Hospitality and more than enough food in Aleppo, Syria
We are seated by our waiter in a cosy corner. It’s our first day exploring the bustling city of Aleppo, Syria, Damascus’ friendly rival in the north. Damascus boasts itself as being the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, yet Aleppo likes to stake ownership to this claim as well.
Our communal benches are adorned with rich crimson rugs and fluffy back pillows. We are surrounded by a homely buzz as locals seated at nearby tables chatter continuously while feasting on mountains of food. Our obliging waiter fills our glasses with icy cold water – a welcomed sign after a day of tramping around Aleppo Citadel – and takes our orders.
“What do you recommend?” I ask our guide Bashar.
“Shawarma is good,” Bashar offers, as he points encouragingly to the menu.
I point to the chicken shawarma for our waiter then follow it with a shaky “shukran,” or thank you, and smile. He nods quietly and scurries away to place our orders with the kitchen.
Suddenly, our waiter returns armed with sturdy bottles of antiseptic hand gel. A spike of alcoholic fumes evaporates into the air. We rub the cool liquid into our weather-beaten hands as the volume of assertive chatter around us surges. On cue, two more waiters arrive bearing the weight of large serving plates across their shoulders. In an instant our robust table is overloaded with inviting bowls of mutabal and baba ghanouj, pickled vegetables and leafy green side salads. Baskets overflowing with freshly baked bread demand their place in any free spots on the table; the comforting smell of these toasty pillows tempts our tastebuds.
“There’s so much food!” I exclaim as I start worrying about the amount of food I won’t be able to eat, not to mention the chicken shawarma I ordered only minutes ago.
“Welcome to Syria!” Bashar says simply as he tosses a nugget of bread into his mouth.
Syrians take hospitality very seriously. Quality food, and copious amounts of it, seems to be one of the many backbones of this fascinating country. Through Bashar we discover the table is covered in appetizers as a traditional way to start the main meal. What Bashar didn’t tell us beforehand was the Syrian way of hosting guests.
Bashar explains Syria’s “put out five apples, not two” saying. In Syria, it’s a tradition to put out more food than what will be eaten. If entertaining two guests, your host put out five apples, not two. This ensures the host avoids the embarrassing situation of not giving you enough to eat. If you happen to eat everything that is put in front of you, then your host may become stressed, assuming he or she has not provided enough food.
My initial reaction is to eat as much as possible, so I sample everything on the table. Bashar shows us how to place portions of bread between our fingers to pinch up thick, creamy eggplant puree laced with olive oil.
As I crunch on a pickled carrot, my enormous shawarma arrives. Thin, dense bread is crammed with steaming hot chicken carved straight from a rotisserie. I raise the heavy shawarma with both hands and attempt to wrap my lips around a corner. Flavorsome chicken engulfs my mouth and I modestly munch away in gastronomic delight.
While I didn’t finish my equivalent of five apples, I think my hosts would’ve been proud. They welcomed me with an overwhelmingly nourishing meal to beat the most stubborn of hungry guests.