A number of years ago, prior to opening the café, I was fortunate enough to spend a few months in the Middle East. The reason for this was to soak up the culture and experience the cuisine unqiue to that part of the world. I had fallen in love with Middle Eastern food years previously and was determined that this was the key influence that I wanted for our menu in the café that we would one day hope to open.
I travelled through Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Syria. As much as I loved all of the countries, Syria was actually my favourite. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a lot in life and Syria remains my all-time favourite experience. So much so that, during my time in the Middle East, I returned there again – so infatuated was I with its culture, its cuisine, its history and, especially, its people.
I’ve never before felt so welcome in any country as I did in Syria. Walking down the sometimes dusty streets of Damascus, it wasn’t unusual for someone to come up to me, stop and just say “Welcome to Syria” with a big smile across their face. That’s it. This happened time and time again – it was just a sincere welcome. They weren’t after anything else, trying to lure me to their cousin’s restaurant or their uncle’s stall. They just wanted to wish me a meaningful welcome to their wonderful country.
I was overwhelmed with the generosity I experienced over there. One evening, I stood nearby a baklava stall – just interested to see what people bought. I was standing a distance away, watching and noticed a family go up to the stall and buy a selection of the wonderful delights on offer. They obviously spotted me as within a few moments, their young boy was dispatched over to me to present me with some baklava. I laughed and accepted it graciously and waved over to them. They smiled back and then moved on with their evening. These simple gestures of kindness, generosity and welcome became a daily experience for me.
I will treasure the memories of my time in Syria forever more. Nothing before or since has ever come close to what I experienced there.
So, when we think of new dishes in the café, I often return to my time in Syria to see what dishes I had there inspire me to develop something new for our menu. The recipe below is one such recipe. It is an idea based on a wonderful experience I had one evening in a small café down some dusty side street in Aleppo. Below is the extract from “The Brother Hubbard Cookbook” on that experience. I even outline at the end of the recipe to replicate exactly the dish I encountered that evening. So simple, so delicious.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy making Aleppine Potatoes – they remain on of the most popular dishes on our menus to this day. If you are interested in more, we’ve a few other Syria-inspired recipes on our menu currently and in the cookbook.
This dish is based ever so loosely on a bite to eat I had one sunny evening in Aleppo, Syria, the most wonderful of cities as it was then, before all the upheaval of the past few years. The dish was essentially potatoes dipped in various spices and eaten alongside some fresh greens and wonderful olive oil. I set out the original version for you to try in the tips and tricks section below, but the version I’ve included in the main recipe is our own twist on things, tying together those wonderful spices with the Irish love of roast potatoes!
500g baby potatoes, cut into bite-sized dice
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp sweet or smoked paprika
1 tsp hot paprika or cayenne pepper
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
50g mixed soft herbs (parsley, lovage, coriander and/or dill), stalks very finely chopped and leaves roughly chopped
1 bunch of spring onions, thinly sliced at an angle
zest of 1 lemon
2 garlic cloves, crushed
lemon cumin dressing (page 000)
Preheat the oven to 180°C.
Place a large roasting tin in the oven with a good glug of oil to heat up. Dry the potatoes quickly with a clean tea towel and season well with salt and pepper. Toss the seasoned potatoes in the hot oil and place in the oven for 15 minutes. Give the potatoes a good shake and return them to the oven for another 10–15 minutes, until completely tender.
Meanwhile, mix together the smoked paprika, hot paprika, dried thyme, ground cumin and ground coriander with some seasoning in a bowl. Mix the herbs, spring onions and lemon zest together in a separate bowl.
After the potatoes have cooked fully, remove them from the oven and sprinkle on the spice mix and a spoonful of the crushed garlic paste and mix very well. Return to the oven for a final 10 minutes.
When serving, toss the potatoes in the lemon-cumin dressing and top with the chopped herbs and spring onion mix. Delicious served piping hot or warm.
Tips and tricks
We also serve a rendition of these with a rich tomato and red pepper sauce (page 000) and a zesty smoked aubergine yogurt (page 000), which we call our Middle Eastern bravas.
The original version of this that I encountered in Aleppo involved boiled baby potatoes, served warm on a plate alongside a tiny bowl of olive oil and the spices put in little mounds or separate bowls. You would dip the potato in the oil and then into one or several of the spices, season and eat with some leaves or herbs. So wonderfully simple and worth trying for a very easy nibble alongside some smoked fish or grilled meat, perhaps adding some steamed tenderstem broccoli and a glass of wine for an easy supper.