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Memories of muhammara

June 19, 2012

Pita and muhammaraWe 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.


Old Damascus

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.

Pita and muhammaraI 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).

Pita bread dough

Making dough the Dan Lepard way

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.

Pita and muhammaraRecipes:

Muhammarra – by Anissa Helou

Pita bread – Slice of My Lyfe

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.

Palmyra, Krak des Chevaliers and Maalula

Palmyra, Krak des Chevaliers and Maalula

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.

  1. June 19, 2012 9:54 am

    Lovely post, it must have been tough to pen out a memory of place that is now the minefield of political and human rights crisis. I discovered muhammara relatively recently too, maybe 2 years ago at an event. Since then, the best I’ve had of it was with Chirag, smeared over a special muhammara manakish in Dubai. Reminds me that I need to beg him to take me back there.

    All the recipe testing and exploration you’ve done is commendable, reminds me that I need to buy both Claudia Roden and Anissa Helou’s books.

    • June 19, 2012 10:03 am

      Ooh get Chirag to take me too. I don’t know why it is such a neglected and underated mezze – it’s stunningly good.

  2. June 19, 2012 10:10 am

    Gorgeous flatbread and dip! I will have to make muhammara as soon as I find bell peppers…



    • June 19, 2012 10:13 am

      I managed to get some local organic red ones (they are often green here) – chargrilled on the BBQ they were lovely. Thanks as always for your generous comments.

  3. June 19, 2012 10:41 am

    never heard of muhammara, but it sounds as a real delish, so it would be tested in a couple of months when the red bell peppers come.

  4. hulya(julia) permalink
    June 19, 2012 11:19 am

    hi! I know the taste. I’ve to much receipt like that..I’ll send it to you.Hope u like that.:))

  5. June 19, 2012 11:24 am

    And I can tell you that Dan Lepard will be eating muhammara this Saturday, it’s a small world.

    • June 19, 2012 11:29 am

      Just shows we are on the same wavelength! Any particular occasion?

      • June 19, 2012 9:23 pm

        Yes, The Guardian for Saturday 23rd June will make it all clear!

      • June 20, 2012 7:02 am

        Dan tweeted it! Everything crossed for sunshine this weekend. PS Really appreciate your comments David 🙂

  6. hulya(julia) permalink
    June 19, 2012 12:00 pm

    great pleasure Sally.Our traditional foods really beatiful.maybe u know or may be you tasted.Turkish cuisine Ottoman kitchen…..

  7. hulya(julia) permalink
    June 19, 2012 12:01 pm

    my tweet is juliacoach

  8. June 19, 2012 12:21 pm

    someone retweeted this on twitter and I’m so glad I clicked on the link! The dip sounds delicious, and the pita breads are gorgeous. Hah I don’t know many people who instantly reach for a recipe to make their own when they need a pita instead of just buying it. That’s fantastic, great blog and photos x

    • June 19, 2012 3:28 pm

      Thank you Shuhanleen for your kind comments. I forgot to mention that I froze some of the breads, interleaved with baking parchment, in a ziplock bag. That way you can warm them up in the oven if you don’t have time to make.

    • June 19, 2012 3:36 pm

      Realise now you are Shu Han Lee (not all one word!)

      • June 20, 2012 12:50 am

        oops haha. it’s an autofill problem. oh, that’s smart, making more and freezing. It takes effort to make the dough for pita it’d make much more sense to make more. The good thing about pita too, is that it’s flat hehe, which means it won’t take up too much space in the freezer huh!

      • June 20, 2012 7:02 am

        Too true.

  9. June 19, 2012 4:58 pm

    love these pita breads – and the dip sounds wonderful. A great accompaniment!

  10. June 19, 2012 7:07 pm

    Wonderful Sally! i’m glad you honored the Syrian people with this post and recipes.
    I sahre your hopes!!

    • June 20, 2012 7:48 am

      It’s such a tragedy happening on our doorstep.

  11. flavorsofthesun permalink
    June 19, 2012 8:05 pm

    I just made muhammara last week for a friend who was sick and requested it. It was nice to see it honored in this post–truly it is one of my favorite mezze dishes. And homemade pita to go with it…yum.

  12. June 20, 2012 1:15 pm

    beautiful post, wonderful memories. I fell completely in love with Damascus in 2008, it was such a magical city. Your description of the old town is so atmospheric, as I remember it. Crac de Chevaliers was the most exciting castle I’ve ever been to, we explored it like children! The food we ate on our trip was so fantastic, as a vegetarian I was worried, but the mezzos were always incredible.
    What is happening there now is utterly terrible, I keep thinking of the lovely people we met, it is heartbreaking xx

  13. June 21, 2012 11:08 am

    I loved reading this especially as I remembered you telling me about Syria as we sat for lunch at Jones the Grocer’s (good times). I adore muhammara such a lovely blend of flavors! So enjoyed this Sally!

  14. June 21, 2012 5:28 pm

    Muhammara and other Middle-Eastern crushed condiments always make my mouth water. A very fine post, Sally. I am quite in love with that silver tray, too.

    The situation in Syria makes my heart sick. Life is such a complex mess sometimes.

  15. June 22, 2012 2:25 am

    Beautiful post Sally:) I also pray for peace to return, not only in Syria but all over the world where mindless atrocities are creating havoc. Is the Muhammara in the first picture shown against the red backdrop and beautiful silver plate made by you as well? Or was it taken in Syria?

    Do you know the one thing that entices me to your posts – not the pictures but the fact that I am scared of baking. I like asymmetry, love experiments, tamper with the proportions – hence my baking comes out horrible. However, these very qualities help me when I do food experiments and my friends love my cooking for that. Every time I see your post, freshly baked breads, loafs etc – I can almost smell them and everytime I tell myself – Nothing is impossible!

    And also pleasantly surprised to learn that inspite of your love for baking you hate sticky dough hands. BTW, you like a school girl in the picture (pls take that as a compliment)

    Did ultimately catch up with a few posts – feels good:)

    • June 22, 2012 10:05 am

      The picture was taken by me – the dish is mine and the red woven blanket is one I bought many years ago here in Dubai at Global Village. It is Syrian – there are some incredible textiles made in a traditional way there.
      I will always take looking like a school girl as a compliment!
      I know what you mean about baking measurements being restrictive. I don’t have the confidence to change much when making cakes (in case of disaster) but baking bread regularly has given me instinct about what I can tinker with…

  16. June 22, 2012 7:56 am

    Gorgeous post, Sally. Both the dip and the pitas look sensational. I hope the volatile situation over in Syria settles soon, for the sake of everyone over there…

    • June 22, 2012 10:02 am

      I pray rather than am hopeful at the moment. Huge weapons in the hands of a few against ordinary families wrecking lives.

    • June 23, 2012 9:04 pm

      Agreed Celia – always makes my day when I have a compliment from the queen of bread making.

  17. June 22, 2012 12:43 pm

    Thanks for the mention Sally. The pita looks gorgeous! I would love to get hold of that Dan Lepard book. Muhammara sounds very appetizing

    • June 23, 2012 9:03 pm

      You know how some books stay on the shelf and some are never off your counter…well Dan’s is never on the shelf.

  18. June 22, 2012 1:54 pm

    And love all the photos!

  19. jamielifesafeast permalink
    June 22, 2012 2:47 pm

    Beautiful, evocative writing, Sally. My husband would love to visit Damascus as he says it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Alas, we will never go there. But happily the food is open to us (and, as you say, thanks to Claudia Roden and Anissa Helou). Your pita is perfect and the Muhammara looks yummy!!

    • June 23, 2012 9:02 pm

      Never say never Jamie….and three cheers for Anissa and Claudia.

  20. June 22, 2012 11:28 pm

    Wonderful post!

  21. June 24, 2012 10:36 pm

    I’ve revisited this post three times, to take it in, savour it and finally to write down the list of ingredients. I’ve never tasted muhammara – it sounds exquisite. And I really appreciated your reference to the atrocities being committed on the people of Syria. It needs to be said over and over – good for you, Sally.

    • June 25, 2012 11:43 am

      I’ve read your comment 3 times too – praise from someone you admire means a lot. The impotence of watching a country and people being destroyed is so difficult.
      Do try muhammara – it’s addictive.

  22. June 25, 2012 4:45 pm

    I have another recipe in my to do list now as the muhammara sounds so interesting. I love the photo of the pita in the oven! So amazing 🙂 Lovely sentiment at the end of your post – it is the most awful human tragedy to see people kill each other in such a way!

  23. June 25, 2012 8:51 pm

    Gorgeous, delicious and inspiring…except that I am terribly allergic to bell peppers 😦

    • June 28, 2012 9:40 am

      I did make a version by Claudia Roden without the peppers. It works well – a combination of the walnuts and pomegranate molasses – but I think I overprocessed and it was rather solid!

  24. Dima Sharif permalink
    June 26, 2012 9:07 am

    What a nice post Sally and what nice thought behind it! I enjoyed reading, loved the look of the bread in the oven, mouthwatering :))

    • July 6, 2012 10:43 am

      Thank you Dima – I liked that picture too.

  25. June 26, 2012 11:23 am

    I’m so sad I never made it to Syria before everything went bad. It sounds like the most incredible place. Love the way you write about it, as if you were still there – it must have really stuck with you. I’m going to try gluten free pita bread again soon – first go didn’t work. I’ll give Dan’s recipe a go…

    • July 6, 2012 10:44 am

      I’m sure a lot of people would like to know if you can make a good gluten-free pita – would be interested to know how you get on.

  26. June 28, 2012 11:12 pm

    Lovely post. Those pitas and the dip look delicious. Thanks for taking part this month.

  27. June 29, 2012 2:08 am

    What a lovely post 🙂 I really enjoyed the photos 🙂

    • July 6, 2012 10:44 am

      Enjoyable challenge as always – your pitas looked fantastic.

  28. June 30, 2012 7:30 pm

    Beautiful images…and it has made me want to make another batch of pita and some fresh hummus to dip them in.

    • July 6, 2012 10:45 am

      I love making fresh hummus but KP always prefers the stuff we can buy here!

  29. June 30, 2012 8:11 pm

    Hi Sally,

    I had the pleasure and dare I say it, privilege of meeting Claudia Roden a few years ago. A wonderfully insightful cook who has such an understanding with ingredients and how they meld together. Yet at the same time very open to comments about her recipes and truly amazed at their popularity. When I thanked her for sharing her recipes she was so genuinely touched and wished me well with cooking. A lovely lady and a great cook!

    • July 6, 2012 10:48 am

      I share that pleasure! My Mum gave me Claudia Roden’s book of Middle Eastern cooking as I left for Saudi Arabia, and it was my cookery bible. About 7 years later in Dubai, Claudia was at the Literature Festival and she signed my book for me. She is very gracious and an amazing food historian.

  30. July 5, 2012 7:47 am

    as an addition to the last comment, a nomination in food storytelling

    • July 6, 2012 10:48 am

      You are super-kind Sarah – I real honour to have this bestowed on me from you.

  31. July 6, 2012 8:30 am

    You were lucky to have seen such a beautiful country and very sad of the situation now. Would love to visit one day….. I made muhammara once (I think I used Paula Wolfert’s recipe) but didn’t know how it was supposed to taste like to make appropriate adjustments. Would love to try again using your recipe.

    • July 6, 2012 10:42 am

      I tried several different recipes straight after my return from this trip and none were quite right. Maybe my memory has dimmed but this one was almost exactly as I remember…I know exactly what you mean about knowing what it is supposed to taste like.

  32. July 6, 2012 10:37 am

    It’s sad what’s happening to Syria and to the world altogether… We sit here with our arms tied and somewhat watching… The best we could do is pray for them!

    You reminded me of our trip to Syria and Lebanon in 2009. The scenery, architecture and and food breathe history!

    Your muhammara looks delicious!
    I can almost smell the delicious pita (which we call Khibz Lebnani) which translates to Lebanese Bread!

    • July 6, 2012 10:50 am

      That’s such a good description of the impotence one feels when viewing this dreadful situation. Thanks for giving me another word in my Emirati food vocabulary 🙂

  33. July 17, 2012 7:46 pm

    Sally– you honor Syria and its people with such a beautiful post. What a interesting trip, and I have always wondered what muhammara was… sounds delicious. And– I have never tried making pita at home, but now, nothing’s stopping me. Thanks so much!

  34. July 17, 2012 11:32 pm

    How beautiful. Love each of your pictures and your pita bread looks amazing! I wish I had made it too!!

  35. dana permalink
    July 24, 2012 7:10 pm

    I love the way your photos’ frames are edgy. how do you do that?

    • July 24, 2012 9:03 pm

      Dana – I love this frame – I found it on Photoscape which is a brilliant free software for editing images. I have just switched to a Macbook Pro and Photoscape is only for Windows. I’m bereft and am searching for a good alternative.

  36. August 9, 2012 7:31 pm

    A very beautiful and thought-provoking post. When a country is in conflict like Syria, it is so hard to imagine it as anything but a dramatic news headline, and we forget that there are people and a culture living and suffering there. Would love to try some of this dip as the flavours sound intriguing!


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