Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Amicable Alimentations: Syrian Lamb Fetteh

Lamb Fetteh: a Damascene Appetizer

Amicable Alimentations: A series of posts with no predictable order or timing dedicated to a delicious food and the friend who most reminds me of it or inspired me to love it.  Here's the link to post number one from a couple of months ago, and this, of course, is post number two in the series.
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We're moving.  AGAIN!  And while some, less adventurous souls might squeal in pain, I'm so happy I could pop.  We're going back to the US!  And of all the random places I've never been and we could have conceivably ended up in, I never thought that in two weeks we'd be living in Portland, Maine.  But there you have it - that's how random and serendipitous life can be. :)  And actually, all this came just as I was getting used to life in the Middle East, just when I'd made good friends, and was starting to finally relax with little of the "settling in" process to deal with anymore.  Oh what'reyagonnado?

* My Discovery of Syrian Food *

About a month ago, a friend of mine invited us to her house.  I usually get very excited about going to peoples' houses for dinner because to me it's a unique look into their lives, and the way they eat is also indicative of lots of things - how they interact, how focused on health or culture they are.  A million things.

Anyway, I was particularly excited about this dinner because my friend Marilla and her husband Abd are Syrian, and Damascene on top of that.  Their son Aidan (Adnaan actually) is a little younger than Roman and a real cutie.  They are all super nice people and have given me a unique and authentic look into Middle Eastern culture since moving here, one that is almost impossible to glean from local Emiratis who seem to very much keep to themselves.  But I digress.

Damascus is one of the cities I most wanted to visit while in the Middle East (and sadly now I won't be able to this time around), as it is not only rumored to be fantastically old and rich in its historical and charming characteristics, but the food is supposed to be superb.  It's a mix of Mediterranean and Arab cooking that involves lots of fresh dips and grilled meats and yummy salads.  In short, I absolutely couldn't wait to see what Marilla would dish up for our night at her place.

She didn't disappoint.  She made an appetizer called "Fetteh" (loose anglicized transliteration there), we had kibbeh, Fattoush, Warak Enab (warm, stuffed grape leaves, in this case cooked with tomatoes and potatoes), Riz w Shayreeyah (rice with short vermicelli noodles) and stuffed eggplant in tomato sauce.  For dessert she bought kunafa, one of my favorite Arab sweets made with string phyllo dough and cheese.  She also gave us a box of Damascene cookies to take home.  Yum.

The Delicious Syrian Spread
Everything was superbly delicious and filling, and yet I kept going back for more of one dish - the Fetteh.  When I asked Marilla to explain what "fetteh" is, she couldn't, really.  She could tell me the ingredients and the way to make it (which I duly wrote down), but I guess to her it was simply such a familiar thing that it seemed odd to try to explain it to a foreigner.

Marilla's Syrian Fetteh
I did a little research on the internet (check out Dessert Candy, a blog which I love) and found that Fetteh is a very common, very informal Middle Eastern appetizer which has as many variations as there are cooks in the Middle East. At its simplest, Fetteh is a warm stew of yogurt and chickpeas with pita bread.  The version my friend Marilla made for us is actually a more complex Damascene one involving eggplant, tomatoes and lamb.  I can't begin to tell you how delicious this dish is.  Luckily, I will now divulge the much hoarded recipe so you too can try a little bit of the Middle East at home.

And I will say it now, by God, one day I will visit Damascus!  Thanks Marilla for a wonderful dinner and the inspiration for this installment of Amicable Alimentations (which I have shamelessly otherwise neglected).  Bil-hanā' wa ash-shifā!  

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My Version of Marilla's Syrian Fetteh

Serves 6

My version of Marilla's Fetteh
I already have some improvements to make on my version of this, having just made it once.  For one thing, I didn't use nearly as much yogurt as I should.  And I didn't have Tahini so I used Sesame oil (which actually worked pretty well but wasn't the same), so I need to go back to the original next time. 

This comes out as more of a heavy appetizer / light dinner.  But we ate it as a main course and felt more than fulfilled by it.  The key is to have lots and lots of the yogurt mixture which infuses a typically Middle Eastern flavor into this dish, with the mixture of tahini, garlic, yogurt and lemon juice.  Yummy.

1lb (500g) minced lamb
1 container (200-250g) Greek yoghurt
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, skinned & sliced into moon shapes
(or substitute 1 small can of whole tomatoes in their sauce)
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 pack pita or Arabic bread (about 3-4 small pitas), chopped into small squares
1 medium eggplant, sliced into thin-ish rounds
1 tbsp Tahini (sesame seed paste)
1-2 Lemons, juiced (to taste)
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup whole pinenuts
plenty of good olive oil

1. In a pan with plenty of olive oil, fry the pita bread squares until brown and crisp.  Set aside on a plate with paper towels to drain excess oil.

2. In the same pan, adding olive oil as needed, fry the eggplant rounds in batches until VERY golden on both sides.  Set aside on a plate.

3. In the same pan again, brown the lamb and season with salt and pepper; with a spoon remove some of the excess fat then set aside the lamb and keep warm in a bowl.

4. Lastly, sautee the onions and tomatoes and tomato paste in the same pan, seasoning with salt and pepper as needed.  Allow the onions and tomatoes to cook together for 10 minutes or so, adding a little water if needed to make a sauce.

5. Finally, in a small pan with a tiny bit of olive oil, lightly brown the pine nuts and set aside.

6. In a bowl, mix the yogurt, garlic, lemon juice, tahini and some salt.  Taste and adjust quantities as needed.

7.  In a casserole dish, mix the fried bread and tomato sauce as the bottom layer.  Then on top of that lay the eggplant, then the yogurt, then the lamb, then the pine nuts on top.  Serve using a large spoon and make sure the dish is warm!

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  1. Thank you! We will try it. Ahmad makes fetteh too but I want to try yours. Warak einab literally means grape leaves. They are generally the same as dolmades in Greece but these that you had are definitely different. I never heard of them with potatoes.. Did you get the recipe for that?? And Aghmad always cooks his rice with the shariyyah.. In fact Ahmad makes good rice and so did my Turkish husband, so when Americans serve me rice I find it dreadful, even in restaurants.. unless it's risotto and Italian of course..
    I plan to be in Damascus this summer for 2 weeks, too bad we missed each other...

  2. Thanks Elish :) Glad you will try it! And yes, I did get the recipe for the grape leaves but Marilla buys them pre-made so all she gave me was the recipe for the surrounding vegetables and sauce, which was very good. I'd never had Warak einab hot, and much less served with potatoes and tomatoes.

    Anyway yes it's a shame we missed each other. I Would have definitely come to see you in Syrian and/or Turkey!