Spice and steam

All of us who appreciate history, art, architecture and food cannot be indifferent to what is happening in Syria today. Damascus, a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered to be the historic cradle of civilization, has offered me so much during my visits there that I wanted to pay a tribute to it in this post.

In my job, I’m very often asked, “What has been your best culinary experience?” Most of the time people expect to hear a multi-Michelin star anecdote from Tokyo or Paris, yet quite often I share the unique multi-sensorial dinner I experienced in a hamam in Damascus (Hamam Almalek Alzaher Baybars in Old Damascus, the oldest hamam in Damascus, dating back to 985 AD), around four years ago. I still recall each detail …

Like any Damascene, I entered the hamam from the street through a humble and discreet door which opened to a true piece of architectural art — a huge, impressive dome, softly illuminated through little windows all around that let some of the steam escape from the hot rooms and was completed by exotic scents and music.

Within a few minutes, I was fitted out with a towel around my waist and wooden sandals and through the Wastani (literally the “intermediate room”) entered into the dim Juwani with little light coming through blue glass globes around the ceiling.

After finishing my bath ritual, I survived a tough yet rejuvenating massage and was wrapped from head to toe in a sophisticated construction of towels. With my new-baby skin I was escorted back to the Barrani (literally the “exterior”) where my friend — Chef Imad el din Al Dakr — had prepared one of the most exquisite table settings I had ever seen on a stage in the main room.

Mutabbal (eggplant), Hoummos (chickpea), Yaprak (vegetarian vine leaf) and various other Mezze — always a minimum of seven dishes — were generously offered, while the kebbé, kabab and rice (must be “long grain”) were taken out of hot boxes. I dipped bread into the olive oil and traditional Za’tar, drank Zhourat (Arabian herbal tea blend including some Damask rose) and enjoyed a special Arabian ful. This dish is normally only served at breakfast, but my host insisted his was the best in town, and I had to try it. (He was right!)

Have you ever experienced a dinner wrapped in towels, listening to heady music and smelling oriental fragrances while discovering dishes whose ingredients and condiments quite often remind you of the ones used in body treatments, talking and socializing, before finishing with a traditional shisha and a tea? Trust me — the food does not taste the same in such an environment and in such a rudimentary outfit. Try it at home, and you’ll see!

And even if you are as shy as I am — at least when it comes to sharing a dinner dressed in towels, surrounded by people smoking shisha, drinking teas or looking after children running around — never refuse such an invitation. It will change the way you look at gastronomy and is what I consider a true multi-sensory and global culinary experience.