Stephanie Clifford-Smith lets her taste buds lead the way through the bustling markets of Syria.
Shouting, pushing, a crush of writhing bodies. No, it wasn't the aftermath of some "axis of evil" terrorist act, merely a scene in a popular Damascene ice-cream parlour once Ramadan had ended. Damascus's main souk, al-Hamidiyeh, is an elegant structure with a soaring vaulted iron roof. It's riddled with bullet holes from machine guns fired by gunners in French planes during the nationalist rebellion of 1925; tiny openings that let through fine beams of sunlight.
Shops line both sides of the thoroughfare while other traders simply stop their pastry-laden carts in the middle and let the crowds weave around them. And, mid-afternoon, the crowds are intense.
It was our first day in Syria and we were itching to get to the souks. Eid, the end of Ramadan, had arrived and the local mood was jubilant. It was a public holiday and most families would have enjoyed lunch together at home. Girls would remain there, or perhaps visit friends' houses, but teenage boys were let loose on the street.
Come Eid, children are traditionally given new clothes to celebrate and money, which they promptly spend on sweets and ice-cream, as you do. So the souk was not just full of people, it was full of adolescent boys in sharp shoes and shiny shirts - on a sugar high.
Moving from one end of the souk to the other was grindingly slow but we were in no hurry. We'd been told the best ice-cream was sold at a shop called Bakdash so, rather than stop at any of the competitors along the way, we let ourselves be carried along by the crowds to test the recommendation. We knew we were getting close when the concentration of bodies per square metre doubled and noise levels escalated. Then we saw it. Anarchy.
Through the shop's front window we could see a couple of harried men in front of massive tubs, scooping and filling, dipping the cones into containers of crushed pistachios, then thrusting the cones at grasping hands. Some customers were holding out tokens and shouting orders, while others, once served, would hold their cones overhead and squeeze their way out the door. The question was, how badly did we want an ice-cream?
Badly enough, it seemed, but only one of us should attempt entry. So, with the request from my husband for "any flavour as long as it doesn't contain embalming fluid" - by which he meant rose water - I plunged in.
A run-up might have helped but there wasn't enough room, so my entry was more like pitching into a wall of warm jelly. I somehow managed to negotiate the token purchase and, having peeled off a tattered note, I pressed back towards the scooping zone. I was deluded enough to think I could select my preferred combination of flavours but walked away with whatever these chaps could get into a cone the fastest. It was mostly "ema", the white, hand-churned, mastic-flavoured ice-cream traditionally flavoured with, you guessed it, rose water. Luckily for my husband, the staff had either forgotten to add it to this batch or had used it so subtly it was undetectable. The ice-cream also had a fluorescent pink smear of some tangy fruit flavour and both were good.
Eating in the souks isn't always this fraught. Anyone with a taste for wholesome street food and decadent pastries can happily graze from breakfast to dinner. The courtyard at the end of Souk al-Hamidiyeh, near the Umayyad Mosque, was filled with vendors grilling corn cobs, frying felafels and pressing mulberries and pomegranates for their jewel-coloured juice.
The pickings had been just as rich 300 kilometres north in Aleppo on the morning I went in search of food in that city: one of the first places to raise its roller door, about 8am, in Aleppo's stone-covered labyrinth was the foul (pronounced "full") joint. If a person's feeling flat or not thinking clearly, there's a saying in this part of the world that "he hasn't yet had his foul and felafel". A dish of these earthy brown broad beans is an important start to the day in much of the Middle East and this tiny place in the souk's main drag serves nothing but.
It was full of men perched on stools at a marble bench and, despite being on my own that morning and worried that I might be crossing some cultural boundary by going in, I really wanted some foul. The single-dish menu made ordering simple and, as my breakfast was being scooped from a tall copper pot, I was told to take a seat. While I waited, I watched how the dish was being tackled and decided there was no one rule. The plate of beans landed in front of me with a topping of diced tomato, a drizzle each of olive oil and tahini and a generous sprinkling of sumac. On a side plate came a stack of fresh flat bread, a bunch of mint, a quartered, unpeeled brown onion and a green chilli.
The man seated next to me alternated between mouthfuls of foul and scrunched mint leaves, while the next man along fastidiously plucked his mint leaves from the stem and laid them on the beans before consuming them together. I employed a combination of techniques, avoiding the brown onion altogether, while liberally sprinkling salt from a communal pot. This stuff was filling and I went nowhere near finishing it, even though it was seriously delicious. But I ate enough to avoid insulting the cook, to whom I paid my 75 cents on the way out.
I reckon the food is by far the most interesting thing on sale in the souks and it often comes with some theatre. Get to the shops displaying massive pyramids of nut-laden pastries early enough and you'll see the filo being rolled and stretched until it's as fine as the fabric used to make lingerie.
As for lingerie, the souks are full of it, which, intriguingly in this modest Muslim culture, is as tarty as any I've seen. High-cut PVC bodysuits with G-strings and provocative cutaway panels, ostrich-feather bras and knickers, sexy little slips shimmering with sequins - all for sale next door to the hijab shop.
There are plenty of textile and jewellery distractions for those times, say, post-foul, when you're not hungry. One afternoon, while checking out a beautiful display of dried fruit and wondering what a particular type was, a kind young Syrian man came to my aid. He explained its flavour, its use and that, no, this wasn't his shop, he sold jewellery nearby, which, if I could spare five minutes, he wanted me to see.
The jewellery in Syria can be lovely and I did feel obliged after he'd told me so much about the fruit so, on the condition that it would be a quick visit, I went. His shop was deep within the maze and I wondered how, without a pebble trail, I'd ever find my way back.
After riffling through trays of earrings and necklaces and buying nothing, I dashed away but could hear him calling that tomorrow, when I had more time, I should return. A couple of minutes later, a few streets closer to my hotel, he reappeared and bailed me up again. "When you come back to my shop tomorrow, let's not talk about business. Let's talk about our future together."
Laughing, I told him not to be ridiculous. "No, seriously baby, you really are my cup of tea!" I loved that stilted phrasebook English and hoped it worked for him one day - on someone much younger than me and single.
I had my womanly curves to maintain. There were crisp sesame-encrusted biscuits to try and flaky cheese-filled pastries that oozed syrup when bitten into. There were kebabs whose butchers controlled every stage of their production, from breaking down the lamb to dicing, threading and cooking it. What with the intoxicating smell of skewered meat grilling and omelets being fried with herbs and green onion, it didn't take long for my appetite to return.
The writer was a guest of Intrepid Travel.
Emirates flies from Sydney to Damascus via Dubai, priced from $2482 return. See emirates.com.
WHERE TO STAY
In Damascus, the Afamia Hotel is centrally located and has double rooms from $40 a night. See afamiahotel.com.
In Aleppo, Dar Halabia Hotel, an 18th-century stone house on the edge of the souk in which all rooms overlook lovely courtyards, has double rooms priced from $50 a night. See dar-halabia.com.