ALEPPO, Syria — Street food in northern Syria from Afrin to al-Bab has acquired a new culinary dimension from Syrians displaced from eastern Ghouta, who brought with them the rich desserts they used to make at home.
For the displaced, selling the sweets that are special to their regions at the markets is a way to meet their everyday expenses. Some of the newcomers have opened shops that bear the names of their hometown — Ghouta, Douma or Daraya. Others go by the name Shami, which means Damascene in Arabic.
For the people from Aleppo countryside, who are used to the Aleppo cuisine — the archrival of Damascene cooking for centuries — the sweets from eastern Ghouta are a novelty. They are characterized by the abundant use of cream, ghee and nuts such as hazelnuts, almonds and pistachios. The dough is often dipped in a sugary syrup with just a hint of rose water, making the dessert richer than Aleppo's sweets with cinnamon and orange blossom water.
Many of the desserts carry the same name. Baklava exists in both cuisines but the shami baklava's fillings are richer, with a mix of chopped pistachios and Arabic ghee between the flakes of dough. Namoura, a syrup-soaked semolina cake, is prepared differently as well, with cream added to the recipe.
Damascene sweets also include tamari kaak, sold by street vendors for as little as $0.60. The dessert is made of two crepes of different sizes topped with date syrup, sesame, sugar, tahini and nuts. Some sellers add a creative twist with chocolate and bananas.
Alaa Hafni, who opened Shami Sweets shop six months ago in the northern Syrian town of Marea, told Al-Monitor that he offers a wide variety — from delicate sesame-dipped barazek cookies to Nabulsi bnafah, shredded phyllo dough with nuts that hails, as the name indicates, from Nablus in the West Bank. Other delicacies include buttery ghoriba cookies with just a hint of orange flower or vanilla and maamoul date cookies.
“Maamoul, barazek and ghoriba are similar to other sweets in the Aleppo countryside but they taste different when I make them to my region's recipes," Hafni told Al-Monitor. "I make the barazek and ghoriba smaller in size but put more sugar and more pistachios in them. I mix them with flour and milk and a large amount of ghee, which gives them a unique taste not found in similar cookies in Aleppo. I make the maamoul dough with semolina as the main ingredient, but fill them with pistachio nuts, walnuts or dates. Of course I use large amounts of sugar and I am always generous with rose water when making the dough so I can give my cookies a distinctive taste,” Hafni added.
Mamoun al-Samman, owner of Ghouta Sweets in al-Bab, told Al-Monitor, “During the years of war and siege in eastern Ghouta, I was unable to properly carry on with my work since most ingredients I use in making sweets were short in supply. After I made it to al-Bab, I decided to open a shop and resume my work. People here love the sweets I make. They’re freshly baked and I use homegrown and locally produced ingredients such as ghee, cream, cheese and pistachios. It became easier for me to bake since the Aleppo countryside is rich in such ingredients.”
Samman said that most of the sweets he sells are cheap. “I make a small profit but I win over many customers. Most people in the Aleppo countryside are from low-income families, so they can only buy desserts if they are not too expensive, so I make sure to take this into consideration. For instance, a kilo of Nabulsi kanafeh is no more than 2,500 Syrian pounds [$5].”
Ice cream is also a favorite. Sweets shop owner Hassan Jadid told Al-Monitor, “As the weather gets warmer, demand rises for the Shami ice cream. I use cream, fresh milk and rose water. It is all mixed by hand, not with an electric mixer.”
Ahmed Eid, a newcomer from eastern Ghouta who owns Shami Sweets in Azaz, denied that the new shops are depriving the locals of business. He told Al-Monitor, “Shami shops did not negatively affect local and other shops in the Aleppo countryside. On the contrary, they brought a dynamism to the sweets market by introducing new products and new ways of making it.”