In September, Gary Johnson, an outsider US presidential candidate, had to be reminded of what Aleppo was but most people's knowledge of Syria's second-largest city is clearly framed in the horror images of some of the worst attacks in that country's six years of civil war.

However, for celebrated Lebanese chef and food writer Marlene Matar, Aleppo is the source of a lengthy project to translate the city's famed cuisine to a wider audience.

"Aleppians are very proud of their kitchens and their cuisine," Matar says. "Some of the first students of my cooking lessons in 2000 [in Beirut] were from Aleppo. They were from good families, I loved them and they invited me to their homes. They wanted to show me how different and how delicious [their food] was."

Travelling to the city - an easy four-hour drive from her home in Beirut - between 2008 and 2010, Matar ate in restaurants and hotels, gradually working her way into home kitchens. Her first cookbooks were in Arabic; she speaks fluent French but eventually she realised she could publish the story of Aleppo's food in English, too.


"Aleppians are very stingy with giving out recipes. Families compete to have the best version of a recipe. I even tried to bribe people with money to give me handwritten recipes from the family!" she laughs. "I would cook with the chef, I had my little balance [scale] with me and would be measuring and writing so I could take the recipes home and test them.

"But when luck strikes, it strikes well" says Matar, after she was introduced to the charming old gentleman who headed the Syrian Academy of Gastronomy. He had seen her first cookbook and invited her to publish Aleppo's food story.

The Aleppo Cookbook: Celebrating the Legendary Cuisine of Syria By Marlene Matar (Head of Zeus, $55)
The Aleppo Cookbook: Celebrating the Legendary Cuisine of Syria By Marlene Matar (Head of Zeus, $55)

"He is the man who knows how to taste food, knows how to cook. I made several trips to Aleppo and he took me to the best restaurants, the best families, the cream of Aleppo society. He had an apartment in Beirut, so I used to prepare meals every day with his chef, Zetta."

The book was a family affair. Matar took the photographs of the city - the famous souk, the city's mosques and streets, all destroyed now - helped by her daughter, Rania Mattar. Husband Raja Mattar wrote the book's introduction, an intriguing sweep through the culture of one of the oldest cities in the world, that pre-dates the Assyrians.

For some 3000 years, Aleppo was the westernmost crossroad of the Silk Road from China, and Matar was intrigued to find dishes based on Chinese classics (one, milk pudding, is still served in blue and white Chinese bowls). Others with an Italian bent reflect the close relationship the city had with that other great trading centre, Venice.

"It's very tragic. Aleppo was a city of history. Everything you see, you see history," says Matar. "The mixture of civilisations you can feel that; see it in the food. It was a gourmet city, before Paris, before Rome."

While the food of Aleppo has much in common with other parts of the former Ottoman Empire, Matar has teased out key differences. The city's fertile hinterland grew olives, nuts and fruit, and, in May, glorious cherries. The local sour cherries are the basis of many dishes and a source of national pride.

"The kebab with cherries, I can't stop eating. They are not the same as French cherries, but very small, very sour." The grass-fed lamb is tender and pink (she was not moved by this New Zealander's squeak at her assertion that theirs was the best in the world).

Matar is an enthusiastic teacher, starting with the Aleppian "holy trinity" of red pepper paste, pomegranate molasses (stronger and sweeter than we use here) and the paprika-like Aleppo pepper. An entire chapter on kibbeh, the bulgur wheat and meatballs central to the cuisine, shows the depth of the city's take on Syrian food.

Her book is timely. "We in Lebanon endured 15 years of civil war; we know what is happening in Aleppo. The areas where roses, mint and pomegranates are grown are far from Aleppo but they suffered most. They are the poorest, we had in Beirut many of them as beggars," says Matar.

"But in spite of this there are some rural areas that are saved because I can still buy here from an Aleppian lady pomegranate molasses, spices and cherry jam made from the Aleppian sour cherries. I am worried about many people; I cannot get in touch with them.

"This book is a tribute to my mother's Syrian ancestry, a gratitude deepened by my Aleutian cooking students who were so proud of their food," says Matar. "Over time I fell in love with the city and the people who are so passionate about its food."

The Aleppo Cookbook - Celebrating the Legendary Cuisine of Syria
by Marlene Matar
(Head of Zeus, $55)