Eid Mubarak, folks! And for Malay speakers closer to my native Singapore, Selemat Hari Raya!
We're currently in Sao Paolo, Brazil, but I just wanted to share a quick postcard from when we marked the last iftar (break-fast meal) of Ramadan in Damascus, Syria last year.
Al Khawali was our eatery of choice for the evening feast. Word on the (Straight) Street was that it was much beloved by locals and visitors alike, and wasn't likely to need selling an organ to finance the meal, unlike the uber-hip, uber-posh Naranj nearby.
I popped into Al Khawali in the morning to ask for any table at any time slot they could spare that evening. I was quickly turned away. It was (understandably) a big night and they were full. I slunk back onto Straight Street downcast to give Babs the bad news.
We decided that we'd try our luck for a table for the following night, and this time Babs went back in make the booking. He emerged smiling, very pleased with himself, and told me that he got us a table for that night, no problem.
The Shamsuddin name may sometimes garner extra checks at US airports, but here in Syria all it seems to garner is wide smiles, spontaneous hugs, enthusiastic handshakes, and now special-favour tables.
We came back that evening and -- in the style of traditional Arabic houses -- walked through the dark narrow entrance passage to enter into a vast, beautifully restored mansion.
Our table was perched on a balcony, a great vantage point to view huge extended families celebrating in the main courtyard dining room below.
The iftar at Al Khawali (and I suspect) many other restaurants was a set menu, with the first course of many mezzes all set out and ready to go in the late afternoon, so that all guests can tuck (dive?) in all at the same time immediately after the evening call to prayer.
We sat down to a table full of (from right, anti-clockwise) dates, hummus, fatoush (a salad of tomatos, lettuce, sometimes purslane and fried pita pieces), a mushroom and lettuce salad, and a bowl of chickpeas and broadbeans in oil, vinegar and garnished with chopped tomato and parsley.
The evening call to prayer comes and goes, and the clinking of silverware begins throughout the restaurant. A waiter comes by to dole out cream of mushroom soup to everyone. In the tradition of Prophet Muhammed, we start the feast with a date.
As we make our way through the mezzes, more treats show up. We each get a kibbe, a fried torpedo-shaped shell of bulgur filled with spiced mincemeat, rice and cashews. We also get a large bowl of unphotogenic but very comforting meatballs doused in a thin yoghurt and spiked with paprika, and garnished with more fried pita pieces.
Babs and I now come to a very familiar point in any great Middle Eastern meal we've had. We've made decent progress with the mezzes and we're feeling sensibly full. So it's of course time for the main dishes to arrive. Tonight, it' a giant platter of savoury rice and chicken pieces, topped with rice noodle (I think) segments and cashews.
And just in case that wasn't enough, a separate plate of rice for buffer.
Like many a meal we've had at Goldmine, our favourite Chinese diner in London, we've now run out of space on the table, and the waiters do some strategic stacking.
How on earth are we going to do this justice?
Um. We do, somehow, as we tend to do. Our current roundness bears (a lot of) evidence. Here's Bab's mirroring my sheepishness.
But I do surrender by the time dessert arrives -- a plate of baklava (filo with LOTS of honey and pistachios), grapes and watermelon.
I don't know if the meal reflects the usual palette of Al Khawali's chef, or the difference between the cuisine of Damascus and Aleppo, or if that night's dishes were designed especially for diners who want a gentle segue into meal after fasting all day. Except for the tartness of the lemon juice in many of the mezzes, I was surprised by the very mild taste of all the dishes. The meal had very little of the seductive fragrance or scintillating spices of the lunch we had at Beit Sissi in Aleppo. This was more akin to tucking into one's favourite Mum-cooked dish of choice -- say soup or congee -- when one is a tad under the weather. The place was packed to the gills so the cuisine is obviously popular, but personally I think for a such a celebratory meal I prefer more kick than Khawali.
Off Straight Street, on corner of Maazanet al-Shahim
+963 11 222 5808