One day when I was looking up authentic Syrian recipes online, I landed on Tony’s website and blog. I was greeted with carefully laid out and labeled pictures of ingredients, eye-pleasing printable recipe cards, and accompanying descriptive prose that just got me hooked on the page for a few hours. I was thoroughly impressed with Tony’s writing style, the beautiful pictures of food (who can resist those?), and his detailed food memoirs in Syria, where he was sent to study on a Fulbright Scholarship. It’s easy to see Tony’s passion for blogging just from his writing:
I consider my blog my baby. As of today, it is 3 years and 5 months old. It may sound strange to those who don’t blog, but I feel my blog has evolved over the years and has made me grow in ways I had never anticipated. My blog opened my eyes to web design and web development; it continuously fuels my immense passion for photography. My blog connects me to wonderful people and encourages me to try new foods and food techniques. It offers me a creative space to write and express my feelings in words, pictures, and videos. And although I have on-and-off spells where I feel unmotivated to produce, this is something I’ve realized is a part of life. I have learned to grow from these bursts of inspiration and grapple with the moments when my mind wanders and my stomach is in knots (from the post “Muhamarra, revisited” on February 27, 2011).
Inspired by his dedication to cooking real food, and his love for his Syrian culture, we contacted Tony to schedule an interview for midEATS and to learn a bit more about Syrian cuisine. For our midEATS readers, we also included two of Tony’s specialty recipes, both starring the delightful green leafy Swiss Chard (called ‘salq’ in Arabic). Tony shows us how chard is used in Syrian cuisine – usually it’s stuffed (not a huge surprise given the proclivity for Middle Easterners to stuff veggies), but he also shows us how to sauté it for an easy and quick dinner idea. Read on to find out more.
Interview with Syrian Food Writer Antonio Tahhan
How long have you been blogging? What inspired you to start a food blog?
I started blogging in December of 2007. Before that I used to post occasional food pictures in an online photo album, until the service was suddenly discontinued. Blogs had become popular at the time and I liked the idea of having my own space where I can post more than just photos. With a blog I could share stories and engage in interesting conversations about food and culture, in a fun way. Over the years I’ve come to meet — in person and online — incredibly talented people and have challenged myself learning new techniques and recipes; it is this sense of passion, community, and mission that continues to inspire me to this day.
What did the study abroad in Syria teach you about food?
My Fulbright in Syria offered me the opportunity to experience Syrian culture from a very personal perspective. I quickly learned that food is much more than the meal that gets served on the table; food tells the story of a community. Conversations that often started about how to cook eggplants or stuff zucchini quickly unraveled into stories about love and politics.
What is your favorite Syrian recipe and why?
This is a tough question and almost impossible to answer. There are so many to choose from! If I had to pick just one, I would say that it’s “Syrian” or Middle Eastern style rice pudding, flavored with a fragrant blend of orange blossom water and rose water. It reminds me of my childhood. It is something my grandmother made for my brothers and me all the time.
What is your favorite blog post from your own blog?
I’m not sure I have a favorite because they’re all so different. Every blog post I write is focused on a particular story or episode in my life. One of the most memorable and personal posts I’ve written is the one on mamoul cookies. I wrote it shortly after my grandfather passed away and posted it in his memory.
What has been the most challenging thing about blogging? What about the most rewarding thing?
The most rewarding thing is undoubtedly the blogging community and the energy they bring to the table, no pun intended.
Where do you find food inspiration?
From everywhere: the market, my grandmother, blogs, TV, magazines. That said, I always try to prepare foods that are in season because that’s when they taste the best. That’s when tomatoes taste like tomatoes and cucumbers taste like cucumbers. After spending almost a year in Syria, I’ve also come back inspired to cook a lot of the dishes I learned in Aleppo, the food capital of the Middle East.
What is one memorable food experience from childhood (or in general)?
My grandmother preparing rice pudding for my brothers and me. Years later and the warm scent of milk simmering on the stove still carries with it those sweet memories from my childhood. My sito (grandmother in colloquial (Syrian) Arabic) flavored hers the Middle Eastern way, with the flowery essence of orange blossom water and a sprinkle of spicy ground cinnamon on top. I remember my favorite part was the thin “skin” that formed at the top, after the pudding had set in the refrigerator.
What do you think is the most essential ingredient in a Middle Eastern kitchen? Examples of dishes you use it in?
Pomegranate molasses. It’s liquid gold, in my opinion. I love it in salads, stews, braises, dips — a little bit goes a long way. Lately, I’ve been making lots of eetch, a popular Armenian cracked wheat salad that I learned to prepare in Aleppo. The salad is made with tomatoes, parsley, onions, cumin and features the sweet and tangy flavor of pomegranate molasses. My friends all love it!
Red meat or chicken? Favorite veggie?
Red meat, but specifically the lamb I had in Syria. It was incredibly flavorful and juicy — unlike any lamb I’ve had before. It helped that the meat was always fresh from the butcher.
My favorite vegetable at the moment is dandelion greens.
How much do you prioritize cooking food from scratch?
Cooking from scratch is an important priority for me. All you have to do is read the ingredient labels off some of your favorite foods to know why. I mostly buy raw ingredients, but if I do get something that is pre-made, I read the ingredients and make sure it has been minimally processed.
What’s the most difficult meal you’ve ever cooked?
Probably kibbeh tarabilsye because the kibbeh are so difficult to form correctly, the way my grandmother does them. When she makes kibbeh, each one is the perfect size, with two sharp points on each end. It took me a really long time to learn this technique — my grandmother still makes them a lot nicer and much faster than I can.
What’s your “go-to” snack if you’re strapped for time?
While I was living in Syria, it was tahini and grape molasses. It was more than just a “go-to” snack; I was hooked! I consumed about 7kg of grape molasses while I was abroad.
Middle Easterners typically love hot drinks – what are your favorites?
Anise tea, or yansoon, as they call it in Syria. It’s light, refreshing, and is supposed to be a natural way to relax your body.
Swiss Chard: A Syrian Favorite
When we asked Tony what recipe(s) he’d like to share with midEATS readers, he said he wanted to share not one, but two recipes for Swiss Chard, each prepared in a different way – one complex and time-consuming, and the other quick and easy – but both incredibly tasty and healthy. He said he “feels like these recipes really highlight the versatility of Syrian cuisine from complex and time-consuming to quick and simple.”
Stuffed Swiss Chard, Syrian-Style (Yabraq Silq) – click the link to be directed to this recipe on Tony’s blog. In this post, Tony shows us what a day in the “souk” (marketplace in Arabic) in Aleppo, Syria is like. He links his Facebook album of the souk in his post, and describes the experience of shopping in an outdoor market as “exhilarating”, and a place to find “Mountains of vegetables that look like they have just been picked, and amazing prices. The farmer’s kids enjoy showing me around the market and love to have their pictures taken.”
Tony describes this recipe as being very similar to traditional stuffed grape leaves, but with a slightly different spin: “The stuffed chard leaves looked almost like over-stuffed grape leaves, but with a more pronounced dark green color. They also seemed softer in texture, as I noticed a few inside the pot had broken down in the simmering broth.” Tony’s grandmother makes a garlicky-minty yogurt sauce to be drizzled on top of the stuffed chard, which he says in his post is the secret of the dish.
This stuffed chard recipe looks delightful and sure to please, but making it on a frequent basis could be difficult as it is time-consuming. Tony provides another authentic recipe involving Swiss chard that is just as tasty, but much quicker to make! You can make it using leftover Swiss Chard leaves. It’s perfect on a weeknight for a quick and healthy dinner everyone will love.
Sautéed Swiss Chard with Garlic-Yogurt Sauce
- bunches swiss chard
- 2 yellow onions, chopped
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- ground coriander
- extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup whole milk plain yogurt
- 1 tsp dried mint
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- salt, to taste
- Cut off the stems and wash the Swiss chard leaves in lots of water
- Sweat the onions until they are soft and do not have a bite to them
- Add the minced garlic, ground coriander, and the washed and drained Swiss chard leaves. Cover for 30 seconds until the leaves are soft.
- Serve over a bed of rice (I used brown rice) with a side of lemon wedges.
- Finish the dish with a simple and creamy yogurt sauce, drizzled over the chard.
So there you have it – a very simple way to make a Syrian dish at home, using ingredients that are readily available in your local farmers’ market or supermarket. Last time I went to Whole Foods, I even found organic Swiss chard on sale for $1.99 per bunch – not a bad price for organic produce in the States.