The Middle East’s greatest contribution to the culinary world and global happiness is arguably the baklava, along with its many wonderful variations. These tiny morsels of pleasure, made up of a dense, nutty centre surrounded by flaky phyllo pastry drenched in fragrant syrup, works as a pretty good antidote to ward off afternoon fatigue. Just as your body feels sapped of energy along comes this wonderdrug disguised as food to get you up and going again. I often use it to fight off depression because I very strongly feel that relying on anti-depressant tablets to cure sadness is a bit radical, and I’m a rather moderate person by nature.
Damascus is dotted with shops displaying row upon row of baklava, stacked onto each other to form a sort of pyramid to entice the passing pedestrian. I almost always fail to resist the temptation. The best thing about baklava is that they come in small, manageable pieces, which allows you to sample 3 or 4 or 7 at a time, lending the illusion of excessive consumption when in fact you haven’t eaten that much at all. Contrast this with one of those jumbo cakes in the glass displays of Italian restaurants on Melbourne’s Lygon Street that leaves you totally ashamed of your gluttony once you’ve wiped the last remaining whipped cream off your face.
Another popular destination for the sweet toothed is the venerable Bakdash, an ice-cream parlour with décor stuck in the 70s which has become something of a Damascene institution, and a must-stop for tourists ever since it was included in the Lonely Planet to-do list.
This is one place where you won’t be spoiled for choice because the sole drawcard is the milk-and-rosewater flavoured Arabic ice cream known as bouzat haleeb. It has a distinctly gummy texture, primarily due to the use of mastic gum, an aromatic resin commonly used in the Middle East. For 25 Syrian pounds (1 USD = 48 SYP) you get the equivalent of about 3 overly-generous scoops of Bakdash’s famous ice cream coated in pistachios and redolent of the exotic delights of Syria.
Note: If you’re in Melbourne and curious for a taste of bouzat haleeb, Balha’s dessert shop on Sydney Road Brunswick has a passable version, although the texture is not as gummy and the serving size considerably smaller.