sprinkling aleppo pepper

In a few hours, another World of Flavors conference will start at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). The theme this year is street food and comfort food and as some of you know, I love street food and am constantly on the lookout for fun street food scenes wherever I go, not only to watch but also to taste, if the conditions are right that is. Regardless, I find it hard to resist anything that looks good on the street especially if I am in Aleppo, my favourite city, where you see people eating on the street throughout the enchanting souks.

On a recent trip there, I was spoiled for choice. As I walked through the vegetable market opposite Bab Antaki, I came upon a lone gentleman tucking into the best looking kebab I have seen on the street. I asked if I could snap him, or more to the point if I could photograph what he was eating and he was very gracious about my interfering with his meal. Then, right by the Bab, I stopped at an incredibly popular falafel stall where the vendor had piles of fresh mint on the table which his customers picked by the handful to stuff in their mouth with every bite of their sandwich. Sadly, I never got to take any pictures. It was just too crowded. Then there was a vendor I had never seen before who was making kibbeh sandwiches — he announced very proudly that his mother had made the kibbeh. Again no snapshots but this time because the display was not very pretty. But here are a few shots of the delicious kebabs my lone gentleman was eating.

And later this afternoon, I’m hoping to be able to take a few shots of some Adana kebabs being prepared by Chef Musa Dagdeviren from Ciya, together with Chef Necdet Kaygin and Chef Burak Epir which I will post in the next couple of days.

tearing a piece of bread to pick up the meat with

kebab on the street 5 copy

kebab on the street 7 copy


Everyone knows and loves halva. Well, perhaps not everyone loves halva but most people know it, the tahini one that is. Still, despite halva being fairly common now, few people know how it’s made. And I have to admit that I didn’t except for the one time, many many years ago, when I made  it following a recipe from Leslie Kenton’s  Raw Energy, and after I nearly broke my food processor trying to grind the sesame seeds, I ended up with a halva that bore no resemblance to any  I ever had — there are other types of halva but more on that in future posts. In any case, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I finally saw halva being made, and what a revelation that was. I was being taken round the old souks of Aleppo by a wonderful character and a friend now, Hassan Khoja who is the burly man in the first video below, when we stopped at the shop of a friend of his, Omar Akesh, who sells tahini and halva which he produces in a sprawling and rather medieval space behind and above his shop. The only thing I knew then was that shirsh al-halaweh (meaning the root or vein of sweetness in Arabic, or plain soapwort root in English) was used in the making of halva (it is listed as one of the ingredients) although I wasn’t quite sure how. So here is what I found out.


First you need tahini, and to make tahini, sesame seeds have to be roasted, soaked, hulled and pressed, all of which are done by Omar’s men in the upstairs room. Then the soapwort roots have to be boiled to produce a brown liquid which when beaten miraculously turns into a brilliant white foam (because of the saponin). This foam is then mixed with sugar syrup to produce a meringue-like dip called natef, which is also served with karabij halab, a crumbly  ‘cookie’ filled with pistachio nuts. In fact, the natef that goes with the karabij is slighly different from the natef that is used in halva but I can’t remember the proportions now — somewhere I have notes telling me the ratios. The natef is made in a kind of tin machine/beater (sadly the only part of the process which I didn’t manage to photograph or film) and once it’s ready, it is mixed with the tahini. The mixture is then processed in three different stages. First it is churned as you can see in the video above. Once the halva maker judges it ready to be beaten, he attaches a huge wooden pestle to an automated arm which will drop it into and lift it from the mixture at a regular pace, while he goes on scraping the halva from the sides and pestle to ensure perfect blending.


And now comes the final stage, which is the kneading of the halva. The mixture is transferred into a beautiful large metal bowl with a round bottom so that it can be rocked back and forth, and the halva maker kneads the mixture until it is smooth before portioning it out and packing it in plastic boxes.


At Omar Akesh, and elsewhere, you can buy halva plain, or you can choose the more expensive version with pistachio nuts. The nuts are usually pressed on the outside of the halva cake but there is a more luxurious version with more pistachio nuts that are kneaded into the mixture. Here is a close-up of  soapwort as well as a few shots of the sequence of events in the making of halva.

shirsh el-halaweh 3 copy

halva 1 copy halva 2 copy halva 4 copy halva 7 copy halva - kneading 1 copy halva - kneading 2 copy halva - kneading 3 copy halva - kneading 4 copy

halva - weighing & packing copy


©Ben Stechschulte

Not long now before I go off again on my Syrian adventures. I have to say, I love going to Syria. I love the souks, the people, the sites and, of course, the food. And one of my favourite places to eat there is at my friend Lena Toutounji’s House. Her food is just exquisite, as is her home and her hospitality. I still remember my first lunch there. I had heard a lot about Lena and her cooking from friends in Beirut, and of course from her brother, Pierre Antaki, who took me there. I was very excited at the idea of the lunch and true enough, it was totally memorable, for many reasons. The grace with which Lena received us. Her lovely old butler, all dressed in white. And the menu, which that day consisted of a gratin of desert truffles and a version of kibbeh that I had never had before: tiny little balls with pointed tops (kibbeh kubab means domed kibbeh; the dish is also known as Iraqi kibbeh) with the most luscious spicy filling inside. As I helped myself, Lena warned me not to bite into the kibbeh balls or else my crisp white shirt would be splattered with red fat.

The filling is made by mixing chopped up fat from the tail with grated onion and pepper paste (an Aleppo speciality) and seasoning the mixture with cumin, salt and pepper. Once the balls are made, they are arranged in a baking dish and a knob of butter is placed on each before they are baked in a hot oven until slightly crisp. One of the best dishes you will ever taste. Unfortunately Lena does not do measures, so, all I can offer you here is my recipe for kibbeh and let you work out the quantities for the filling, if you can get tail fat that is. Not to worry if you can’t. You can use butter instead. Not quite the same but it should work.

©Ben Stechschulte


I always get my meat already ground, from a good butcher making sure I ask for the best part of the leg for the kibbeh. And be sure to use very fine burghul, otherwise the meat mixture will be too coarse and not so easy to shape. Makes 50 balls

1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
500 g finely minced lean lamb from the leg
200 g fine burghul
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
salt to taste
small bowl of lightly salted water

1. Put the quartered onion in a food processor. Process until finely chopped, then add the meat and process until mixed well. Wash the burghul in two or three changes of cold water, drain well and add to the meat. Pulse a few times. Transfer the meat mixture to a bowl.

2. Prepare a bowl of lightly salted water and have it at hand.

3. Add the cinnamon, allspice, pepper and salt to taste and mix with your hand, dipping your hand every now and then in the salted water to moisten both your hand and the kibbeh, until the spices are well incorporated. Knead the meat mixture for about 3 minutes, until you have a smooth paste. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

4. Divide the kibbeh into 50 balls, each the size of a small plum.

5. Lightly moisten your hands in the salted water and place one meat ball in the cup of one hand. With the index finger of your other hand burrow a hole into the meat ball while rotating it – this makes the hollowing out easier and more even. You should produce a thin meat shell resembling a topless egg. Be careful not to pierce the bottom or sides of the meat.

6. Put 1/2 teaspoon of Lena’s stuffing inside the meat shell, gently pushing the stuffing in with your finger, and pinch the open edges together with your fingers, pinching it upwards to create the pointed top. Put the finished ball on a non-stick baking dish. Continue making the balls until you have finished both meat and stuffing. Place a knob of butter over each kibbeh ball.

7. Preheat the oven to 200º C. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until crisp and lightly golden. Serve hot.