Over dinner last Monday evening, my parents and I leafed through a pile of quietly ageing scrap books full of memories of their trip to Syria over 25 years ago. Our conversation focused on tickets to dusty archeological museums; faded postcards of antiquities long gone; photographs of groups of happy children curious to discover more about their visitors’ fair skin and fancy cameras; the notes of historians written in the margins; curling leaflets and maps; and photographs of Palmyra, a desert city east of Damascus that existed for centuries and which once served as an oasis for caravans on the Silk Road. Part of the Roman Empire, it was once a thriving, wealthy metropolis and became, until very recently, one of the world’s most inspiring and though-provoking destinations. The faces in those photographs haunted us and we wondered what become of them all. Coincidentally, I was in Turkey at the same time, visiting Ephesus, a port city that was considered be the most important and largest metropolis of the old Mediterranean world and one the best preserved places of antiquity in Asia Minor. As I gingerly walked through those dusty streets, my sandaled feet stepping on stones worn down by marching Roman soldiers, I noticed the signs etched into the walls designed to direct others to the tiny brothels that lined narrow streets. Harbour Street, the great theatre, Marble Road, Celcius Library, the The Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates, Commercial Agora, latrina, Temple of Hadrian, the Scolastica Baths, Trajan Fountain, Curetes Street, Polio Fountain, Memnius Monument, the Temple of Domitian, the Prytaneion, Odeon and the State Agora. There they all still stand, shimmering relics of an Empire now lost but never forgotten. I remember coming across a tiny taverna for lunch. It was a simple little place, its olive trees hung with fading canvas canopies for shade. Shards of light streamed through the tiny holes to illuminate a singular table as if to invite me in. Alongside a platter of green leaves and a bowl of herb-packed hummus, I ordered sumptuous stuffed red peppers which reminded me very much of koosa mahshi, the stuffed vegetables so redolent of Syria (also Turkey and the southern Greek islands). I asked the owner – Sami – about the recipe, it turns out it was given to him by his great Grandmother who was a daughter of Arak, an oasis in the Syrian desert positioned along the road between Palmyra which is 28 kilometers to the southwest and al-Sukhnah to the northeast. Sometimes the connections that the Universe presents to us cannot be ignored. Although Sami’s dish featured lamb, this recipe is vegan and no less tasty for it.
1 large brown onion, finely chopped
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
250g of Arborio rice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to your taste
4 tbsp pine kernels, toasted (you can also use flaked almonds)
4 tbsp golden sultanas
4 large plum tomatoes, de-seeded and finely diced
200g feta, crumbled (optional)
30g fresh parsley, chopped
30g fresh dill, chopped
30g fresh mint, chopped
2 tsps of Lebanese 7-spice mix (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, fenugreek, black pepper and cloves)
1 lemon, juiced
8 large red bell peppers, halved from bottom to top leaving the stalk intact, seeds and membranes removed
How I make them
In a large frying pan, heat 2tbsp of the olive oil and fry the onion until it is soft.
Add the rice and stir slowly until it’s about to turn translucent. Add 500ml of boiling water and season generously. Turn the heat down, partially cover and allow to simmer for 15 minutes until all the water has been absorbed but the rice remains just al dente.
Turn the rice out into a large mixing bowl and allow to cool slightly.
Then stir in the pine kernels, raisins, chopped tomato, feta (if using), the herbs and spices, the lemon juice and the remaining olive oil. Season to your taste.
Heat an oven to 180C.
Carefully pack the rice mixture into the halved peppers, place in a roasting tray, drizzle with olive oil and cover with foil. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes then remove the foil and bake for a further 20 minutes until the flesh is cooked through and the top of the rice mixture is golden brown.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving with lashings of fresh herbs.
In the cooler months, you can change this up by substituting the pine kernels with toasted slivered almonds, the Lebanese 7-spice with Arabic amba spice mix (mango powder, ground mustard seeds, dried lime powder, turmeric, cayenne and ground fenugreek seeds) and adding little squares of Manchego cheese.