bessbuss -- greeting us copy

Bessbuss greeting us from the window of her top room where she chops the parsley to keep the rest of her house clean.

I recently wrote a a short piece for the markets issue of Saveur on Souk el-Tanabel (souk of the lazy people) in Damascus where well-heeled women go to buy pre-prepared vegetables. A little like our supermarkets, except that it is a proper market with street stalls, lone farmers selling seasonal produce and shops of course.

The interesting thing about souk el-Tanabel is that the preparation is done by women, working in their own homes and each with her own speciality. One cores courgettes, another peels garlic, another prepares artichoke hearts, another chops parsley and so on. The shop owners send the vegetables over to the women in the evening. They work through the night and early in the morning then the same men who delivered return to pick up the prepared vegetables to have them in the shop for opening time.

I  was fascinated by the whole concept and asked the guys in one shop if they would take me to one of the women. As it happened, they were about to deliver a whole lot of parsley to a lady who they affectionately called Bessbuss who chops it for them. I waited while they loaded the huge bags of parsley onto their pick-up van then I hopped in front, sitting dangerously close to one of them. Luckily, it wasn’t long before we arrived and here are a few pictures of Bessbuss at work with a video clip at the end. One day I will learn how to edit my videos. Until then, you will have to forgive the longueurs. Oh, and this one is pre my flip camera, so, the quality is not so great.

bessbuss - chopping copy

Bessbuss piles 10 bunches of parsley (far more than I or any other chef would want to handle in one go) on her table, trims off the bottom stalks, then with a very quick up and down action, she slices through the parsley with her modest but very sharp knife, chopping hundreds of bunches every day.

bessbuss - chopping 6 copy

From the blurry knife, you can imagine how fast she was chopping. The bandage on her left hand is to protect her from cutting herself and the glove on her right hand is to protect her skin from staining.

bessbuss - chopping other way copy

Here she is showing me another way of chopping the parsley. Most of the other women who chop parsley do it that way but she says it is not fast enough. She prefers her way.

bessbuss - knife copy

One of her knives. She has several. They are not smart but supremely sharp.

bessbuss - chopped parsley copy

As you can see, she really is a champion parsley chopper. My mother would approve of the thin slivers! By the way, the souk eel-Tanabel people send some of their pre-prepared vegetables to the elegant shops of Beirut, although not the chopped parsley.

And here is the clip of her in action. To think that she does this for hours, day after day; and during Ramadan, she works even longer hours. I will pay her a visit next time I am in Damascus but I will not expect her to offer me tabbuleh. I asked if she ever made it for her two lovely sons, and she said never!

There is 40 comments on this post

  • Astonishing method for chopping… thanks so much for the video!

  • I’m fascinated by your blog. Very interesting stuff. I feel strangely connected with these people from far away. 🙂

  • you are welcome deana/

  • well, thank you raquel. so pleased you are enjoying the blog. and most of the people featured here are wonderful. i spent a great morning with bessbuss and her family.

  • Love this, Anissa. The many ways people live. Yes, I am a parsley chopper! And, reminds me of the men on the sidewalks of Mx, trimming and cleaning nopales. Thanks!

  • you are welcome sonia. so glad you enjoyed it.

  • Great post as usual. Always something fascinating to learn about :-))

  • thanks micheline. glad you enjoyed it.

  • so glad i stumbuled on ur blog. always great to meet another foodie that loves lebanon 🙂

  • What an amazing story, and what a great Syrian invention, I am surprised the Lebanese have not invented it earlier. Once concern though, doesn’t she wash the parsley first?

  • no, she doesn’t but i assume that whoever buys it ready-chopped washes it before using which is not a great idea. it took me years to convince my mother to wash and dry the parsley before chopping. i am guessing this is why most tabbuleh in lebanon is what i call mzawmeh (too much juice) because of the excess water. i am a real stickler for drying the herbs (or any other salad ingredient for that matter) really well before using 🙂

  • Thank you for that fascinating video….she is a pro chopper!
    As for Darine’s question about washing the vegetables before chopping them, just take a look at all the chefs on TV(food network). They unwrap the veggies and start cooking with them right away….sigh. Since when did veggies become clean all by themselves?!

  • i know. like edward scissorhands! as for washing vegetables, the lebanese are sticklers for hygiene and this is why people don’t get sick eating there, except that the only time i had e.coli was after eating a falafel sandwich from somewhere in karantina in beirut.my guess is that it was the parsley that hadn’t been washed.

  • welcome to the blog, and yes i love my country even if i don’t live there. always enjoy it when i am back.

  • I love this. Chopping parsley is something I find therapeutic, though I can see why she’d be sick of it by now. I also find the “souk for lazy people” a wonderful concept and far more colorful and interesting than the plastic-wrapped courgetts and stir-fry mixes you get at Waitrose and the like.

  • yes, it is a wonderful concept, and a great way for these women to earn a living while still able to be with their children.

  • that is a serious amount of parsley there ! for a few seconds the clip above went on high speed – you can only imagine what that looked like !! haha !

    i had seen your wonderful article in saveur, and it’s fabulous to be able to add more words, photos and even a video to that. so great to see one of the women about whom you write – and in action no less. thank you for sharing.

    i had a giggle about the tabbuleh comment above ! 🙂

  • Excellent blog! I found it via a link from The Spice Spoon.

  • thanks. glad you like it.

  • either it’s my clip or vimeo. i now have a flip camera and my clips are much better. shame i didn’t have it for bessbuss. she’s such a wonderful woman. may go back and do a proper clip.

  • Her name is adorable and her smile belies her warm nature; I love people like Bessbouss and wish that life keeps them from harm as much as possible

  • Lovely people!
    Beautiful Damascus.

    Thank you Anissa.

  • you are welcome cosimo. hope you had a great time in syria.

  • Hi !
    Your blog is really interesting ! My parents are from Syria (Aleppo), I was born and live in France. I enjoy all your reports about Syria and other countries, and of course your recipes ! Thank you for sharing these great videos!

  • thank you. glad you enjoy my blog and recipes. i am half syrian and love aleppo. where do you get pepper paste in paris?

  • I get my pepper paste from Syria, my grand mother makes it. I have found one from Damascus, in a shop in Paris, Ménilmontant, but it was really bad (industrial taste).

  • Great post Anissa! We’ve long been fascinated by the singular tasks performed by people at SE Asian markets. In Manila there is a market where a row of women sit picking the bones out of milkfish. At a market in KL a man and his wife spend the whole day sliced preserved mustard, and nearby a row of girls sit pulling cockles from their shells. The markets here are treasure troves of details for the observant!

  • gosh, sounds wonderful. i can’t wait to come and go around with you. hoping to in december or january if you are around. and i’m so glad you enjoyed the post. i love bessbuss. such a wonderful lady, and her boys were delightful. wish i had a spare computer on me to give to the eldest who was desperate for one.

  • Thank you Anissa,
    this is the wallpaper on the pc I’m using to write, right now.

    It was abandoned in Damascus, near the Salaladin monument 🙂

  • how amusing. did you see the clip i have of one of those vendors?

  • Yes, of course!

    This is for a vendor?
    Honestly I’ve not really understand the reason all that stuffs was there.
    Was there abandoned?

  • he must have gone to wash his hands or pray. i don’t think he would have left it like this on the street for good 🙂

  • Wow! I could watch her all day. It would be great to have a tv channel called, “The Chopping Channel”, showing only people doing their daily art.

    Thank you!

  • i like the idea 🙂

  • What a lovely article, Anissa. I love the way you make a simple thing like cutting parsley into a a cultural essay that gives insight into the real Syria.

  • thx jonell 🙂 so pleased you enjoyed it. i loved my time with bessbuss and her family and i do hope they are safe.

  • Thank you for sharing this tiny bit of brightness from Damascus.

  • Absolutely beautiful.

Leave a Comment