How little I know about the world around me. Although I have heard it mentioned for all the wrong reasons, I didn’t even know that Aleppo (or Haleb, its original Arabic name) is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in human civilization, and was the western terminus of the fabled Silk Route. Although I have never been there, if I close my eyes, I can almost see a town bustling with traders from all around the world and their myriad valuables. Silks from China, spices from India, pottery form Istanbul, dates from Persia, interspersed with piles of the famous local olives and the sound of vigorous haggling in a hundred different languages. Delicately spiced hot tea is being poured into tiny cups, traders are nibbling on mezze and saffron-tinged desserts are being eyed while succulent kabobs are eagerly devoured. Knowingly and unknowingly, humans are exchanging social, cultural and religious beliefs while ostensibly engaged in the mere barter of merchandise. History is being written and diversity created.
Unfortunately, my mind is jolted to the present and I open my eyes to look at the Google search on ‘Aleppo, Syria’ on the computer screen in front of me. What I see is best left unseen. Ruined buildings, wounded children, bombings, rape, destruction and sadness litter the screen. What happened to the beautiful city of a thousand caravans? Why are they destroying something so precious? Something which is impossible for anyone to recreate? There is probably no answer. At least I cannot find any answer. When I read that Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and his equally brutal uncle, Rifaat, intentionally kept Aleppo’s main highway opened for the Syrians to see the devastation wrought when their forces butchered tens of thousands of the locals in 1982, I was shocked. How can people destroy something their own, something invaluable, something so priceless? I would think people would do the opposite, guard their national treasures with their lives. But again, I might be in some naïve wonderland.
Apart from a rich history and a storybook landscape of monuments, mosques, churches, wooden wheels and aqueducts, Aleppo’s Souk (Bazaar or marketplace) is a world by itself, being the heart and soul of the trade in precious stones, metals, silk, spices, textiles and olives. With the historical Silk Road being replaced by modern trade routes, the digging of Suez Canal, Turkey occupying the northern part of Aleppo the city’s heart and soul slowly bled out. The final coup de grace was dealt by the recent war and all that is left now is a ‘dead city’.
Anyway, as my husband says, a million dictators cannot rob a country of its beautiful culinary heritage. The dip Muhammara (Moo-hamm-mra) is a specialty from the regions surrounding Aleppo. In fact a crucial ingredient for this dip is the Aleppo pepper which is very different from any other chili pepper I know. It’s hard for me to describe but I’ll try. It has a smoky flavor, oily and flaky texture and moderate heat with a mild sweetness in the background. It’s like mixing cayenne with ancho chilies and paprika at the same time but still not quite there (you know what I am trying to say, right?).
I am doing a giveaway and will be sending one lucky winner a small pack of Aleppo pepper, a bottle of pomegranate molasses and a beautiful platter from Anthropologie. Aleppo pepper is very hard to find now due to the war so don’t think that the tiny amount in the packet is because I am mean – it’s sold that way. All you have do is write down few words on how you like to see the world in 2014. Unfortunately, I can only ship the prize to the US as it will contain food items. I will accept entries until January 30th, 2013.
Roasted red pepper paste: around 2/3 cup (if you do not have access to the red pepper paste shown in the picture, roast 3 red bell peppers on the stove top or in the oven. The taste will be very different but it will still taste good. This pepper paste is available in any Mediterranean grocery store or online)
Walnut: 2/3 cup
Bread crumb: 1/3 cup
Garlic: 2 medium cloves
Cumin: 1 tsp. toasted and coarsely ground
Pomegranate molasses: 1 tbsp.
Lemon juice: 1 tbsp. or less
Zest from ½ a lemon
Olive oil 1/3 cup
Sugar to taste
Aleppo pepper (can be substituted with regular chili pepper flakes): 1 tbsp (more or less preferred)
Salt to taste
- Toast the walnuts to a dark brown color. Let it cool. Rub them loosely to get rid of some of the skin.
- Toast the bread crumb until you get a toasted bread aroma. Let it cool too.
- In a food processor add all the ingredients and pulse it to a homogeneous mixture. I added a couple of tablespoon of water to help the processor blade. It helps to bring the paste to a manageable consistency too.
- Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
- Serve it with warm pita bread or crusty regular bread.