and that really tells you something about the punch of the spices and the good quality. It was a great experience, and we got to try three different blends of za’atar, and just as we were deciding which mix we liked the most, they told us that they had a house mix, which mixed the three together, and that one blew all the others away. Za’atar is a spice blend mainly consisting of dried thyme and sesame seeds, and it is very versatile. You can mix it with olive oil as a dip or use it to cook fish and meat.
Next up was a stop in a basement where they made sugared almonds in something that looked like a cement mixer. The sugar coating is white and sweet, and later on we bought some to take back to our offices. They disappeared very quickly!
Before we got to cook ourselves, we got to watch this man cook some very nice savoury pastries. He was the local chef in a neighborhood kitchen, which means that he would cater for all main events in the residential area he works in. And I would love to hire this guy, his pastries were so nice. We ordered them in many restaurants, but no restaurant could top his.
He basically made a Syrian version of puff pastry, making a dough of flour, water and salt, and brushing it with butter several times as he was rolling it out. He then rolled it out very thin and placed balls of the cheese and parsley mixture on. He then covered it with another layer of the dough, and cut out little squares around the filling, like ravioli. These were then deep fried until colden and crisp on the outside and the cheese mixture had melted on the inside. They were amazing when they came straight from the pan!
On the way to the hotel and our cooking session we made a pit stop at a street food vendor who cooked something similar to a pizza or quesadilla on a big metal barrel that had a fire inside. The top of the barrel was rounded and he placed a thin round of dough on it, spread some tomato sauce on it and sprinkled some cheese, let it cook until the dough was cooked through and crisp and rolled it up. This was really tasty too! But melted cheese is like bacon, isn’t it – hard to resist?!
When we finally reached the hotel we each got a nice warm towel to refresh us with and a lovely glass of juice. After a few minutes in their covered courtyard we were ready to cook. The kitchen was on the top floor, with a rooftop terrace outside, and we got to meet the very charismatic chef.
The menu was printed on letterheaded paper and showed lots of new things for us. The dessert for example contained both cheese and semolina! The girls told us that they put down a lot of time trying to come up with good menus, as they have to change it seasonally. Among the dishes we got to cook this day was fatoush, a salad as classic as the tabbouleh; a lovely lentil salad with pasta, pomegrante seeds and arabic croûtons; a chilli dip with ground almonds; sautéed spinach with Syrian spices; chicken parcels with rice inside; and the dessert with was semolina parcels with rose petal jam. We also got to try another dessert which tastes like cotton candy, but the texture is different. It is silky and not sticky at all.
With our meal we got to try two Syrian wines, a white and a red. I didn’t particular like the white wine, as it was rather sour, but it was fun to try local wine. The red wine was much nicer and was nice to drink with our meal. We also got to try the local spirit arak, it tastes of aniseed and is served the same way as French pastis, with water and ice. But the arak was too strong for me. Both the aniseed flavour and the alcohol flavour were strong even when diluted. Fun to try though.
Our culinary tour started around 10am and we had finished eating around 4pm. It was a lovely day and well worth the $65 we spent each. I felt that I got closer to the local cuisine, and seeing what spices and ingredients the chef used was valuable knowledge.
You find more information on the website: Damascus Fork.