Memories of muhammara
We stumbled out into the old city as the sun was lowering, the narrow streets were thronging with people all intent on visiting the souk on a Friday night – its busiest evening. Power cables, like vines in the jungle, drooped in twisted arcs above our heads; apart from these and the electric light it felt like little had changed since Medieval times. An area for wooden kitchen implements gave way to shops with piles of nobbly hand-made soaps, then a street entirely devoted to perfume. Dried fruit, wedding attire, a lane of bras and masses of jewellery – we lost all sense of direction and wandered with the crowd through tiny alleyways until stalls packed up, shops closed their shutters and the streets became dark and still.
This was Syria in March 2007 and during a long weekend, two friends and I explored the old city of Damascus donning strange brown robes to enter the oldest mosque in the world, visited extensive Roman ruins in the middle of the Syrian desert, gazed across to Lebanon from the arched window of a crusader fort and explored a tiny church, thought to be the oldest in the world, in the village of Maalula where residents still speak the nearly extinct language of Arameic (that Jesus would have spoken), and, of course, we sampled a variety of Syrian food and wine.
Having lived in the Middle East for over 17 years, I’ve had my fair share of mezze which usually includes olives, hummus, mutabal, fatoush and taboulleh. However the first time I tasted muhammara was during this trip, at a small restaurant in old Damascus, where this brick red, sweet, spicy, sour dip was served. None of us knew what it was and were intrigued when we discovered it was a combination of roasted red peppers, walnuts and pomegranate molasses.
I tried to recreate it on my return but the correct balance of flavours eluded me. With Syria on my mind a lot recently, I had another go and followed Claudia Roden – usually my guru for Middle Eastern recipes. I think I over processed the walnuts and it turned out very solid. Verisimilitude brought a post from another Middle East cookery guru – Anissa Helou. This recipe worked a treat. It doesn’t take long to blacken the peppers on the gas barbecue (I was dodging in and out of the kitchen due to 38 C outside temperatures) and adds a lovely smokiness. Using chilli flakes instead of Aleppo pepper, I ditched the breadcrumb garnish but drizzled with olive oil which gave the silky texture I remember (it also improves overnight).
It needed bread so I reached for the pita recipe by Anita on Slice of my Lyfe for this month’s Fresh From the Oven challenge. Her pitas look gorgeous but I’m so enamoured with Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet book that his recipe was the one I followed in the end, including his gentle kneading method. Using dried active yeast, I stirred it into the warm water first. The dough is very loose at the beginning so I did the initial mixing together with a dough hook in my KitchenAid (I hate sticky dough hands). After that I kneaded on an oiled surface, returning the dough to the clean, oiled bowl every time for resting. I used cardamon sugar (a la Vanessa Kimbell) – not sure I could taste any difference with that small amount.
Warm pita slathered with muhammara is a beautiful thing – for the tastebuds.
Perfect pita bread – Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet (the only baking book you ever need in my opinion!)
To see more perfect pitas visit Purely Food at the end of the month for the Fresh From the Oven round up.
The recent human rights atrocities in Syria are detestable and I wanted to acknowledge this beautiful country and generous people during this dreadful time. I’ve written more about my 2007 trip here and pray for peace to return.