For as long as I can remember, my family’s home has been open for all to come and enjoy a meal and conversation. So was my grandparents’ home in Syria, and every other generation before that—dating back to the Ottoman empire, and beyond. For me, one particular meal always brings out the history and warmth of a culture, now mostly lost, that’s difficult to describe to outsiders: the full Syrian breakfast.
I may be biased, but there is nothing more appetizing than a fully laid out dining room table exuding the scents of centuries’ worth of flavors. Nour Eddin Abdul Bari, a Salt Lake City-based chef who recently immigrated to the U.S. with his family, agrees: “In Syria, each dish—whether breakfast, lunch or dinner—has its own story. For breakfast, it’s the most important dish because it’s what all the family members share. It’s the time where the whole family can be together.”
When my family and I sit down to dozens of Levantine dishes—like maghdoos (pickled eggplant in olive oil), labneh (tart, strained yogurt) and multiple types of cheeses and olives—the long course of bites, nibbles, and bottomless tea and coffee sets us up for hours-long conversations.
It’s no surprise that, due to the the country’s ancient culture and the influence of the empires that conquered it throughout history, Syrian cuisine tends to have many cohesive touches of Mediterranean qualities. "Syrian food, like Greek and Armenian food, is derivative of Turkish food,” Philip Kayal, author of A Taste of Syria, explains. “All these have an influence on one another."
"For breakfast, it’s never cereal or anything like that,” Kayal says. “Instead, there’s Syrian bread, now called ‘pita,’ trays of mezza, and often some pastries for the guests.” Similarly, Abdul Bari says that, “The table must also have eggs—whether fried, hard-boiled, or both—and also fresh vegetables.”
But perhaps the most integral part of any Syrian breakfast is the variety of cheeses. First, there’s “‘stretched cheese,’ which was brought to Syria by the Armenians when the Turks drove them out. It’s made from unsalted mozzarella,” Kayal explains. “Then there’s ‘Syrian cheese.’ It’s a hard cheese placed into a dripping cup that shapes it, then it’s salted.”
Indeed, there is nothing like homemade string cheese to set the breakfast (pushing brunch) mood at my family home. In fact it’s so important, my mom doesn’t believe that a breakfast table is complete without it.
Also among the fresh dairy is labneh, “a homemade yogurt—it’s eaten as a spread with olive oil and mint on the top,” according to Kayal, who points out that labneh has become popular appetizer dip at parties these days.
"All these things can be eaten by themselves or together,” Kayal says of the varied dishes, while Chef Abudl Bari points out that the serving of these dishes depends on what’s available in the house.
In Syrian homes, the variations and quantity of dishes typically reflects the hospitality of the hosts. For my family, whenever a friend or stranger enters our home, offering them a colorful table of our favorite breakfast recipes signals the love we’ve put into it. For Syrians, when it comes to serving guests, more is more.
Chef Abdul Bari, who’s currently an entrepreneur at Spice Kitchen Incubator—a program of the International Rescue Committee developed in partnership with Salt Lake County—specializes in an East-meets-West fusion that pleases a wide range of tastes. And while he tends to incorporate Syrian culinary touches into his dishes, he admits that the American market isn’t always familiar with the more nuanced, less-marketed Syrian cuisine.
For example, these days hummus can be found at virtually any supermarket, but delicious breakfast items like foul mudammas (a fava bean dip), manakish (pastry pies topped with za'atar, cheese, etc.); and cheese burek (feta-filled phyllo pies) often go sadly unnoticed by many Americans. As a Syrian-American, it often feels extra special to be able to eat these exotic breakfast items, and in turn introduce them to non-Middle Eastern friends (who end up asking for the recipe).
At the end of the day, as is evident in many cultures, Syrian breakfast is more about family and connections than it is about the scrumptious variety and delicious options. In his interpreted Arabic, Chef Abdul Bari puts it best: “As far as Syrian breakfast goes, it has to revolve around the family sitting together. The dish itself isn’t just food; it’s about love and gathering people together.”