Tag Archives: coffee

Foodies in Syria & Lebanon…on a budget

We had the absolute pleasure of visiting Syria and Lebanon for a month at the beginning of a recent 9 month journey. The overwhelming friendliness of the people blew us away. We had heard their hospitality was second to none, but to experience it first hand was something else.

Much of the hospitality we experienced was, more often than not, centered around food. In fact, Middle Eastern food we had grown up eating in Sydney was the main reason we wanted to travel to this often misunderstood part of the world.

We made a pact to try as much of the food as we could. We did just that and all on a budget of approximately $70AUD/day for the two of us. This included copious amounts of food, decent ‘guesthouse’ accommodations, all transport such as buses, trains, the odd taxi & other expenses such as the all important 50 cups of chai & shishas to match!

Here are a selection of the foods we tried during our cheap but very cheerful journey:

Zaatar Pizza. Found on many-a-corner throughout Syria and Lebanon, these little gems are addictive, cheap and very yummy. Zaatar is a middle eastern spice, a combination of Thyme, Oregano, Sesame seeds and other ingredients. It’s smothered onto a fresh hot base and drizzled with olive oil. Easy to hold and munch on while you take in the sites.

Little surprise packets like this one we found in Latakia are found all over the place. Pistachios are ever-present, in savory dishes and most of the sweet ones too. A few of these little morsels only cost a dollar or so. They would have been great as gifts.

We took a little box of these with us on a trip to the coast in Latakia. The gentleman in the sweet shop told us it was similar to a carrot cake but without all of the sugar and fats. From what we could make out, it was made by stewing carrots, spices, nuts and some sort of binding agent together to produce a big block of the stuff. He sliced portions off for us and popped them into a little box. It tasted like a mix between a spiced carrot cake and a muesli bar. Delicious!

Fuul is a breakfast dish of cooked and mashed fava beans. It’s served with olive oil, often a side of fresh veges, pickles and bread. It’s not very beautiful to look at but it is delicious, healthy and very filling. At about $1 to $2 a pop, it got us through to lunchtime, free of tummy grumbles!

The gentleman holding what looks like a stiff pancake was actually making these delicious rounds out the front of the fuul shop in Lattakia. They were similar to a roti but were almost devoid of oil or grease. It served as the perfect edible spoon – just crisp a portion off and dip in!

The beautiful white balls of goodness below are portions of homemade Shankleesh drying in the sun. Shankleesh is a type of cow or sheep’s milk cheese found throughout the region. We had the privilege of being invited to stay with a family who made their own version. It was crumbly and had the consistency of fetta but with a softer taste. It was a perfect mezze dish that partnered well with most things on the family dinner table.

We often find ourselves missing out on some form of vitamin or vegetable when we travel. Green leafy vegetables were hard to come by in Egypt and beer has definitely replaced Vitamin C replenishment during lengthy stays in the UK. Syria and Lebanon has no shortage of fresh fruit and vegetable juice stalls dotted throughout the country. We kept Mum happy by being able to tell her we were having more than our fair share of fruit and veges a day, on the cheap, on the run & through a straw!

Finally, chai and a’hwa (coffee). We learnt how we liked our coffee and how to properly order it. Sweet, not so sweet, with or without cardamon. For me, the cardamon ahwa was a bit too overpowering.

Drinking chai, a’hwa and smoking a pipe is wonderful way to spend time meeting the locals, checking out the locals, viewing the locality and doing as the locals do! It was one of the less expensive ways to enjoy our time in Abu Dhabi, amongst the skyscapers and minarets.

Where to eat like this in Sydney

  • Traditional Lebanese Breakfast is sold at Hijazi’s Falafel in Arncliffe but only on weekeds. This is when you can try Fuul with a very large side of pickles, olives, veges and Lebanese bread. At $5 a pop, it really is like being back in the Mid East.
  • Cardamon Arabic Coffee can be bought in packets in areas such as Auburn, Lakemba and Punchbowl. It needs to be boiled in the traditional method. You can also order it ready made in Arabic coffee pots at Emma’s on Liberty restaurant in Enmore
  • Middle Eastern Sweets can be found in the usual places such as Greenacre,  Bankstown, Punchbowl and Lakemba. There are also places in Marrickville that sells a selection. Often, if your local corner shop is of Lebanese background, there will be a tray of Baklava for sale on the counter.
  • Zaatar Pizza. Everyone seems to have their favourite. Mine is in Lakemba, in a little bakery across from the Railway Station.  Often, what seems to be simply a bread shop run by middle eastern people will also be a Zaatar Pizza shop.
  • Chai and A’hwa can be tried at many Lebanese restaurants however the most ‘authentic’ experience we have had eating, smoking and drinking with the Lebanese community has been at Gebran Restaurant, Mount Lewis (near Bankstown)

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The Charms of Eating in the East

To me, nothing beats sitting on a small plastic stool, in the sticky heat of Bangkok, amongst the traffic with a hawker meal in front of me. There is a certain feeling of being part of a city, of being a “temporary local” when you can eat amongst it rather than behind it, under or over it. As they say, eating at a street stall or market is often the closest thing to eating at a local’s family home. It really is an attractive way to eat, drink and mingle.

We have met poets in Alexandria over Sheesha and tea, joined in cheering on the local team over coffee and nuts in Dahab & we have been invited to a wedding after striking up a conversation at a streetside cafe in Morocco.

Back at home, we really have little to no chance in experiencing such culinary comradery with fellow diners. Unfortunately, if there is any intermingling to be done, it is often over copious amounts of booze.

Would it be too much to ask for a setting of plastic chairs on the sand with the Aussies paying cricket on an old television while you sip your coffee and nibble on some nuts? Sounds fantastic but we can forget it. Health and Safety would come down on the proprietor like a tonne of bricks. Someone might fall over or trip over one of the leads!

A succession of stalls every Saturday night in the summer, with plastic tables & chairs amongst the moonlight. Nope, no way. Perhaps a couple of special times a year but only subject to council approval & at a hefty cost to the stallholder.

Even in Europe, you can leave the house at 10pm and have no trouble finding somewhere to have a coffee with some friends. Unfortunately, come summer in Sydney, it seems beer is the only beverage you can get your hands on post-10pm.

Granted, there are some nice places in Australia you can eat and drink outside, amongst the city lights or the light of the moon. However, the mid and far east seem to have it down pat. It doesn’t cost much, it doesn’t always include boozing up and it is safe.

Some excellent places in the east and mid east we have experienced ‘rustic’ outdoor dining:

* Southeast Asia (we particularly love Bangkok, Ipoh & Penang at night)
* Alexandria, Egypt
* Syria in the summer time particularly along the coast

In short, give me a set of plastic chopsticks and a sand castle bucket of ice over Royal Doulton any day!

Eating in KL

Noodles in Ipoh, Malaysia