Meatballs with Sour Cherries is traditionally served on Arab pita bread — but if you serve it on white basmati rice, it would be almost unrecognisable from albaloo polo, the Iranian sour-cherry pilaf.
Although the cuisines of different Levantine countries share many similarities, there are some important distinctions as well. For example, whereas Lebanese food is more citrusy, bright and Mediterranean, Syrian food — especially that of Aleppo — is known for its use of agrodolce (sweet– sour), particularly in savoury dishes.
In this, Aleppo cuisine reminds us a lot of Iranian cuisine.
I am particularly fond of a 13th-century Syrian cookbook, translated into English as Scents and Flavours. In it, as well as the Persian–Arab heritage of Baghdad cuisine of the previous centuries, new Turkish influences are deducible, especially in baking recipes. Among the recipes are many with chicken using different fruit (mostly sour) — tamarind, rhubarb, barberries, quince, sour cherries — and some sugar.
Some of these recipes are cooked in almost exactly the same way in Iran today.
Perhaps the best example of these sweet-and-sour meat recipes with fruit is the legendary kebab karaz (sour-cherry meatballs), which uses both sour cherries and pomegranate molasses — another ingredient that is distinctive to Aleppo and nearby Anatolia and Iran — together with warm spices. It’s so delicate yet rich in flavour that it’s no wonder Aleppo was once known as the capital of Middle Eastern food.
This dish is traditionally served on Arab pita bread — but if you serve it on white basmati rice, it would be almost unrecognisable from albaloo polo, the Iranian sour-cherry pilaf.
If you can’t find fresh sour cherries, use frozen ones, or dehydrated ones. Remember to keep the water you use for reviving dried sour cherries, to use in the sauce.
For the meatballs
500g minced lamb
1 small onion, or 1/2 large onion, grated and squeezed dry
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 of a whole nutmeg, grated
2 tablespoons olive oil
For the sour-cherry sauce
1kg fresh or frozen sour cherries, pitted
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1/2 teaspoon salt
2–3 pita breads
10–15g butter or ghee, melted
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
Handful of chopped parsley
Start with the meatballs. In a large bowl, mix together the lamb, onion, salt, pepper and spices. Knead well for about 10 minutes, until all the ingredients are thoroughly combined and the colour has changed slightly. Cover and chill in the fridge for at least 1 hour, or even overnight.
Near serving time, combine the sauce ingredients in a large saucepan. Bring to a gentle boil, then cover and simmer for 15–20 minutes over low heat.
Meanwhile, shape the meat into small balls about 2cm in diameter, using about 1/2 tablespoon of meat for each meatball. Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium–high heat and brown the meatballs all over, in batches if necessary; they do not need to be fully cooked at this point.
Add the meatballs to the sour- cherry sauce and simmer for a further 10–15 minutes to cook through. To serve, warm the pita breads, cut neatly into wedges and arrange on a large platter. Drizzle with the melted butter. Spoon the meatballs and sauce on top of the bread (discarding the clove). Scatter with the pine nuts and parsley and serve immediately.
Note: Instead of fresh or frozen sour cherries, you could use 350–500g dehydrated pitted sour cherries. Soak them in 2 cups hot water (from a kettle) for at least 30 minutes to revive them. Add them to the sauce ingredients with the soaking liquid and simmer as directed.
Images and text from Pomegranates & Artichokes by Saghar Setareh, Photography by Saghar Setareh. Murdoch Books, $49.99. Learn more here.
Love this recipe? Check out our others here