Syrians love their breakfast! It the most colorful, tasteful, varied and healthy meal of the day, mainly consisting of dairy products, vegetables and olive oil. In Western terms, it can look like a small buffet of several choices.
Sit-down breakfasts were the norm before life caught a faster rhythm. Still, most prefer the multi-small-dish breakfast when they can and especially on the weekends, and they like to eat together. Breakfast is served family style with different foods in small platters. People eat directly from these shared platters using Syrian bread, moving from one food to the other depending on personal preference. Bread is used instead of utensils. When eating, they tear apart a small piece of bread, form it as a scoop and use it to get the food out of the little platters. The method of scooping out the food depends on the nature of the food (dips, olives, cheese, etc.) I will talk more about food etiquette later.
There are two essential ingredients for any breakfast: Syrian pita bread and black tea (usually with sugar). Most of the foods served for breakfast are called ‘hawadir’ حواضر, i.e., readies or foods that are directly ready to eat from the pantry or refrigerator. So people only need to take the food out of the container/jar and put it in the serving plate, no heating or cooking required. In Syria, there are specialized small grocery stores that only sell ‘hawadir’, and they are also sold in regular grocery stores. Not all ‘hawadir’ need to be served everyday. It depends on personal preference, affordability, time, etc. But in general, people like to have 2-5 choices when they eat breakfast (even when alone). Below are the more popular foods for breakfast.
The Syrian breakfast consists of dairy products, preserved vegetables and fruits and other vegetarian dishes.
Dairy products: There is a wide variety of cheeses and yogurts available in Syria. I will only talk about a few popular ones here.
- Labneh is strained yogurt. It is made by straining plain yogurt of most of its water using cheese cloth. It is found in plastic containers in grocery stores. Its consistency is a little looser than cream cheese. Some of labneh varieties are sourer than the others depending on the yogurt they are made of. Labneh is served in small plate and garnished with dried mint and olive oil. There are other breakfast dishes that are made from labneh using different aging techniques like labneh balls, qareesheh, sourki and shankleesh.
- White cheese (jibneh baida) is fresh cheese made of cow milk. It tastes somehow like the Mexican Queso Fresco. This one tastes best when heated and melty.
- Akkawi cheese (jibneh akkawi) is white cheese made of cow or sheep milk. It is saltier and tastier than white cheese. It is sometimes preserved in brine and sprinkled in black seed. Akkawi is also used for manaqeesh (breakfast pizza) and many types of desserts.
- String cheese (jibneh mshalileh) is white cheese made of cow milk. In making it, water is extracted out of fresh mozzarella (or the like) and the cheese is extended until it forms many thin strings, while hot. It is then shaped as braids and sprinkled with black seed.
Preserved vegetables and fruits
- Olives (zaytoon) come in many varieties, colors, sizes and tastes. It is a national produce in Syria , so Syrians are really particular about their olives. In the West, most olives available in regular grocery stores are bland compared to Mediterranean ones.
- Makdous or magdous is baby eggplants stuffed with walnuts and red pepper and pickled in olive oil. They are preserved in glass jars in the pantry and can last for a long time as long as they are totally immersed in oil. They taste a little sour and nothing like eggplant. The best ones are homemade and soft enough to mash with a piece of bread (but not too soft).
- Jams: Most Syrians still make their jams at home. It can be served with or without butter. With butter, people use a knife for both, without butter they scoop jam with bread. The most popular varieties are apricots, figs, strawberry, quince, orange peel and, of course, baby eggplants!
Other vegetarian dishes
- Zaatar is a mixture of herbs, mainly thyme, sumac, and sesame. Some mixes are tangier than others depending on the amount of sumac. It is eaten by dipping a piece of bread in olive oil first then dipping it in zaatar. It is also a very popular topping for manaqeesh (breakfast pizza).
- Halawa is a sweetened sesame paste with added flavorings. The most popular one is pistachio halawa. People just buy it ready-made in plastic containers. It is kept in the pantry. To serve, divide into small cubes and eat using pieces of bread.
- Olive oil is the secret ingredient to any Syrian breakfast and it has to be a very good extra virgin olive oil from the East Mediterranean region. People to use it for garnishing labneh and its derivatives, and almost all kinds of dips.
- Raw vegetable dish: A small dish of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, green bell pepper and fresh mint leaves (on the stem) completes the Syrian breakfast. Watermelon pieces can also be served for breakfast in summer. The vegetables are paired with other foods either in the same bite or following it. For example, olives and labneh taste great with cucumber and/or mint. Cheese or makdous are delicious with watermelon.
On the weekend, Syrians take more time to prepare for breakfast by either having more variety of dishes or cooking more elaborate dishes like, fatit hummus, Bean salad with different types of dressings, fried eggs, mamounia, soujouk, manaqeesh, etc.