The storyteller of Damascus

The storyteller of Damascus

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
6 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667661
Photographer
Matt Harvey

Truffles are not the sort of thing you normally associate with the Middle East, but we were on a mission to track down Syrian desert truffles, known locally as chama. This variety has been considered a great delicacy since the early days of civilisation; cuneiform tablets excavated from Mesopotamian sites around the Euphrates River depict baskets of desert truffles being sent to the palace for the pleasure of the king. Chama were also considered a delicacy by medieval Arabs, and early culinary manuals contain references for preparing and cooking with truffles. Of course, this is a different kind of truffle from the European ones that are rooted out by snuffling pigs underneath certain kinds of trees in France and Italy. Syrian truffles grow in the desert, and most prolifically around the oasis town of Palmyra. Hunting for truffles in the desert might seem a thankless task, but the Bedouins have been doing it for centuries. They know the signs: the particular little weed that grows nearby and the tiny bumps that disturb the sand like little blisters.

At a vegetable stall near Martyrs’ Square in Damascus we spotted them: a strange kind of funghi piled high in black rubber baskets. They had been delivered that morning and were still encrusted with desert sand. The old stallholder lovingly plucked one from a basket and handed it to us to inspect. It looked like a cross between a chestnut and a small round potato. A pile of them were soaking in a tub of water and a young man was carefully lifting them out, one at time, and scrubbing them clean with a stiff brush.

The old man showed us that as with European truffles, there are two varieties of desert truffles: black and white. Similarly, the black ones are considered superior, but both are milder and less pungent than their European cousins. The most popular way of cooking chama is to skewer them and grill them over charcoal, and in fact we had enjoyed a very similar dish at Elissar the previous night. The truffles had a delicate mushroomy flavour and an interesting texture, something between water chestnuts and tinned mushrooms. The stallholder told us that his favourite way of eating them was sliced and fried with garlic in clarified butter. Sadly, this was not a treat he could often enjoy as, while not quite in the same league as European truffles, chama are expensive. At the start of the season one could pay around US$16 a kilo for white truffles and US$20 for the black variety – a hefty slice of the housekeeping budget for most Syrians.

We were standing near a row of pastry shops, each with impressive multi-tiered displays of sticky golden pastries in the window, and a stream of customers were stocking up on supplies for the weekend. We followed a delivery boy to an alleyway at the rear of the shops and explained our interest in seeing the pastry chefs at work. He good-naturedly gestured for us to follow him into a tall, narrow building and then up the stairs, where we found ourselves in a dimly lit, low-ceilinged room. Two burly men in white chef’s jackets were rolling out wafer-thin sheets of pastry in a cloud of flour. In a series of graceful movements, one of the men draped the inside of a massive circular tin with layer upon layer of translucent pastry. Then he scattered on a fragrant, sugary mass of chopped nuts, followed by more pastry layers, and with surgical precision he marked the surface with diamond-shaped incisions using a long sharp knife.

As each tray was filled it was hurled onto the floor, where a boy ladled on a great lake of golden ghee. The air felt dense and sticky with oil and sugar, and within minutes we were covered in a fine dusting of flour. Our delivery boy picked up his tray and we followed him downstairs to the ovens, where we were each given a tasting of baklava, warm from the oven.

By now, dusk was falling and we were in need of a caffeine jolt. Damascus is famed for its coffee houses, and one of the best known is An Nafura, in a laneway near the Ummayad mosque. We were just in time for the evening’s ‘main event’, for inside the smoke-filled room the TV had just been turned off and Mr Rashid ab Shadi had taken up his position, centre stage.

By day Mr ab Shadi is a grocer; come early evening, he dons an embroidered waistcoat and fez, and reads to the assembled crowd. He’s a hakawati – a traditional Arab storyteller – and every night, for one hour, he holds his audience spellbound with the legendary exploits of ancient heroes like Sultan Beybars or the epic love tale of Antar ibn Shadad and the beautiful and virtuous Abla. These are tales familiar to every Arab schoolchild and the listeners know them almost by heart.

Mr ab Shadi stopped and peered at us over his reading glasses as we took our seats at a tiny round table, and then continued. The largely male audience were getting into the spirit of things, reciting the familiar verses with Mr ab Shadi and interjecting comments of their own. In his right hand the storyteller held a large sword that he waved in the air and thrust towards the audience to demonstrate a point. Every now and then he slammed it down on the table for dramatic effect.

And then, from somewhere outside, we heard the loudspeaker from the nearby mosque crackle into life. It was the signal for Mr ab Shadi to put down his sword and close his large leather-bound book. A man at a nearby table summoned the nargileh waiter to load up his pipe with a fresh coal, and the sweet scent of apples filled the air as he puffed.

Mr ab Shadi folded up his reading glasses and tucked them into his waistcoat pocket. He shook the proprietor by the hand and shuffled off, leaving his story unfinished.

Recipes in this Chapter

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