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Best Middle Eastern Desserts: 7 Syrian Sweets You Must Try

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6 months ago

Middle Eastern desserts are known all around the world for their shapes, colors and flavors. We all know the famous baklava, but there are some very unique Syrian desserts that you absolutely must try.

We’ve worked hard (and stretched our stomachs) to find the most unique Syrian desserts. Some of these can only be found in specific cities and restaurants – but don’t worry, we’ve got you covered on that front, too.

While you’re reading this article, you might realize that you’ve seen these before – maybe at a Lebanese restaurant. Lebanese and Syrian cuisine are very similar (they were one country not too long ago) so you might be able to find some of these desserts in Lebanon as well. Lebanese restaurants are ubiquitous around the world because there are more Lebanese living outside of Lebanon than in Lebanon!

But some of these desserts can almost exclusively be found in Syria. I’ve pointed them out so you don’t miss out on any.

1. Karabeej Halab and Nataf

This is by far and away my favorite Syrian dessert. It’s actually two desserts that combine to make something special. One is a cookie-like biscuit usually filled with pistachios called karabeej, and the other is a meringue dip that is similar to warm marshmallow called nataf.

The biscuit, karabeej, is actually the plural version of the word for ‘cute’ in Arabic, so essentially these are little cuties. These biscuits are known in Arabic cuisine as Aleppo cookies as they’re uniquely flavored with mahlab (cherry seeds) and cinnamon.

Karabeej are normally filled with pistachio or walnuts. The ingredients in nataf, however, are a bit more of a mystery. I asked many people and I couldn’t get a satisfying answer. The only thing I can say confidently is that it is similar to marshmallow and is the perfect dip for these cookies.

Also, you might seem some places make karabeej as fried dough. This is a mere imitation of the real thing. What you really want is the baked cookies. These are very hard to find outside of Aleppo. I think this is one of the most unique Syrian desserts.

Best place to try karabeej and nataf

The best place is definitely at Pistache D’Alep in the Al Jamelaiah district in Aleppo. Everything from the presentation to the taste is done immaculately. They take real pride in their work. And they let you try their other sweets as well!

2. Halawet El Riz

This is a Syrian specialty made with rice, cheese and a clotted cream named ashta. Halawet el riz feels glutinous in the right way. Syrians have a particularly special way of making this dish.

The dessert is made in many ways but in Syria you’ll often see it as pictured: a huge mound of rice, cheese and cream, garnished with pistachios and sweetened with sugar syrup.

There is often rose water in many Middle Eastern desserts. You’ll find many recipes for halawet el riz online with rose water but Syrians often make it without rose water. They do tend to put orange blossom water though.

Halawet el riz is dense and feels gluggy but it’s strangely quite light on the palate. When you find it, make sure to get it with the pistachio crumbs. It just adds that extra crunch.

Best place to try halawet el riz

This dessert is commonly found all around Syria, but probably the best place to find it is in the souq of Aleppo. Many shops will make it as pictured, and it’s very enjoyable to watch them knead through the density. There’s also an excellent patisserie in the old town of Tartus.

3. Tamariyeh wa Kaak

Translating directly to date paste with kaak (a type of bread), this is one of the oldest Damascene desserts that you can find. And when you find it, you’ll notice how proud of this dish Syrians are.

This dessert is a bit of a make-your-own-adventure, but it traditionally made with date and sesame pastes, bananas and raisins. The bread that it is made on is soft and fluffy to touch.

If you manage to find tamariyeh wa kaak, we highly recommend that you get it with the clotted cream (ashta) and condensed milk. I don’t think condensed milk is something Syrians usually cook with, but they’ve found the right home for it in this dessert. I’m all about innovative desserts.

Best place to try tamariyeh wa kaak

You can only find tamariyeh wa kaak in Damascus. It will usually be a street vendor with a mobile kiosk. There are is a shop in the Al Qaimarryeh Market that specialises in tamariyeh wa kaak but we thought the street vendors were better.

4. Mamouniyeh

Mamouniyeh (pronounced ma-mu-ni-ye) is a sweet semolina porridge that is traditionally served at breakfast time. It’s layered with roasted semolina, ghee, sugar syrup and is garnished with the perfect amount of sweet cheese and pistachios.

You’ll see this made in many different ways across Syria because it has become something of a national breakfast dish. I would call this the king of puddings in Syria. It should always be served hot with cinnamon.

It has a sweet cheese running through it. Occasionally, you’ll find mamouniyeh made with ashta or kaymak cheese, both of which are very similar to the clotted cream that we’re used to.

Best place to try mamouniyeh

This is known by Syrians as a specialty of Aleppo, but the best place that we tried it was at Beit Al Wali as part of their infamous Arabic breakfast or “Ftoor”. Incidentally, we still think Beit Al Wali is the best hotel for your stay in Damascus. It combines the best of old-world Damascene charm with incredible service.

I also think Beit Al Wali has the best breakfast spread in the whole world (though Daniel might disagree).

5. Gateau Bharat

This dessert is packed full of flavor. At first sight, it looks like whipped cream sitting on a sponge cake. But it is so much more than that – and there is a special way of eating it which makes it so much more exciting. Gateau bharat translates to spice cake which gives you some idea of the flavors you can expect.

Can you see that amazing dome? Gateau bharat is actually composed of a dome made of sweet spices that is actually closer to a semi-hard meringue in texture, and a denser sponge cake.

The flavor is incredibly unique because the spices aren’t commonly used in Western cooking. And Syrians instinctively know that there is only one way to eat it.

You have to twist the bottom part of the sponge cake until it comes off, and then you smoosh that part of the cake on the top of the dome. If you’ve done it right, you should be eating it like a sandwich.

Best place to try gateau bharat

These are found all over Aleppo. They’re fairly easy to make so you’ll find that most places do them quite well. If you’re having trouble finding it, you might need to use the name for this dessert in Arabic: كاتو بهارات.

6. Qatayef

This dessert isn’t unique to Syria, but I think the Syrians make it better than anywhere else in the region. Qatayef are essentially pancakes that have been stuffed with pistachios or walnuts (or sometimes clotted cream) and deep fried.

You can even ask for your qatayef not to be deep fried if you prefer a softer texture rather than crunch. If you get them the way the Syrians make them, you can expect a quite a lot of crunch. They even put cinnamon on top for that extra something.

Best place to try qatayef

There is a bakery in the Hamadiyeh Market in Damascus which does them beautifully. You’ll find it close to the famous Bakdash Ice Cream shop. Otherwise, look out for little pancakes (this is the same thing but not yet fried) at a shop selling Syrian desserts.

7. Booza

Booza is the Arabic word for ice cream, but it’s a bit of a misnomer because it’s not ice cream as we understand it in the West. It’s made through a process of pounding and stretching in an ice-cold drum. This yields a particularly unique texture.

Booza is sometimes known as the first ice cream in the world. It’s made with milk, cream, sugar, mastic (essentially tree sap) and sahlab (orchid flower). It’s the mastic that gives it the stretchy texture. These days, you can find booza in different flavors like vanilla and chocolate but it is traditionally the ‘standard’ flavor.

Traditional ice cream is made by churning which creates a creamier texture, but booza is made in a freezer drum which means that the texture is denser. It’s a unique texture if you’ve never had anything like it before. In a way, it reminds me of Turkish delight. Mastic is a unique feature of Syrian desserts.

Best place to try booza

The ice cream store that is known throughout the Arab world and beyond is Booza Bakdash in the Al-Hamidiyah Souq in the Old City of Damascus. I’ve put it down below so you don’t miss it.

So there you have it: the best Syrian desserts you can find. Make sure you tick off every single one of these when you visit Syria. And report back!


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