Preserving the Traditions of Syrian Swimming Pool Cuisine
With the Syrian civil war now in its fourth devastating year, it's unlikely that Syrian swimming pools are operational.
Tania Frangié first tasted Syrian swimming pool food in 1990. She and her sister Chahla and some friends were out partying in the Mahatet Baghdad neighborhood of Aleppo. They ended up at Jallaa swimming pool, where the dance floor was rippling to the sounds of live Arabic music. The sky seemed so close Tania felt like she could reach out and grab the stars. As the belly dancers started their performance, everyone dove into the platters of mezze in front of them.
There were infinite kebabs, as well as sumac-dusted salads and a colorful parade of dips led by that extraordinary Aleppo specialty, mouhamara, a taste-bud-bending mélange of crushed walnuts, pomegranate molasses, breadcrumbs, pine nuts, cumin, and flé-flé, or Aleppo pepper. Many of the dishes they ate that night can be found on the menu at the Frangié family's Montreal restaurant, Le Petit Alep. "Our food here is inspired by Aleppo city," Frangié says. "And part of that is the way they eat at swimming pools over there."
The atmosphere at Le Petit Alep, which is across the street from the city's famed Jean Talon market, recreates the relaxedness you'd feel at an Aleppan swimming pool circa 1990. It's no longer like that in Syria today, of course. "I don't think the swimming pools over there are in very good shape right now," Frangié told me. "We don't even know how Aleppo's really doing these days."
According to online sources, the Jallaa pool is listed as "may be permanently closed." With the civil war now in its fourth devastating year, it's unlikely that many Syrian swimming pools are still operational. Peace negotiations have failed repeatedly, and hundreds of armed rebel groups and militias continue to battle one another and the Assad regime. There have been reports of barrel bombs—2000-pound oil drums filled with explosives, shrapnel, nails, fuel, and DIY impact fuses—being dropped from helicopters into pools. Chlorine that would normally be used to disinfect swimming pools is being used as a chemical weapon. (Here's a glimpse of what's happening at a former Baathist pool and leisure facility that's been captured by Syrian freedom fighters and is now known as the Aleppo Jihad baths.) The scope of the tragedy is such that the United Nations estimates that, if the war were to end today, it would still take thirty more years for Syria to recover.
The traditions of Aleppo's pre-crisis culinary culture are being preserved at Le Petit Alep in Montreal today. When the Frangié sisters traveled back to their parents' homeland in the summer of 1990 (they emigrated from Syria to Canada in 1975), things were still idyllic. "In normal times, Aleppo is a city of exchange, of fun, of laughter—of people getting together with one another," Frangié says. "And whatever happens, wherever it happens, food is always part of it. You don't just go for a walk; you go for a walk to get an ice cream. You don't just play a game of backgammon; you play a game of backgammon with a bag of fresh pistachios at your side. You don't just go to a secret beach; you have breakfast at a special spot along the way. Everything occurs around food."
Although the Frangié sisters grew up in Montreal, a renowned food-lovers' capital, they were amazed at the way eating is a non-stop pastime in Syria. "Even if we already had dinner somewhere, we'd come home and our relatives would put more food in front of us," she explains. "Aleppans always have food in their mouths. No matter what they're doing, they're always munching on this or that."
Still, there was something transformative about eating at Jallaa swimming pool, which also served meals during the daytime. Lunchtimes poolside were all about toshkas, grilled pitas filled with ground meat and Aleppan cheese spiced with ground cherry kernels, called mahlab. "When my friends and cousins first invited us to the pool one morning, I was expecting a public swimming pool like here in North America," recalls Tania. "As soon as we walked in, I noticed there was a guy cooking next to the pool. He had a charcoal grill and was doing a barbecue-on-the-beach kind of thing. It struck me, but I didn't really pay much attention to it after that."
She and her gang were lounging in the water when someone suggested they have a bite to eat. "I was like 'eat what?'" she says. "We had our bathing suits and our towels, so I expected we were gonna go home for lunch, but instead we got some toshkas right there. It was so surprising to me. Here in North America we have the 'don't eat and swim' mentality. Over there, they ate at the swimming pools. People were chilling and eating right next to the pool. I never would've expected a swimming pool could be so restaurant-oriented."
In much the same way, most people wouldn't expect a restaurant to be so swimming-pool oriented, but Le Petit Alep is in some ways an homage to that dining tradition. (To be clear: there's no actual swimming pool in the restaurant.) Just as Jallaa pool featured live music at night, so did Le Petit Alep, at least when it first opened in 1995. (It's too busy for performances nowadays.) Quebecois musical luminaries like Lhasa de Sela and Mononc' Serge played here in the early days. They still have exhibitions by local artists, though, and even though you can't go for a swim, you can still catch glimpses of those sunny days in their dishes and in the restaurant's narrative.
"We had our bathing suits and our towels, so I expected we were gonna go home for lunch, but instead we got some toshkas right there. It was so surprising to me. Here in North America we have the 'don't eat and swim' mentality. Over there, they ate at the swimming pools."
"The swimming pool vibe at Le Petit Alep was always meant to represent the second generation of people who came here to Montreal from Aleppo," Frangié explains. "My parents were part of the first generation. They came in 1975, and they opened a restaurant called Alep the following year."
Alep, located next door, is a formal sit-down restaurant, whereas Le Petit Alep is more simple and casual. (The two, connected by a corridor, share one common kitchen.) "Le Petit Alep was conceived as a place where you can have something fast and good that's not too pricey," she says. "A place to get a glass of wine and a bite to eat, something healthy and not too complicated. The stuff at the swimming pool in Aleppo was light and delicious, and you can find that same sensibility here, that easiness. When we were just doing Alep, we didn't have pitas on the menu, but Syrians would still come in and say, 'Can you make us a toshka?' Now we do them here." (There's a significant Middle Eastern community in Montreal, and just under half of all Syrians who've emigrated to Canada now live in the province of Quebec.)
Le Petit Alep is not one of those places that tourists know about, although it's always packed with locals. Part of the reason for its success is its proximity to the Jean-Talon market. "My mom is OCD about cleanliness and freshness," Frangié explains. "It's so crucial that the market is right here. We can always run over and get something if we need it."
Another reason Le Petit Alep is so exceptional is that Frangié's mother Jacqueline and her sister Chahla cook all the food (their father opened the restaurant with them, but he passed on in 2005). "My mom and my sister are always in the kitchen together," explains Tania, who runs the front of house. All the dishes at Alep and Le Petit Alep are essentially home-cooked Syrian food.
That family touch is something that can never be exactly replicated at home, but the Frangié ladies kindly agreed to share the following recipes for classic Aleppo swimming pool food with readers. May these dishes—these reminders of brighter days—also represent wishes for peace, understanding, and an end to the civil war. As the strife continues, our hearts and thoughts remain with the Syrian people.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES on May 30th, 2014.