From baked fish with a tahini dressing to a caramel and pistachio cheesecake, the recipes in Anas Atassi’s new cookbook Sumac will show you a whole new side to Syria.
For many people in the West, Syria is synonymous with the war that has been fought there for almost a decade. Over 5.6 million refugees have fled Syria since 2011, while millions more are displaced inside the country. Up to 593,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of the conflict.
But while the situation in Syria deserves our attention – and organisations working with Syrian residents and refugees, such as Unicef, Islamic Relief and Choose Love, need our continued support – there’s more to the country than hardship.
Syrian food, for instance, will appeal to anyone who enjoys the lightness and brightness of Middle Eastern cooking. And in his new book Sumac: Recipes And Stories From Syria (£25, Murdoch Books), food writer Anas Atassi takes us on a joyride through the unsung delights of his home country’s cuisine.
Born in the city of Homs, Atassi moved with his parents to Saudi Arabia when he was a child – but the family returned every summer for weddings, graduations and birthday parties.
Cooking Syrian food has always been a way for Atassi “to stay connected to my home, my parents and my homeland”, he writes. It was only after his family moved to Saudi Arabia that he developed an interest in traditional Syrian food, a desire that grew over time – until he “even started to find charm in the boring old tablecloths that I had grown up with”.
He now lives in the Netherlands, where he cooks Syrian food at least once a day, and continues to see the country of his birth “as a place where life is to be cherished and enjoyed”.
Below, Atassi shares three recipes from Sumac. The first, mufarakeh, is a casual pan-fried combination of minced beef, courgette and fried egg, not unlike a meaty shakshuka, that makes a delicious lunch when scooped onto flatbreads.
The second, tajen samak, is an elegant dish that’s perfect for a springtime dinner. Baked white fish fillets are seasoned with sumac (the tart purplish-red spice that gives Atassi’s cookbook its name) and served with a lemony tahini dressing, toasted pine nuts and plenty of flat-leaf parsley.
Finally, Atassi’s aish el saraya is essentially the Syrian equivalent to a caramel and pistachio cheesecake: a creamy, floral, citrusy dessert made using ashta, a Middle Eastern fresh cheese. At a pinch, you can replace the ashta for shop-bought ricotta – but as Atassi shows, it’s surprisingly simple to make your own at home.
Each of Atassi’s recipes is accompanied by a short description of the recipe and what it means to him, something he says is vitally important – especially since he cannot currently eat these dishes in Syria.
“They are not only my stories,” he writes. “They are the stories of an entire people – stories that are tied to our collective hearts, and have become all the more important because of the recent turmoil.” We’ll cook to that.
Mufarakeh (eggs with beef and courgette)
Anas says: “This dish reminds me of long days out and about with my family when we lived in Saudi Arabia – hours of shopping at Ikea, for example (yes, Ikea is everywhere). When we got back home, my mother would make something simple and tasty with whatever we had in our home pantry. We always ate it with flatbread – something I still do to this day.”
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion (chopped)
- 1 courgette, cut into large pieces
- 250g minced beef
- salt and pepper
- 4 eggs
- 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley (coarsely chopped)
Heat the oil in a large pan. Add the onion and the courgette and stir-fry until golden brown.
Add the minced beef and break it up into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Brown it for 5 minutes, until it is completely cooked. Salt and pepper to taste.
Turn the heat to low and make four little wells in the beef mixture. Crack an egg into each well. Cover and cook the eggs for 3–5 minutes, or for the time needed to cook the yolks thoroughly.
Serve in the pan, generously sprinkled with parsley.
Tajen samak (fish with sumac tahini sauce)
Anas says: “Given that Syrian fish recipes are usually very simple, my friend Hadi, also a passionate cook, and I started experimenting. Instead of drenching the fried fish in tahini sauce, which is what we usually do in Syria, we use tahini in the preparation. It gives a totally different result, in taste and in structure. We serve the dish with rice, which, though unusual, is delicious.”
- 2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- 3 onions (sliced into rings)
- 4 tsp sumac
- salt and pepper
- 700g white fish fillets
For the sauce:
- 150ml tahini
- juice of 1–2 organic lemons (as desired)
- 170ml water
- 4–6 garlic cloves (pressed, as desired)
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- salt and pepper
- 1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley (chopped)
- 1 handful of pine nuts (toasted)
- organic lemon (in slices)
Preheat the oven to 150°C. In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil on medium heat. Fry the onion rings for 3-5 minutes in the oil until they are soft. Season with 2 teaspoons of sumac, salt and pepper.
Spread the fried onion over the bottom of an ovenproof dish and set the fish on top of the bed of onions.
Drizzle some olive oil over the fish and sprinkle with the remaining 2 teaspoons of sumac, salt and pepper. Bake for 15 minutes in the middle of the oven. While the fish is baking, make the sauce. Whisk all the ingredients together in a bowl, adjusting the amount of lemon juice and garlic to your preferences. Warm the sauce in a pan on medium heat, whisking constantly. Bring to a boil and then remove from the heat.
Remove the fish from the oven, pour the sauce over the fish until completely covered, and then bake for another 10–15 minutes, until cooked thoroughly.
Serve with chopped parsley, toasted pine nuts, sumac and lemon slices.
Aish el saraya (ashta and caramel bread ‘cheesecake’)
Anas says: “‘Aish’ means ‘bread’ in Egyptian, and ‘saraya’ means ‘palace’. This breadcrumb dessert has a regal allure. Just like so many other Syrian desserts, it is made with ashta, atter, and nuts.
“Ashta is a Middle Eastern fresh cheese and is a main ingredient in many Syrian dessert recipes. The cheese is almost always eaten in combination with atter (sugar syrup), so it itself is not usually sweetened. The atter is definitely sweet enough on its own! If you’re in a hurry, you can substitute ricotta for the ashta. But, for an authentic Syrian dessert, you really have to use homemade ashta. One of the simplest of Syrian desserts is a plate of ashta drizzled with atter and sprinkled with chopped pistachios.”
- 10 pieces of white bread
- 150g sugar
- 200ml water
- 30g butter
- 300g ashta (see below)
- 15g pistachios (very finely chopped)
- 2 tbsp rose jam (as desired)
- atter syrup (see below)
For the ashta (Syrian-style ricotta cheese – makes 800g):
- 2 litres full milk
- 60ml white vinegar
- 65g cornflour
For the atter (sugar syrup):
- 250ml water
- 440g sugar
- 1 tbsp rose or orange blossom water
- grated lemon or orange peel
- lemon or orange juice
- food processor
- round springform pan (22cm diameter)
To make the ashta, in a large saucepan, heat 1½ litres of milk on medium heat. The milk should get hot but should not start to boil. Stir in the vinegar to curdle the milk. The curd will start to float in transparent, watery whey.
Skim the curd out of the saucepan and set it aside in a bowl. Throw the whey out.
Heat the remaining ½ litre of milk slowly with the cornstarch, whisking constantly, until the milk starts to form a pudding.
Whisk the curd into the pudding and keep whisking for another 5 minutes, or until everything is mixed and takes on a texture similar to ricotta cheese.
Spoon the ashta into a heat-proof, airtight and sealable container. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours to chill completely before using.
To make the atter, warm 250ml water and stir in 440g sugar in a pan. As soon as the sugar is dissolved and the syrup starts to boil, you add 1 tablespoon of rose or orange blossom water, as well a bit of grated lemon or orange peel and a bit of lemon or orange juice. Let it cool and store it in an airtight container. I usually prefer orange blossom water in my atter.
To make the cheesecake, toast the slices of bread in a toaster or under the grill. Break the toast into pieces and pulse them for 20 seconds in a food processor until they are fine crumbs. If necessary, you can do this in two batches to keep the food processor from overfilling.
In a wide pan, dissolve the sugar in the water on medium heat. Continue cooking the sugar solution for 10–15 minutes until it starts to bubble and caramelise to a golden brown.
As soon as the caramel syrup is golden-brown, add the butter and stir until it is completely melted. Remove from the heat.
Stir the breadcrumbs into the caramel sauce so that all the crumbs are coated. It should look like a thick paste. Keep stirring, adding some water if needed, until all the breadcrumbs are incorporated.
Turn the caramel crumbs onto the bottom of the greased springform pan. Spread the crumbs evenly, pressing on them evenly with the rounded side of a spoon to form a base 1½ cm thick. Spoon the ashta on top of the caramel and then smooth it with the round side of a spoon.
Refrigerate the saraya for at least 3 hours. Release the sides of the springform pan and remove. Garnish the dessert as desired with pistachios and rose jam.
Drizzle liberally with atter syrup and serve the slices with extra atter.
You can also make this dessert ahead of time and keep it, refrigerated, for up to 2–3 days.
From Sumac: Recipes And Stories From Syria by Anas Atassi (£25, Murdoch Books), out now
Photography: Anas Atassi