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"I'll tell you about Syrian food..."
My taxi driver paused, slowed down as he approached the red light, and turned to face me in the back seat, revelations ready to leap from his lips.
"Syrian food is much better than Lebanese food."
In 2006, there was nothing unusual about a Syrian taxi driver in Dubai having a dig at Lebanon. But this was a display of some pluckiness, to refute the perceived wisdom that Lebanese food is the champion of Arabic cuisines. I had to fly to Syria and see for myself.
With the exception of Singapore, where tears formed in my eyes every time I walked into a hawker centre, Syria was the most satisfying holiday I've ever had when it came to eating. It wasn't just the muhammara (a dip made from red peppers, walnuts, cumin and pomegranate molasses), the beetroot moutabal, the spicy breakfast foul and the awesome cherry kebabs in Aleppo. It was also the only time I've had complete strangers buy me my meals, and this happened on two separate occasions. The warmth and friendliness I experienced in Syria was inspiring. The taxi driver had been correct.
Abu Zaad lacks the warmth and friendliness of Syria, but then so does everywhere else. Less acceptably, it also lacks all four dishes mentioned above. But it's a great place for indulging my aubergine obsession, and, who knows, if I visit often enough perhaps a complete stranger will buy my meal. We ordered a mezze platter (a bargain £5) of baba ghanoush (mashed aubergine), makdous (picked baby aubergines stuffed with red peppers, walnuts and garlic) and fattoush salad. We also ordered fried kibbeh and maklouba (pictured), a dish I'd always associated with Palestine; a baked aubergine stuffed with rice, lamb, pine nuts and yoghurt. Two of us feasted for £15.
One day I'd love to see a restaurant in London serving Aleppine cuisine, so I can once again eat a cherry kebab. Until then, I'll make do with this recipe from London's only Syrian food blog.