Sami Saltagi is a bartender at Bistro du Marche. Sylvie Diot and Sammi Wehsener recently sat down with Saltagi to discuss his heritage and the fascinating culture of Syrian cuisine.Sylvie: Sami, let’s start by having you tell us a bit about your heritage.

Sami: I was born in Italy and moved to Damascus when I was maybe a month old. My dad is from Syria, and my mom from Italy. My mom worked for an Italian airline, and she opened the first airline office in Damascus, which gave me the opportunity to attend an international school with many expatriate children. When I turned six years old my parents put me in a public Arabic school. At home, we spoke Italian and hung out with expats and foreign dignitaries. We learned Arabic and about its culture through going to a public school.

Sylvie: Two countries, two cultures, two religions, two everything… in that sense it was very diverse in Damascus compared to a lot of other places that I’ve been to.

Sami: Well, we traveled all of Syria to visit a lot of archeological sites. My parents’ friends and coworkers were avid travelers, and we would go visit a variety of sites, whether it was a castle or Roman ruins. Sometimes we would have a caravan of ten cars and just travel throughout Syria.

Sylvie: Were you sleeping in the desert somewhere?

Sami: We did everything. We went from five star hotels to sleeping with Bedouins. We’ve been to places where people were wealthy to places where people had never seen a car.

Sylvie: What you would eat when staying with the Bedouins?

Sami: So, the Bedouins only have what they are produce, including sheep, milk, cheese, meat.

Sylvie: Aren’t the Bedouins travelers?

Sami: Not as much anymore. Some move nationwide, and others move across borders. A lot of them have their own areas where they live, whether it is an agricultural space or for livestock. There are areas where we used to go hunting down on the border around Jordan and Israel. All the Bedouins that lived in these areas would have unofficial control over the land. They would spot us and invite us over for lunch or breakfast and we would eat whatever products they had. We could buy products from them, and then they made money that way too.

Sylvie: Did they live in homes or tents?

Sami: Tents, tents all tents.

Sylvie: And they cooked everything with wood and fire?

Sami: Well, we’re talking about certain kinds of dishes of bread and a lot of dips and cheeses, dates, olives. There are also a lot of dishes with yogurt. They cooked lamb and produced labneh from goat milk. There is a famous cheese called Scheelar, and then they also have the Halloumi cheese, which is the one that you can grill.

Sylvie:I’ve researched a little bit about Syria, and it often came up that Aleppo was the gastronomical center of Syria.

Sami: We used to go to Aleppo a lot! It was very famous for their food, including what they called comous, which is like an appetizer. It’s kind of the Syrian and Middle Eastern way to just put a table full of constant appetizers. And it would be, you know, nonstop for hours. And Aleppo’s famous, but Damascus does the same thing. I’ve visited Aleppo maybe five or six times, but I don’t really know Aleppo. I know Aleppo like you would know Aleppo if you went to Aleppo as a tourist. But I never lived there.

Sylvie: Was there a presence of well-known chefs in Syria? I mean, I would imagine that it’s not like Europe or the United States, where you would have a five-star celebrity chef.

Sami: Typically, a lot of the very successful restaurants tend to be family-run. Mother, father, children. It’s a generational thing. Just the way it would be in Europe and some places here. You would go to Damascus before, and it was just the chef-owner and his restaurant, whereas now it’s the same thing as here. Investors find someone and train them. There were a lot of restaurants that brought people from abroad and there were restaurants that would send Syrians abroad to study. Damascus became a pretty hip place, it became a kind of a center for everyone else in the Middle East as it was a lot more progressive and a lot more liberal. You could go shopping, clubbing, drink alcohol. It was very open minded in that sense, and people would come from all over. Beirut is similar but it’s a lot more expensive and more chaotic compared to the way Damascus was. People from Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, the Gulf region…all of those would come to Damascus. The second summer started, they would rent caravans and even entire buildings and spend their whole summer there.

Sylvie: Let’s talk about Syrian cuisine. What tends to be a common style found in Syrian cuisine?

Sami: They do a lot of stews because it is a rich cuisine. It is actually very similar in some ways to Tuscan cuisine. Whereas it’s delicious and it’s colorful, but they don’t use prime pieces of meat. You know that you’re not going to get a prime rib. Instead, they use the extra cuts that people don’t use, cook them for much longer, and find ways to season them and make them tastier. When you cook those types of meat for a very long time with spices and vegetables, it turns out to be very delicious. They also use animal fat in their cuisine. You know how sheep have that big butt sometimes that comes out? Kind of like the tail? That’s fat. That’s what they use. They cut that off and use that as the fat to fry.

Sylvie: That’s similar to how we use duck fat! in France, you put it in to cook with French fries.

Sami: Yes, exactly. They use it for almost anything. If you wanted to fry an egg, you would use that stuff. It is delicious and fantastic, but you know it’s a killer.

Sylvie: I’m surprised they don’t use olive oil.

Sami: They do use a ton of olive oil! Just not a lot for cooking. They use a lot raw olive oil. But when they cook meat and stuff they tend to use animal fat. It’s so fat that you just keep it in the cupboard in these big jars. It looks a lot like clarified butter.

Sylvie: So the animals are mainly kept for the production of the milk, of fat, and a little bit for eating.

Sami: Yes, yes, yes, and just as much for eating as well!

Sylvie: So you don’t eat any fish at all?

Sami: Well, there is a lot of fish on the coast. Syria has this coastal part, which is about five percent of its land, but the fish there is huge! People come from all over the country and go to the coast and eat fish. They also love the small little fried fish. They have two or three different kind. They are tiny. They kind of look like sardines or anchovies. I mean, I can ask my dad and see what he knows. He just got back from Damascus three days ago. He was there for two weeks.

Sylvie: Oh really?

Sami: Yeah, he went back to Damascus about two or three weeks ago. I was so nervous when he went, but he came back and everything was fine. He said it’s a disaster there. Damascus went from 900,000 inhabitants when I lived there, and back then it was a pretty crazy city. Now it’s been completely sealed off and over six million people are in Damascus now.

Sylvie: Six million?!

Sami: Over six million, over six million.

Sylvie: And they are coming to Damascus from the countryside? Sami: Yeah, they came from everywhere when the war broke out, and then the government sealed the city in. If you’re inside, then you’re inside. Meanwhile, rebels are outside and are trying to protect their own.

Sylvie: What about the food? At this point, where is it coming from?

Sami: The food is still coming from Damascene suburbs. However, prices have gone up. For example, we used to buy tablecloths that were hand embroidered and made of silk. It used to be around 100 Syrian Pounds, which was about a month’s salary. It went from 100 Syrian Pounds to 5,000. Now, for the cheapest one, it’s almost 40,000 Syrian pounds. I mean, even in comparison to the dollar, everything has inflated. Before, it was about 50 Syrian Pounds to the US Dollar. Last I heard, it is now 600 Syrian Pounds to the dollar. From 50 to 600.

Sylvie: Unbelievable…Let’s get back to some of your memories. What do you remember about wine and beverages available in the Middle East?

Sami: Lebanon actually produces a decent wine. You could find it all over Syria. You could even find it in San Francisco. Beer was produced in Syria. They had a pretty good beer, I remember, called Barada. You could buy alcohol pretty much anywhere in Damascus when I grew up. Not necessarily in all stores, but in hotels, which also had imported beverages and alcohol. You could drink anywhere, which was a pretty open-minded thing.

Sylvie: Are there any other parts of Syria that you know and have seen affected by the current conflict?

Sami: Well, Zabadani is one of the worst areas in Syria now. It was in the news recently where the city was under siege and raided for years. And Zabadani is where we used to spend our summers and winters. It was known as the highest point in Syria, and was the freshest during the summers. There were many beautiful restaurants around, and you could see that they got their ingredients directly from the source. Every Friday they people would come from all over Damascus. It was a popular location in the winter too, as it would snow. It was hard hit from the beginning, and since 2012, they have been surrounded. It’s stuck right now between rebels and government.

Sylvie: How far is it from Damascus?

Sami: It’s about 45 kilometers from Damascus.

Sylvie: What kind of spices do you use in Syrian cuisine?

Sami: There are so many that you simply cannot not use spices. You can make any dish, and until you put the spice in, it does not taste right. Just a few spices can make any dish come together. One of the notable ones in Syria is called Baharat, and it’s essentially a mix of spices. It includes paprika, cumin, coriander, and pepper. You can add it to anything.

Sylvie: Is there anything you would like to add?

Sami: Yeah! There is one thing that I have always noticed, and I don’t know if it’s the way food is structured, or the way that they have structured themselves to eat in history, but as much as it is in Italy or in Europe, a meal is a very social event. In Syria, I feel it is much more so. The host feels an importance to feed you. It is not necessarily out of being cordial or respectful, but it’s a necessity. It’s engrained. It’s in the religion. It’s in the culture. I was shocked when the Bedouins would come to us to invite us to breakfast, but for them not inviting us would be shameful. If I weren’t invited, I wouldn’t criticize them for being rude. But, the Bedouin would be saying that they are more ashamed of themselves for not treating us. In fact, when I would walk up to my house every day, I would always wait for my neighbors to close their door, because if I happened to walk in front of their house while they were eating, they would drag me in to feed me. It would be extremely rude and uncultured of them to not give complete hospitality. Whether you’re a man, a girl, a boy, or even an enemy, they have to feed you. It wasn’t just your grandmother feeding you, it was everybody’s grandmother and they all wanted you to eat! And you don’t eat to be happy, you eat to make them happy.

Sylvie: Do you feel their recipes are as tricky as the French?

Sami: No, they’re not as strict, but there is a base. People switch ingredients around, not as much as they do here with the fusion style cuisine. In that sense, they are a lot more traditional. But also, because you cook with the family, you’re cooking with ten other people, so you don’t want to stray from tradition to keep any fight from breaking out.

Sammi: So tradition is important to them?

Sami: Oh yes, tradition and culture are everything. They will pride themselves to say that their grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother all made it the same way. They are very proud of that.

Sammi: I did have one question. When you were saying that it’s part of the culture to feed everyone, is it religion that influenced the culture like that, or are there other aspects that played a part?

Sami: Well, the tradition reflected the reality of life at the time. If you look at Christianity through the Old Testament, it’s very similar to the Qur’an. Whether it’s about the violence or other parts, people knew that it was a crazy place to be in. Furthermore, because of the wars and other turbulence, food had to be rationed. So, when you had food you shared it. It’s the whole point of Ramadan now. The reason for Ramadan is that so everybody feels hunger, and feels a lack of resources. So, when everyone eats at the same time on the same day, it’s like everyone is sharing a meal. Originally, Ramadan was about going hungry and thirsty all day, and when you would break bread at night, you were supposed to feed somebody with you.
Sylvie: Alright, well thank you for taking the time to share all of this with us!