31 July 2007

The Best Cashews, and Why I Love the Kurds

summer salad with melon and cashews
Summer Salad with Melon, Mozzarella, and Cashews

There are a lot of great things I love about my old neighborhood in Damascus, called Muhajereen. Nestled up into the mountain-side, it's got a fabulous market, well-priced rents and apartments that offer beautiful views. Muhajereen means "the immigrants," referring to immigrants from Crete that settled the area long ago, although these days the neighborhood is home to middle class families that have been in Damascus for hundreds of years. It boasts an ancient winding street with Mamluk-era buildings and a Sufi gravesite where local pilgrims come and bring picnic lunches to eat in the cool basement shrine. Bordering on Damascus’ chicest neighborhood, Abu Roumaneh, it's a short-walk to my office and nice shops.

the view

However, it's also a conservative neighborhood, and while that means there aren't many other foreigners around (a plus), there are also some minuses. Many women wear extremely conservative dress: black coats, stockings, black gloves, and a double black face-veil with no eye-holes. Before you ask: yes, it's difficult for them to see through it, and no, I don't have to wear a veil, Damascus women wear a wide range of dress based on personal decisions. But let's move on to that other negative, the complete absence of restaurants in Muhajereen. Conservative households always eat at home, together, and much of the structure of the day revolves around the family meal. So while there are plenty of take-out shops, juice bars, and ice cream parlors, including the best felafel stand in the whole city, there are no sit-down restaurants.

This brings me to why I love the Kurds. At the edge of Muhajereen, off a little side street across from the French embassy, is a bright pink sign reading "The Journalists Club." At one time it was a meeting place for journalists, but these days it’s just a slightly shabby restaurant and cafe. The walls are decorated with florid seventies-era wallpaper and gaudy swirled paintings; weak florescent lights reveal a clientele of older Arab men and a smattering of young ex-pats and Syrians. But what draws us is the single fact that the Journalist’s Club sells alcohol. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big drinker, but after a tough day navigating Damascus’ busy streets and bureaucratic struggles, a little glass of wine is a nice way to relax. Though wine and alcohol are available for purchase, the only restaurants and bars with alcohol are in the Christian neighborhoods, far across town from where we live.

The Jounalists Club serves alcohol because it is run by Kurds. I have several Kurdish friends, and though everyone is extremely welcoming in Syria, the Kurds have a unique sense of joy and fun. The other thing that draws us to the Journalist Club is the laid back atmosphere: in a lot of trendy Damascene places it’s all about being seen, women with kohl eyes and men with too much hair gel, at the Journalists Club no one bothers you. And then there’s the cashews. They bring little bowls of roasted cashews to your table that are the most addictive wonderful nuts you’ve ever had. Walking down the hill one evening, Sara mused, “I hope they’ll have the cashews.” Sometimes the bowls are mixed nuts or popcorn, but we adore the cashews. There’s been many an evening I’ve whiled away with a group of expat friends, sipping Lebanese wine and eating one-too-many handfuls of cashews.

nuts please!

We’ve become friends with the Club’s owners, who told us they get the cashews from a little nut roaster not far from our appartment. Now we can get the nuts whenever we want, golden and hot, straight out of the rotating dark barrel. They rarely last the trip home, but I did manage to incorporate them into a lovely summer salad one day. The meaty cashews made a perfect pairing for the softest, sweetest summer melon, sort of like a play on the classic melon-ham pairing, except in a country without pork products. I used a soft herbal green that I have finally figured out is a type of purslane (anyone know a good source for Arabic/English herb translations?!). It’s worth looking for succulent purslane in your local farmers market, but you could substitute baby lettuces. Finally, tiny little balls of mild cheese round out the salad with a creamy note. It’s a wonderful salad I’ve made many times, but I always think of the jovial Kurds at the Journalist’s Club whenever I reach for the cashews.

Summer Salad with Melon and Cashews

3 handfuls purslane, or substitute baby lettuces or arugula
1 cup sweet melon, such as cantalope or charentais, diced
1/2 cup bocconcini (tiny mozzarella balls), or cubes of soft mild cheese
1/2 cup roasted salted cashews
lemon juice, olive oil, salt to taste

Combine the lemon juice and olive oil in a bowl. Add the purslane and toss to coat, then sprinkle with salt. Place the purslane on your serving plate, then arrange the melon, cashews, and cheese on top. Serve.

Variations: If you, like my mother, are deathly allergic to melon, you can substitute ripe peaches. Or if you, like my friend A., are allergic to nuts, you can substitute some slivers of Parma ham. If you’re allergic to melon, nuts, and dairy, well, maybe this isn’t the recipe for you.


Anonymous said...

what a lovely post! thank you so much for sharing. I love the idea of melon and greens and cheese. I'm not sold on the nuts however... maybe I'll have to fly to Damascus to once and for all fall in love with cashews.

Krizia said...

heehee, at first i thought the mozzarella balls were mini marshmallows!!

PinkTacoQ8 said...

mmmm wow iguess you'r a syrian that is cool and its an honor so keep the good posts

Sandi said...

What a great post. You are a fantastic story teller.

Hilda said...

Such a lovely post and my bf knows The Journalists Club and everything you talk about. He says if you scan the arabic name of the herb you're using and send it to me, he should be able to translate it for you (he likes to cook).

Sarah said...

Gorgeous salad! I think every salad really needs a crunchy element, and those roasted cashews look delicious.

Mercedes said...

Ann- well, I think you should visit Damascus anyway, but give the cashews a try (or i bet hazelnuts would be good, or substitute ham?)

Krizia- I know they are funny looking, but they are sooo good. We've been putting them in everything, they're delicious.

Pink- actually, I'm not Syrian at all, I just lived there for work.

Sandi- gosh, thanks.

Hilda- how sweet of you! You and your boyriend sound like quite the well-traveled pair. Is he Arab/Syrian?

Sarah- I totally agree, salads need a little crunch!

Anonymous said...

that looks delicious..and unusual. Thanks for posting it.

Peabody said...

Wow, I need to go to bed...when I first looked at that I thought why are there marshmallows in that salad...but then I read it was cheese. :) Sounds delightful.

Darrow said...

I wonder if arugula ("jarjeer" in the local Arabic) wouldn't work quite well in this salad. I would think the bitterness of the arugula would match well with the melon.

Another reason to love the Kurds: they are the friendliest people I've met in Syria...and terrific backgammon players to boot!

html test said...

Mercedes, he's actually Pakistani but grew up between Lahore, Djeddah and London, so he's fluent in Arabic and has been all over the Middle East for work. The mix of cultures is a big component of why we get along.
May I ask you, because I'm getting confused, are you in DC or in Damascus now? You talk about Dupont circle (which makes me think of DC), but then it sounds like you're in Damascus right now.

Lisa Fain (Homesick Texan) said...

Thank you for that lovely travelog--I'm ready to hop on the next plane to Damascus and while away an afternoon at The Journalists Club, sipping wine and eating cashews.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mercedes, I was so drawn into your fascinating narrative about Damascus that I had to go back and read all your posts about it. The result, of course, is that I want to go there RIGHT NOW!

You write beautifully and your recipes look right up my alley - a salad incorporating fruit, nuts and cheese, for example, is my idea of heaven on a plate!

Mercedes said...

Darrow- I actually made this sald for lunch yesterday to retest the recipe before posting, and I used arugula (jarjeer) and it worked beautifully! P.S. Are you a colleague of my uncle's? Ahlan wa sahlan.

Peabody- I knw everyone keeps thinking the mozzarella are mini marshmallows, arghh! But those little cheese balls are delicious, I can't get over how good they are!

Hilda- very cool. I, too, am a bit of a traveler. I'm currently in the DC area but headed back to nyc next week. I wrote part of the post while in Damascus, hence the confusion, I really should have gone back and changed it all to past tense.

Texan- you should!

Melissa- what a thoughtful complement. I really think Damascus is worth a visit, however, I don't think it's a traditional tourist destination, even though there are lots of historical sights. It is a great cultural experience, and it was a great place to live and an excellent place to cook (at least in terms of ingredients, if not in terms of equiptment).
I totally agree about the salad- in the same vein, we love an apple, gruyere, and walnut salad also.

Anonymous said...

I find it a little sad that you consider women in veils a negative point. We are not forced to wear our veils...we do so of our own accord. We do it so as not to share our beauty with anyone else other than our husband and close family members, among other reasons.
I'm sorry if you find my comment distasteful(as many of the other blog readers will surely feel). You have all the right in the world to take it off, just as we have all the right in the world to wear what we want.
By the way, I visit your blog often and find you tales very entertaining...and your recipes very refreshing.

Mercedes said...

I'm afraid you misunderstood. I do not feel that women wearing veils is a negative point at all. I have never, ever critized a woman's choice to wear the veil- I have many friends who do, and have no problem with it.

I personally do not wear a veil because I'm not a Muslim. When I said that the conservative attitude of my neighborhood had negative aspects, I meant that it is difficult for me because I don't veil. While most people treat me with respect, I don't always fit in and am often judged because I show my face and hair. I do think that all women should feel comfortable whether they chose to veil or not. I sincerely hope that I did not imply otherwise, and I certainly have great respect for women who veil!

Anonymous said...

Served raw or cooked, PURSLANE is poplular as a summer salad vegetable in nearby Turkey, where it appears dressed w/ garlic & yogurt or lemon juice & oil. ( In Turkish its name "semiz otu," means "fat herb.")

Though it grows wild throughout much of the world, purslane is also cultivated (the "tamed" varieties are more tender and have a greater leaf-to-stem ratio than their wild cousins).

This Indian link gives a good photo and some botanical notes:


This second site goes into assorted names in various languages, including medieval Arabic:


What I'd really like to know about is the "trade route" that gets those South Asian cashews to Damascus!



Mercedes said...

Hi Holly-
Thanks so much for that information! It makes sense that purslane is called "fat herb" since it has very fat stalks. I can usually find purslane at farmers markets in baltimore, new york, and washington inn the summer.
I know cashews aren't local to the middle east, but the other popular item at the nut roasteries (aside from seeds) are the "oriental mixes" Japanese-style snacks with wasabi peas!

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

I always picked cashews out of the mixed nuts, so good.
Love the tour.

Anonymous said...

mouth watering desert....

Anonymous said...

Ur page is amazing..I am an exchange student from Jordan, and now i live in Texas, USA..
We call the herb "ba'leh" or some arabs would probably spell it as "ba2le" since we consider the "2" to resemble the "hamza" in our alphabet.
I really like ur page and it is very interesting..
Im craving arabic food right now, Im only 16 and im halfway across the globe from my family =[ but its all good :D I just really wish I could have some of that salad right now, im starving haha..
and by the way, im originally Palestinian, and I lived in Latakia, Syria for about 2 years, and in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for about 7 years.

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