• Indonesia!

    Indonesia: Lombok. Go Now!

    Indonesia
    This archipelago nation is culturally diverse from big cities to isolated islands. Begin Your Journey!

  • Nepal!

    Nepal: Phewa Lake. Go Now!

    Nepal
    This landlocked country mixes the cultures of the Indian sub-continent with the high Himalayas. Explore Nepal!

  • Japan!

    Japan: Traditional foods. Go Now!

    Japan
    Japan has a rich culture that is visible today in the country's dress, architecture, language, food (pictured), and lifestyle. Begin Your Journey!

  • Qatar!

    Qatar: Dhows in Doha Bay. Go Now!

    Qatar
    Although little more than a deserted peninsula, Qatar has a thriving culture based on technology and immigration, with Doha (pictured) taking the lead. Explore Qatar!

  • Kyrgyzstan!

    Kyrgyzstan: Tian Shan Mountains. Go Now!

    Kyrgyzstan
    The mountains, including the Tian Shan Mountains (pictured), give Kyrgyzstan a unique culture, partially formed from this isolation from the mountains. Go Now!

Food, Dining, & Drinks in Syria

WARNING: Syria is currently in civil war, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

Syrian Food - Wheat salad
Wheat salad

Syria is a country that is fortunate enough to have a huge number of local foods and animals as the weather and location of the country provides fertile lands along the water and inland.

Among the more common foods found in Syria are onions, garlic, eggplant, pomegranate, figs, dates, olives, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), grapes, wheat, and barley. The animals present are also numerous as sheep, chicken, goat, and more are present and have been used for their meat. The sheep and goats were also used to produce dairy products as well, although dairy is limited in the diet today. Off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea there is also an abundance of sea life, which has historically been used for food.

Culinary Influences

Despite having a huge amount of locally available ingredients in the region that is today Syria, with the movement of people throughout the Mediterranean new ingredients and spices have been regularly added to the local diet. Most of these additions were small until the rise of Islam in the 600s; as this new religion rose to power, Damascus became a center of the religion and the food, which changed as the religion spread to new regions. It was at this time that Levantine cuisine was truly born and developed (sometimes Levantine food is referred to as Lebanese or Middle Eastern food in English today).

Like the diet of much of the eastern Mediterranean, Levantine foods consist of fresh fruits and vegetables as olive oil, garlic, and chickpeas are used extensively. Hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, shawarma, and baba ghanoush are all considered excellent examples of Levantine foods and all originated in the greater Syrian area.

As trade and communication developed over time the diet of the Syrians remained truly Levantine, however the definition of Levantine slowly changed as new introductions were added to the diet. Foods from the Mediterranean continued to be imported, such as lemon and spices from the east were also regularly integrated into the cuisine, most notably from Persia. During this same time, Levantine foods were exported and today most of the Middle East eats a number of foods that are originally Levantine.

In the 1500s the Turks arrived to the region and the food was again altered, but the two diets were already quite similar and each had been inspired by the other multiple times throughout history. The Turks still made an impact though as lamb became a more prevalent ingredient on the Levantine menu.

In the past century the influences left on Syrian food have come primarily from the west as the French, who colonized the region, introduced more dairy products like cheeses, while "ethnic" foods are becoming popular as well. Today in the capital of Damascus there are multiple restaurants featuring Chinese, French, American, and Japanese food.

Staple Foods

Bread: bread is fairly common; the variety of choice is pita bread
Hummus: a dip consisting of mashed chickpeas (garbanzo beans), tahini, garlic, and lemon
Rice: numerous types of rice exist and it tends to be either a side or a base for many dishes
Tabbouleh: a "salad" generally made of parsley, bulgur, tomatoes, garlic, and lemon

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Dolma: fruits, meats, and/or vegetables with rice stuffed in grape leaves, but sometimes also served in peppers or tomatoes
Kebab: numerous styles exist, but usually with a base of roasted lamb or chicken and vegetables in pita bread
Kibbeh: minced lamb and bulgur, although further ingredients widely vary as every city has their own version
Mezze: sampling of numerous dishes, generally including small plates up to grilled meats

Dining Etiquette

When eating in Syria there are a few etiquette rules you must follow, but dining rules do vary slightly based on whether your host and other diners are Christian or Muslim, and even then there is further division based upon on conservative or liberal your company is. First, dress on the conservatively side (see our Syria Culture Page for more details). Second, in conservative homes it is not acceptable to eat with a person of the opposite sex unless you are related or married. While this separation of sexes is uncommon today, to some conservative Muslims this is important so observe the local restaurant's situation and follow a local's lead.

Try to arrive on time for a meal and if eating in a local's home remove your shoes at the door if others have done so. Greet the elders first, but be sure to greet every person individually and shake their hands (although some conservative Muslims don't believe men and women should touch so wait for locals to extend their hand first if they are of the opposite sex). Let your host seat you and when sitting be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you as pointing the soles of your feet at another can be offensive.

If dining in a restaurant with Muslims don't order any pork product or alcohol as these foods are against the Islamic dining rules, although many Muslims in Syria do consume these items today; eating with Christians there are no true dietary restrictions. If eating in the home of a Muslim you don't have to worry about these dietary restrictions since they won't serve either of these items and if they do you are more than welcome to partake. Once the food is served follow your host's lead as he or she may invite everyone to take their food at the same time or may request that either you or the elders be served first. Try a bit of everything offered as turning down food is rude. If you finish your first serving, expect to be offered a second helping; turn this invitation down at first and only after your host's insistence should you accept more food.

Depending on the company and the foods served, you may be expected to eat in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left), or you will be expected to eat with your right hand, but only touch your food with your right hand. As you finish your food, leave a bit on your plate to show there was more than enough and place your fork and knife together in the 5:00 position.

If dining in a nice restaurant be sure to check the bill for a service charge. Many restaurants include a service charge that will replace the tip, but if no service charge is included a tip of about 10-15% is appropriate.

Celebrations & Events

Syria's major holidays and festivals that are centered around food are religious in nature. Both Muslims and Christians call the country home so the variety and traditions of these holidays differs greatly. There are two major Muslim holidays in Syria, including Eid al Fitr, which is an event filled with numerous foods. These foods differ from family to family, but generally consist of various meats and fish as a base with grains and vegetables on the side. This celebration occurs immediately after Ramadan, a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days.

The second major Muslim food celebration is Eid al Adha, which is only celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca. Again, this festival contains a large number of rice and meat dishes, including many of those served during Eid al Fitr.

For the Christians, Christmas in Syria is an event filled with traditions that begin on Christmas Eve and last well into the evening on Christmas itself. The most traditional Christmas dinner food in Syria is chicken with oranges and nuts. In addition to this, there are numerous pastries and other sweets served for dessert.

Drinks

When a Syrian welcomes you, it is often accompanied by an offer of coffee. Arabic coffee and Turkish coffee are seen everywhere, but Syria offers other varieties as well as tea, another very popular drink. Soft drinks, milk, and juices are also common, including the popular mint lemonade.

Alcohol is legal in Syria and the Christian minority does consume various alcohols, however the majority of the country is Muslim and many Muslims don't drink alcohol, although many in Syria do. In the cities alcohol is quite common, but in more rural areas and in more conservative families alcohol is rarely consumed. In most situations there is no issue with visitors drinking, but if in doubt follow the lead of your local host or ask.

The tap water was generally considered safe to drink in Syria, but due to the recent violence and war in the country many water sources could be contaminated. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water, first check with your local hotel or guesthouse to learn the cleanliness of the water in that area. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: March, 2013