Fadi Kalkosh has had an extensive tryst with sweets—the 30-year-old began his career as a baker’s assistant when he was only 13. Under the watchful eyes of the head chef at a local bakery in a Syrian market, he perfected the art of making baklava, the iconic crispy puff pastry steeped in centuries-old history.
In the last five years, Kalkosh has worked at the Park Hyatt in Dubai, where one of his signature creations is a chocolate and hazelnut baklava, as if the traditional pistachio-laden one wasn’t sinful enough. The chef was at the Hyatt Regency in New Delhi recently. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Sinfully rich: Kalkosh has been making baklavas since he was 13. Photo by Javeed Shah/Mint
Tell us about modern Syrian cuisine.
Syrian food hasn’t changed at all in years. We have just started to use better oils. Our breakfasts are similar to the English. Lunch usually comprises of different kinds of rice (cooked with ghee and green beans—very much like the Indian pulao). Even though it’s nothing too special, we eat it with lamb and chicken. One of the most important parts of the Syrian meal is kabah moehae or lamb meat roasted and eaten with soup and salad.
Since there’s close proximity with Turkey, we also have a lot of humus, falafel and baba ganoush. I’ve noticed that many Indian places serve moutabbal as baba ganoush, which is Syrian-Lebanese. Vegetables like tomato, pepper and onions go into moutabbal.
Which dessert is representative of West Asia, and Syria in particular?
Baklava. It oozes tradition. The dessert came up in Turkey centuries ago, and spread to the entire Middle East. While the original one (from Turkey) is a puff pastry made with walnuts, ghee and sugar syrup, in Syria we make it with different nuts, like pistachio. The most challenging bit about making baklava is the puff pastry made with white flour, corn flour and salt. I make my own version of the baklava with chocolate. I mix chocolate in the dough and also add cooking chocolate with the hazelnuts. It tastes a lot like Ferrero Rocher (chocolates).
Do dates figure in desserts?
They are popular in Saudi Arabia. The variety that comes from there is usually very sweet and dry. In Syria, we put them in a cookie, mamoul.
What are the must-haves in a Syrian kitchen?
Ghee is one of the most important and main ingredients. We don’t add any sugar to our food. We use sesame generously. Our recipes haven’t changed over many, many years. Everyone’s recipes are universal.
Syria is well known for its cheese. Any desserts that are made with it?
In the winters most people like to eat kunafa cheese. It is a kind of puff pastry filled with unsalted cheese. We add sugar syrup to the cheese and steam it. It’s eaten hot, with the cheese oozing out.
Syrians also make halvat (like halwa), which is made from semolina flour except that it’s filled with cheese. Again the cheese is not salted (soaked in water overnight) and different varieties of cheese can be used. Most commonly used is the white cheese, which is dipped in water for one day to remove its saltiness.
Which other cuisines are popular?
Italian is popular, we prefer to eat breads. Pizzas are everywhere. We don’t have any (East) Asian food. Recently, a few Chinese restaurants have come up.
What are the popular street foods in Syria?
Shawarma and falafel. If you don’t eat shawarma from the markets of Syria, you haven’t eaten the real shawarma at all! I don’t eat shawarma from anywhere else. The first thing I do when I reach home is eat Syrian falafal and humus. For dinner, I buy some shawarma from street vendors. I don’t even like the idea of eating shawarma from an Egyptian chef!
Do any of the desserts use local spirits?
Since it is a Muslim state, not many people drink alcohol. Some Christians, and Muslims like me (laughs), do. But we don’t add any alcohol to our foods or desserts. But whenever anyone is out in the markets, they’ll drink this popular non-alcoholic drink, kumet handi (dried apricot juice). It’s a great cooler.
150g fine sugar
230g deseeded dates or pistachio
100g confectioner’s sugar
In a bowl, mix flour, ghee, sugar, yeast and knead to a dough. Keep aside for a while. For the filling, boil water in a pan and put in the dates. Cook till the dates form a pulp. If using pistachios, mix with icing sugar and a little rosewater. Take a lump of dough and mould it into a cup that fits the palm of your hand. Stuff with the date or pistachio mixture. Pinch the edges of the cup together to seal the filling in, and gently roll the dough into a smooth ball. Flatten the ball like a cookie and place smoothest side down on a greased baking tray. You can also draw a design on the cookies with a fork. Bake at 250 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes. Take the cookies out before they turn brown. Serve fresh off the oven after liberally dusting confectioner’s sugar. Store the mamoul in an airtight jar when completely cool.
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