Sunday, March 6, 2016

Dining-In: A Culinary Tour of the World-Syria

The Location: Syria
Continent/Region: Asia/West
Capital: Damascus
Current Head of State: Bashar al Assad
Form of Government: Republic under an authoritarian regime
Official Language: Arabic
Main Religion: Sunni Islam
Ethnic Groups: Kurds, Syrian Arabs, Arameans
Formation Date: March 8, 1920, though it truly dates back to the 21st century BC. It is mentioned in the Bible.
Population: As of July 2014-17,064,854 people.
Currency: Syrian pound
Independence Day: April 17, 1946
Famous Americans of Syrian Descent: Shannon Elizabeth, Teri Hatcher, Queen Noor.
National Anthem:

The Food: Kibbeh and Monoushi Bread
Syria is part of Asia, but as part of the Middle East, its cuisine is closer to that of the Mediterranean, than what we might think of as typically "Asian". Being a largely Muslim nation, pork is not eaten. Beef and lamb are the major meats of choice. Olive oil, mint, bulgur wheat, and chickpeas are also eaten a lot in Syrian cuisine.

Monoushi, or Monoush Bread, is basically pizza dough. I ate it just plain, but it would be fantastic as pizza dough, or dipped in marinara sauce. It was really delicious and had a lovely, soft, chewy texture. The recipe made a dozen servings but was easily divided in half. I will provide the half batch recipe, but the link will be for the original serving size.

Manoushi Bread:

6 oz. flour (I actually measured this out on a scale.) 
1/2 tsp. yeast  
1/4 tsp. salt 
1/4 + 1/8 tsp. sugar  
87-100 ml warm water (3-3.5 fl oz) 
1/2 Tbsp. olive oil

Sift the flour(I actually didn't do this and it turned out fine) into a large mixing bowl and add the yeast and salt. (Or place it in the bowl of an electric mixer with a dough hook. This is what I did and I let the machine do all the work for me!)
Dissolve the sugar in the warm water and dribble it into the dry ingredients until they absorb enough to make a sticky dough. You may need more water than this. Have more ready, just in case.
Mix in the olive oil and use your hands – or the dough hook on your electric mixer – to knead the dough until it is smooth and silky. It will take about 10 minutes. (I found that after I added the oil, the dough didn't absorb it at first. I turned off the mixer, removed the dough and sort of stretched it out a bit by hand before putting it back in the machine. After that, it started mixing much better.)
Lightly oil the ball of dough and put it into a bowl. (I just kept it in the mixer bowl rather than dirty a second bowl.)
Cover and leave in a warm place to rise for 2 hours, by which time it should have at least doubled in size. 
Knead the dough, then tip it out onto a floured work surface. Cut the dough into 6 portions, then lightly flour each one and put them on a tray, covered, for another 10 minutes. 
When ready to bake, roll each portion out to a 6 inch circle and cover with the topping of your choice. (That is if you are using it like a pizza dough. Leave plain if you want it just for bread.)
Bake on a sheet pan in a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes or until baked through.

Kibbeh is Arabic for "ball", and it makes sense because these are or can be ball-shaped. The recipe says that this was easy, but I found them actually quite difficult to prepare. They were delicious and well worth it, though, but definitely took some work and time to make. They were also really unique as far as how to make the dough. I have never heard of anything like it, nor have I tried anything like it before. I was really excited to try it out and it turned out really well. Again, I made a half batch from the original, but will include the link to the original recipe as well.
1 lb. finely ground beef or lamb, lean, divided(I used ground chicken since I don't eat beef or lamb.) 
1/4 lb. bulgur cracked wheat, medium or #2
1/2 tsp. salt, plus 1/4tsp.
1/2 tsp. pepper, plus 1/4 tsp.
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/8 tsp. cumin
1 medium onion, 1/2 finely chopped, and 1/2 coarsely chopped, divided (I used less, probably half an onion, but use whatever amount you like most. It was pretty oniony, so I don't think it needed more.)
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts (optional) (I had these on hand and they really added to the flavor and texture. If you like pine nuts and have them available, I highly recommend adding them.)
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Vegetable oil for frying

In a medium bowl, soak wheat for 30 minutes in cold (I used hot water) water. Remove and drain. Remove excess water by squeezing through thick paper towel or cheesecloth. Place into medium bowl and combine with 1/2 lb. meat, coarsely chopped onion, 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper. (I placed all of this in the food processor at the start.)

Combine well and place small amount in food processor until doughlike consistency. You can slowly add an ice cube at a time during processing if needed. (I did it all at once, as you can see, and it took a while for it to come together. I had to add some water to help it along. The ground chicken was still partially frozen which didn't help, but also took the place of the ice cubes.)
Place mixture aside, covered. Instead of using a food processor, you can use a mortar and pestle, however it will take you over an hour to achieve desired consistency.

In a medium frying pan, saute the finely chopped onion in olive oil. Add pine nuts if desired. Add ground meat and make sure to cook thoroughly and use a spatula to break it down into small pieces. Add allspice, salt, pepper, and cumin. Once meat is cooked, remove from heat. Allow to cool for 10 minutes.

Take an egg sized amount of shell mixture and form into a ball. With your finger, poke a hole in the ball, making a space for filling. Add filling and pinch the top to seal the ball. You can then shape it into a point, or football shape, or leave as a ball. (This is the hardest step. If you really just poke a hole, you can fit hardly any filling inside it. I ended up flattening the dough out on my hand, placing the filling in the center, and doing my best to fold it over the filling. The dough is pretty wet, though, and not that conducive to being folded. Just do your best. It'll turn out ok in the end.)

Fry in 350 degree oil on stove top or in deep fryer for about 10 minutes or until golden brown. I used tongs to turn each of them on their sides as well to make sure the sides get to cook too. Remember, there is meat in the dough, so it all needs to cook. Drain on paper towels. Makes 12 medium sized kibbeh.
In spite of the difficulty in forming the kibbeh, they were amazing! I was highly impressed. The outside was crispy and crunchy and the filling was flavorful. The filling made more than I could fit in the kibbeh, so I have some leftover filling to use up. I also have some leftover gyoza wrappers from my Bratsticker experiment a couple weeks ago. I sense this is something that will become my next potsticker filling. Maybe my dinner tomorrow night...!

As for alternatives, I can see how chickpeas would be a natural choice for making a vegetarian version of kibbeh. They would grind up perfectly with the dough and be great chopped up in the filling. The only thing I can think of for making this gluten free, though, is using quinoa instead of the bulgur wheat. I cannot vouch for the texture or how it would hold up, so if you try it out, and if it doesn't work, don't blame me!

You may be asking, why Syria? It's such a troubled nation right now, and highly controversial. Well, that's exactly why I chose it. Not to get too heavy and political, but I feel our country has not done a good job of helping out the people of Syria. I also think that food is a unifier and a wonderful way to get to know people. What better way to break down barriers and get over fears, than to share the food of the world with one another? If I can open one heart or mind with this project, than it was completely worth it.

This was a great start to my new cooking project. I love Middle Eastern food, so I knew I would enjoy it. I just had no idea I would enjoy it quite as much as I did. It's the sort of meal that makes you fall in love with a cuisine all over again!

Sources: (Note, just as before, I will not provide a link to the Wikipedia pages, since they are so easy to find, but assume that if no added links to stats or information is given, it came from Wikipedia)
Manoushi Bread Recipe

Kibbeh Recipe

Country Map

Country Flag

National Anthem

Stats and Information

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