If you speak to a resident of Aleppo or a national living abroad, you’ll soon discover that Aleppians share a common passion. They pride themselves in their cuisine and unequivocally declare theirs to be the best in the Middle East.
With a strong attachment to culinary traditions, their recipes are well-guarded. The home cook learns from the experience of older generations instead of relying on cookbooks. Restaurants, cafés and shops selling seasonal specialities and sweets do not reveal their recipes, ingredients or methods of preparation. As a result, the pride in their culinary heritage poses the question, where would an Aleppian choose to dine when celebrating a major event?
Beit Sissi, or Sissi House is a 17th-century residence that claims to be one of the first of many historic houses to be restored and used as a restaurant. The kitchen serves traditional Aleppian food in an oriental décor over lunch and dinner.
Getting to Beit Sissi prepares the visitor for the experience. The taxi driver drops you in Jdeideh Square and you make your way down the street and through the narrow and ancient alley called Sissi Street. High stone walls, cobblestones, shutters on small windows and Armenian shop signs, acclimatise you to an ambience of yesteryear. Then you enter via a small gate.
The restaurant is a visual delight. While you admire the grandeur of the interior rooms with awe, you feel as welcome as if you haven stepped into a family’s stately home. A large courtyard with arched windows and an oriental ambience calls for open air dining had it not been for the soaring mercury in the middle of summer.
Inside one of the rooms, our party of forty was seated and in no time, tumblers of Arak (an aniseed flavoured distillate mixed with water) were raised in the air for a formal toast. Attentive waiters ensured every comfort was met while they remained inconspicuous. Plates of mezze or dozens of small dishes adorned the white napery tempting the eye and the palate.
From the chicken with taratore sauce (a blend of tahini and lemon juice) to the mortadella halabiya (traditional Aleppian-style mortadella), every staple dish was exquisitely prepared and presented. With such a choice of dishes, one had to try everything including mhammara (dip made with peppers, walnuts and pomegranate molasses), sujok (small sausages perfumed with a special blend of spices), kibbeh nayyeh (minced beef expertly ground with burghul, onions, dressed in olive oil and served raw), bastourma (Armenian dry-cured and air-dried beef), kofta with mint, and my favourite garlic dip, toum, aioli-like and whipped so light which can be eaten as a mezze or a perfect complement to many meat and chicken dishes.
Main courses consisted of beef, chicken and lamb, some grilled, skewered or char-grilled. The meat was so tender it melted in the mouth. Liyeh, or lamb fat, is used in Aleppian cooking and comes from sheep with fat in the tail and the rump region. The cooked fat is very soft in texture, full of flavour and doesn’t leave a greasy feel in the mouth. Then came my favourite dish, kabab bil karaz, (ground meat made with small sour cherries served on pieces of bread and scattered with pine nuts). The sweet and sour combination was ever so delectable.
A selection of desserts was presented with thick Arabic coffee soon before the word sieste was on everyone’s lips.
Beit Sissi embodies Aleppian culinary pride. The food is everything one would expect from a restaurant in the city of traditions. The flavours are authentic, complex and fresh.
Like the first meal you enjoy after a lingering cold has finally lifted, each dish surpassed the next. Beit Sissi remains to this day the best culinary Middle Eastern cuisine I have experienced.
For more information about Aleppo’s food, don’t miss our food and drink guide: What to Eat in Aleppo Syria