Back in the 1980s and 1990s, weekends in the Middle East fell on Thursday and Friday. "My mother would shake us awake just before dawn on Thursday mornings, while my father was finishing up his morning prayers," says Dana Al Lozi, 39, recounting memories of a childhood growing up in Amman, Jordan, with her Palestinian father and Syrian mother. "We'd get dressed quickly and my brother and I would pile into the back seat with my parents. We'd listen to music by Fairouz for the three hours it took to drive from Amman to Damascus, where my grandmother would be waiting for us with the world's best breakfast – two types of fatteh, swimming in hot ghee and pine nuts and a fava bean stew made in tahini sauce, and afterwards, the best halaweh with pistachios I've ever had. And the olives. So many types. The works."
There was hardly any packing required for these weekend trips (just a small overnight bag), which always ended with a drive back to Amman on Friday afternoon.
“My father would insist that we bring no clutter with us at all, so we’d have as much space in the car as possible for all the food he always brought back with us. ‘Everything tastes better in Syria,’ he’d say. I think our weekend trips were more about the food than visiting my grandparents,” she recalls fondly.
Those days are long gone, laments Al Lozi, who is now a teacher in Amman. Weekend trips to Syria became a thing of the past when the strife began in 2011. She has never taken her children – five-year-old twin boys – to her mother’s homeland, which she says is “unnatural”.
“For a while, we had to make do without the fresh produce we had become so reliant on. We used to bring back sacks of sweet peas, broad beans, white beans, artichokes, green beans, all fresh and all ready to pack into our freezers, and that’s just the vegetables. We’d bring back everything, whether fresh bread or pantry items or frozen food or meat pastries from my father’s favourite butcher. Seriously, there’s nothing in the world like Syrian food.”
It’s a sentiment that has been echoed right across the Middle East for millennia. Syrian food has a special something, and although the quintessential dishes of the Levant are largely similar, Syrian cuisine has a particular reputation for finesse.
Much more than just sustenance, for Syrians, food is a reflection of a rich and diverse culture that has been forged and blended through years of conquests, migrations and trade, and which brings together the dishes of so many cultures: Arabs and Turks, Circassians and Armenians, Kurds and Assyrians. For Syrians, food is an expression of multiculturalism and a source of pride.
According to a report by the United Nations, more than four million Syrians have fled the country since 2011. Of those, there are well over a million in Jordan, and where Syrians go, good food follows.
With the war in Syria preventing tourists and food-lovers travelling there, Amman has become the closest hub for sampling Syria’s cuisine, with a number of well-loved restaurants cropping up in the Jordanian capital recently.
Rosa Damascena – Joury in Arabic – is one such restaurant. It is in Jabal Amman near the Second Circle. Raafat Daqouri, its Syrian owner, calls it his “labour of love”.
"I have so much faith in Syrian cuisine, and I couldn't stand by and let the food of my country be misrepresented through mediocre restaurants and food shacks that were cropping up everywhere claiming to bring a taste of Syria to Jordan," he says.
His three-year-old establishment is often described as Amman’s most luxurious Syrian eatery. With decor reminiscent of a traditional courtyard, and old photographs of his homeland hanging on the walls, Joury is as close to Damascus as one can get, from Jordan.
"We do Syrian food right, we are paying homage to a rich, varied cuisine with its own identity," Daqouri adds. It is a cuisine that stands out because of its diversity. A simple eggplant, he says, is presented in at least 12 dishes in his restaurant alone. There are eight variations of kibbeh, and maybe 20 ways to use chickpeas. If variety is the so-called spice of life, the Syrians have it in spades.
Read more: A guide to kibbeh
“It’s what Syrian cuisine is known for: creating such elaborate dishes out of just a few ingredients, or doing so much with just one vegetable.”
Daqouri says many of his patrons leave happy, satisfied bellies, thanking him for bringing back a taste they'd missed.
“They tell us they used to drive to Damascus on the weekends just for a good meal – so many people in Jordan used to do that. And now the food they missed has come to them.”
The cuisine’s appeal is a fine combination of fresh ingredients, cooking techniques, diversity and – most importantly – the subtlety of flavour. Syrians have perfected the art of incorporating the maximum amount of flavour into the smallest morsel, using the minimum amount of the freshest ingredients.
"There's a distinct flavour to Syrian cooking, which is why you find the same dish being made across the Middle East, but none of the variations taste quite like the way Syrians make it," says Um Samer, a 60-year-old grandmother from Hama who has a home catering business she runs with her daughter in East Amman. The two have made a business out of feeding other families and can take up to five or six orders a day.
“We don’t just follow recipes, this is cooking passed down [through the] generations. We make our own spice mix. Syrians use a special red pepper paste to elevate so many dishes; no other Arab cuisine uses it, which is why Syrian molokhia is different than the way Palestinians, Jordanians or Egyptians make it, for example,” she tells me.
Daqouri understands the appeal of home businesses like Um Samer's, and credits them for nourishing a bigger demand for Syrian cuisine in Jordan. "Because of the horrible situation in Syria, and with so many Syrians coming to make lives in Jordan, the understanding of Syrian food here has changed," he says. "Women have created work for themselves by cooking at home and starting catering businesses, which has given Jordanians more of a taste for Syrian home cooking. As Syrians have spread, so has their food."
Perhaps the biggest example of Syrian food's popularity is the increase of Durra stores, and the launch of Durra Markets. Established in 1979 by Syria's Al Durra family, this brand has become synonymous with the best of Syrian produce and goods, not only in Jordan but further afield.
Two years ago, the 40-year-old Al Durra brand opened Durra Market in Amman, on Al Madina Street. The two-storey establishment boasts a supermarket housing all the goods the brand is known for: spices, teas, dried legumes, dried fruits, jars of pickled turnips, cucumbers, eggplant, cabbage, cheeses, spreads, jams and vinegars – all the pantry items typical of a Syrian home.
It also incorporates a small kitchen and bakery, where varieties of Syrian kibbeh are displayed and the Syrian savoury pastries – especially meat sfeeha made with pomegranate molasses – are a firm favourite. Upstairs sits a small restaurant, which has become a popular hangout.
“Since then, we’ve opened more branches,” says owner Mohammed Al Durra. “One more in Amman, two in Irbid, and one in Mafraq, as well as one in Austria and two in Germany that will open over the next few weeks.”
Four decades old, Al Durra began in Syria all those years ago, and is now a brand stocked in supermarkets in more than 60 countries globally. There are even plans to bring an independent supermarket to Dubai in the next year or so because, as Al Durra puts it, “no one can resist Syrian food products”.
“We don’t sell anything you can’t get elsewhere, the difference is in the taste,” he says.
“In the Levant, we all have the same food or drink, but the Syrian version of it has always been known to be the tastiest. People in Jordan say to us that they used to go to Syria to find our products and to eat our food, so we simply brought it to them,” he says.
The market is always busy, with a horde of people often found gathered around the store’s showstopper: a huge machine producing freshly made tahini on the spot. Sesame seeds are poured into one side, and out pours the tahini from the other, where it is mixed with date molasses: this is “tahiniyyeh”, a typical Syrian dish that is scooped up with warm bread and often enjoyed for breakfast or dessert.
“Tahini is made from one simple ingredient: sesame,” says Al Durra. “It’s fresh, it’s natural, it’s clean eating: this is what Syrian food is all about, and this is why people love it so much.”