When a Little Syrian Eggplant Is More Than Just Food

As the country's diaspora spreads, the taste of makdous takes them back to their homeland

When a Little Syrian Eggplant Is More Than Just Food
A woman prepares makdous in Damascus in 2018. (Louai Beshara/AFP via Getty Images)

As we emerge from the hottest summer on record, this means one thing for Syrians. “It’s mouneh season,” said Fatima Hammo, a Syrian chef and mother of seven who sells food for the diaspora in Istanbul, right out of her kitchen.

At this time of year, as summer turns into autumn, Syrian families band together to begin “mouneh,” the preservation of foods ahead of wintertime. Fruits and vegetables are plentiful and affordable, and Syrians will pickle produce, make marmalades and more, which are then eaten throughout the year. From out of the jars, the seasonal piece de resistance is “makdous,” the plucky young eggplant packed with peppers and walnuts and cured by olive oil.

Despite Hammo’s displacement from her native Aleppo, she and many other Syrians away from home find that makdous instills a sense of belonging, maintains family ties and memories with the past while creating bonds with other Syrians in their new homes.

Mouneh season coincides with the harvesting of eggplants and walnuts, when red peppers are at their ripest. Rich or poor, “It is loved by all,” Hammo said. “You normally cannot find a Syrian family not stocking up on makdous at this time,” she continued, as it is key at breakfast and makes appearances for snacks and dinner spreads as well.

Hammo had a pot of dark purple eggplants boiling on the stove. Lifting off a plate at the bottom, she revealed a sieve full of thirsty eggplants, black and blue from their water being squeezed out.

To make makdous, the small eggplants are then stuffed with punchy red pepper, garlic and crunchy nuts. Preserves are as ancient as the region, and the annual act of making large batches of makdous ahead of winter continues today across the Levant. A version of it appears in “Kitab al-Wuslah ila al-Habib” (translated by the culinary historian Charles Perry as “Scents and Flavors”), a Syrian cookbook from the 13th century.

The name comes from the act of piling or stacking the young eggplants into jars of olive oil. These delicious, bite-size morsels stand somewhere along the spectrum of simplicity and alchemy, between synthesis and creation. They appear as they are, but they become greater than the sum of their parts through the processes of blanching, salting, stuffing and marinating in olive oil, imprinting flavor on everything. And, despite war and displacement, a generous helping of makdous still provides sustenance for Syrians across the world.

“Makdous is part of our identity,” said Hammo’s oldest son, Mustafa, over WhatsApp video from the United Kingdom (where he works), as she nimbly stuffed spoonfuls of coarse salt into tiny eggplants. “You think we need more salt?” she asked me. Mustafa bit on his bottom lip in jealousy as I tried a bite.

Food preservation is not unique to Syria but it does provide a way to preserve common heritage, especially amid the ongoing conflict, extending the shelf life in a feeling of belonging to the land until there is a peaceful resolution enabling return. Makdous has helped sustain trust, connections and identity inside and outside the country.

In Syria, lunch is the most important meal, featuring a revolving cast of star national and regional specialties that make the country the epicurean hegemon that it is. The quieter, more mundane morning and evening meals revolve around makdous and other staples, which act as a metronome for daily life.

Every part of makdous is packed with nutritional benefits. The eggplant is an excellent source of potassium. Walnuts offer omega-3 fatty acids, the peppers provide a source of vitamins A, B6, C and E, and garlic can reduce blood pressure. The health properties of olive oil are well understood in Syria, where people rub it into newborn babies, old joints and everything in between.

Extended families, even neighbors, make a social event out of makdous, working together outside to prepare hundreds of jars. Even children have a role, deshelling the walnuts. The process gives young Syrians an early lesson in the virtue of patience. Gleaming jars must sit unopened for weeks for the smooth eggplants and crunchy walnuts to be cured, as children are tempted to sneak a taste. Mothers stand watch to ensure this lesson is well understood.

“Many of our childhood memories circle around [makdous]. My grandma with elderly ladies cleaning peppers, crying and boiling the eggplant over a woodfire in the backyard with us running around,” recalled Ahmad Fahad, a Syrian restaurateur and cook, now in Kuwait City.

Dina Aboul Hosn, a Syrian journalist in Berlin, remembers the amount of time it took to earn her grandmother’s trust in the process. “I was only allowed to join in the first simple stage of salting the eggplants. It took years before I could move on to helping with stuffing.”

Ever since Ruba Khadam Al Jamee, a translator, left Syria in 2017, she still managed to get a yearly container of makdous from her mother, who was still living in Syria. But Al Jamee’s mother recently passed away.

“I will be making makdous this year in her memory,” she told me. “I got the recipe from my mom who had got it from her own mom, generation after generation.”

The petite, preserved eggplant serves not only as a marker of memory and nostalgia but also as a gift to loved ones, a means to pay off debts, a touchstone for marriage proposals and a tether to the homeland. They are interpreted in dreams, used in the butt of jokes (“Did you ever hear the one about when the makdous met Ronald McDonald or when the man from Homs was stopped at the airport over a suspicious-looking container?”) and can even be used to describe a state of being (“packed like a jar of makdous”) when a bus or classroom is crowded.

“For each family, there is a different recipe or tradition. Everyone thinks that theirs is the best,” Aboul Hosn said. “But at large gatherings, I could always taste which one was made from my grandmother,” who mastered the art of maintaining a “soft crunch.”

The largesse in doling them out, and the actual hefty load of the glass containers, is a testament to the heady Syrian hospitality that is extended to family, friends and strangers like me. Jar after jar show how warmth did not end when Syrians began to leave their country en masse after violence and threats of military conscription swallowed up the country nearly 13 years ago. In fact, it might have grown as Syrians spread their traditions to the corners of the globe. I am one of many who have been handed a makdous or a plate of it along with tomatoes and onions. I am also one of many who have served as makdous mules, delivering hundreds of tiny homemade indulgences to a son living in Berlin from a doting mother in Istanbul as well as from Syrian sisters split between Cairo and Doha.

The war has complicated this food custom as well as the social and communal rites surrounding its consumption. Inside Syria, the economy of war has led to inflation, a collapsing exchange rate and gas cuts, which have transformed the daily staple into a luxury. The hydra-headed problems of climate, including earthquakes, drought and flooding, have pushed the price of olive oil out of reach for most. Coping methods have included making, buying and eating less of them, substituting local, high-quality olive oil with sunflower oil (or at least cutting it with it), and replacing walnuts with peanuts or other cheaper nuts.

Some Syrians in the diaspora who have access to regular electricity may freeze eggplants and make only one jar at a time so as to recycle and conserve their precious olive oil. Others may use salt water instead of oil and simply spread oil on top before serving it.

“But that isn’t real makdous — more like pickled eggplants,” Aboul Hosn pointed out.

Displaced Syrians may be living apart from other family members or in temporary or unsuitable conditions for mouneh season. And recent regional trends — namely a re-embrace of Bashar al-Assad as Syrian refugees are increasingly rounded up and deported by their hosts — may make the act of stockpiling food for the winter seem unnecessary. After all, they may need to leave at any moment.

Despite these challenges, the tradition persists. Hammo said her cramped apartment kitchen was inferior to her work space back in Aleppo. The taste of the olive oil she gets in Turkey is a far cry from what she would get directly from her family farm. But Syrians are resourceful, she explains. There is always a “dubarah” (alternative solution).

With her teenage daughter, Hammo stacked the stuffed eggplants into jars, explaining to her: “Every step by hand. That is the secret.”

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