Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Goodbye Axis of Evil, hello Great Satan: a MidEast ice cream roundup

I recently moved back to New York City, where I was born and raised, from Beirut, Lebanon and Damascus, Syria, where I've been living and working as a freelance writer for the past two years.  I was surprised at how much excellent gelato was waiting for me in New York, but more on that later.  I'll say my goodbyes to Beirut and Damascus with a roundup of a few excellent ice cream places and memories in Lebanon and Syria, with Egypt, Turkey and Morocco to follow.  By the way, "ice cream" in Arabic is بوظة pronounced "booza."  In Turkey it's "dondurma."  Learn how to say "Where is the bathroom?" and "Please" and "Thank you" and "Dude, what are you staring at?" and you will be more or less fine in any of these countries.


Hanna's: Hanna's is the closest thing to a Willy Wonka experience that Beirut has to offer.  This small corner ice cream shop, where everything is handmade by two married geriatrics (see my friend Anissa's brilliant blog post on their operation), bakes their own almond brittle that they swirl into milk-flavored ice cream.  On days when they're baking it, the whole block smells like caramelizing sugar.  They also make a fabulous apricot flavor with pine nuts mixed in; it's called "qamr ed-dine" which I think translates to something like "the moon of God" and is made from an apricot fruit leather that is particularly popular during Ramadan and is available by the sheet - sheets as big as a page of the New York Times.  It's fun to sit on the corner in the broken plastic chairs that are sometimes on the sidewalk and stare at all the people who come to get their ice cream.  It's in Achrafieh down the street from Spinney's supermarket.

Gruen/Oslo: I lived in Beirut for two years and spent untold sums on Oslo ice cream (sold mainly at a restaurant called Gruen, easily the best European-style ice cream in the region, before I met the owner, Nayla Audi.  I wish I had had some wasta (Arabic for "connections") to her before, since this ice cream seems to get more expensive every time I go, to the point where I spent $10 on my last cone, after tip.  That said, the Valhrona sorbet is phenomenal, and her mint flavor (After Eight) and cookies and cream are superb.  Her more eclectic flavors are not only elegant but look gorgeous when you order them all together - rose loukoum (loukoum is another word for Turkish delight, but this one is fairly delicate), Earl Grey and pistachio halvah make such a pretty cone.  The ginger cookies (not the ginger snaps, you want the thin, buttery cookies) are also game-changing, and Nayla is an impressive businesswoman.  Look out for an interview with her in August when she comes to New York.  In the Gefinor building in Clemenceau.
Nayla, in black, and Anissa.  These are two generous, charming, hilarious and wonderful women - as well as serious businesswomen and foodies.


al-Malak: This small shop sells delicious, smooth French custard-y style ice cream, not typical thick, gummy Arabic ice cream.  The owner trained somewhere in Europe (I believe it was France, not Italy) and makes a wonderful coffee flavor ("Nescafe" is the actual name) that tastes like Haagen-Dazs only less rich, and another very special flavor called Mann wa Salwa, which is a type of Iranian nougat flavored with cardamom and studded with pistachios.  This ice cream is the frozen manifestation of that combination - cardamom-scented base with delicious Syrian pistachios.  It is best taken with a scoop of their praline flavor.  The waffle cones are also fresh, crispy and sweet.  If it weren't for the grouchy chain-smoking man who works the register (the chain-smoking may be a thing of the past thanks to Syria's smoking ban) this place would be perfect.  It's on Sharia Nazem Basha, the main street of the Muhajireen neighborhood.  Watch out for the three to five really mediocre ice cream places on this street.  Only accept al-Malak.

Dimashq: Most guidebooks suggest Bakdash in the covered market of Souq al-Hamediyya (it's the place that's mobbed with Syrian teenagers, families, and Swedish backpackers) but just down the street, a bit closer to the entrance of the souq, is Dimashq.  Bakdash is one of those places that someone once thought was good and no one else thought to question. It is assuredly not that good.  Dimashq, on the other hand, is extremely good, notably for its ishta flavor (my friend and world-class food writer Anissa Helou first took me there.)

This picture was taken by my dear friend James Alexander, who sadly didn't have this valuable blog as a resource when he traveled to Damascus and wound up in the wrong hands.

At Dimashq, they make ice cream either from ishta (the cream that floats on top of really fresh milk) or of regular milk, ("hlib" flavor, hlib being Arabic for milk.)  The ishta flavor is like an unflavored, incredibly smooth kulfi, with a pure dairy flavor, while the milk is lighter, and seems to have more gum arabic or thickener in it. You know it's authentic when you see a middle-aged Khaliji (a person from the Khalij, or Gulf region) there with his miserable-looking child bride, as though an ice cream will make up for the inequality in their relationship.  Some realities are too unhappy even for ice cream to fix.


Ruah Yoga on July 20, 2010 at 5:03 PM said...

I was just thinking about you! I love this blog - it is fabulous! What else in the world brings equally universal love and joy to all? Looking forward to more ice cream hot-spot reviews! May I suggest a trip to Lagon along the coast of Dakar, Senegal? It's still my personal favorite.

heidi on July 21, 2010 at 1:14 AM said...

You must come back to Berlin the ice creme scene here is madness!! They just can't get enough.

Anna Louie Sussman on July 21, 2010 at 10:23 AM said...

Thank you ladies - I am definitely hoping to do some ice cream tourism one this blog becomes a huge moneymaking machine (mmm...?). For now I am going to be doing some experimenting at home and paying weekly visits to some of the eight trillion new places in New York.

Shermine on July 22, 2010 at 12:52 PM said...

Delicious blog, the first country on your ice cream tourism list should be Argentina where they have simply the best ice cream in the world, you might consider visiting during the cold New York winter months.

Anna Louie Sussman on July 22, 2010 at 7:30 PM said...

Ooh, thank you Shermine! My dear friend Massoud insists I go to Argentina and try a place called "Persico." I will definitely make my best effort to make it down there, don't worry! xox A

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