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)