Shakriya – a Syrian soup with yogurt, lamb, chickpeas and pine nuts, as well as a mouthwatering infusion of spices and herbs – is the kind of dish of our dreams we never imagined could exist until we accidentally ordered it one day in a restaurant in Aleppo more than 14 years ago.
It came in a bowl, surprisingly warm (we’d never come across warm yogurt soup before), and bursting with enough flavors and textures to set our taste buds into a frenzy. It’s not often that you come across a dish that’s a real paradigm-shifter in terms of your culinary landscape, but shakriya really did that for us – and we’ve never forgotten it!
Shakriya (also written shakriyeh) can be made from chicken or lamb, and its name comes from the Arabic word ‘shukr’, which means to thank. Given the relative luxury of the ingredients – plenty of meat and the richness of the yogurt – we can see how cooking up a pot of this stew would be an awesome way of paying homage to the good people in your life.
MELTING IN SYRIA’S COOKPOT
Over the past few millennia, Syria has been conquered by pretty much every empire to rule in its region, from the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Muslim Arabs, the Mongols, the Ottomans, and eventually even the French. As such, it has had a colorful history of influences that have held sway over the country’s culinary traditions.
Levantine food has to be one of our favorites due to the diversity of what’s on offer. You’ll get meat, fish, vegetables, breads, dairy and sweets in such stunning varieties and with plenty of really creative crossover that is the legacy of a region that’s home to so many micro-populations.
YAYLA ÇORBASI, CUCUMBER SOUP, SHAKRIYA
The concept of yogurt soup, for example, is well embedded in Syria’s northern neighbor, Turkey, especially in the country’s more mountainous regions, where dairy farming reigns strong and feeds into dishes like yayla çorbası, where the yogurt is cooked with mint and tarragon. To the west, the Greeks also have a traditional yogurt soup, a cold one for the warmer climes, made with garlic and cucumber.
Shakriya might not be as seminal a Syrian dish as kibbeh, but in our minds it exemplifies the inspired way Syrian cooks bring together a variety of spices, herbs and concepts into a well-rounded dish.
ABOUT THE RECIPE
Cooking shakriya takes a little skill and patience – the biggest potential pitfall is that the yogurt might curdle, since that is what yogurt does under the stress of high heat. But don’t fret! Decades and centuries of boiling yogurt in Syrian kitchens has come up with many solutions for dodging disaster, the most simple of which is to add cornflour and an egg.
Although the stars of shakriya are the perfectly seasoned lamb and the tangy yogurt taste, it’s the texture of the other more neutrally-flavored ingredients that really add grist to its soupy mill. Anything from vermicelli noodles and rice to chickpeas and pine nuts can be included, and in our case, will be included, as we figure this is the kind of dish where more is quite undoubtedly more!
PREPARE YOUR INGREDIENTS
Have all your ingredients weighed out and ready to go. If you have bought dried chickpeas for your shakriyah, remember to soak them overnight. Then prepare them by covering them with a few inches of water in a suitably large pot and boiling them for two hours or until they are tender but not so soft as to be falling apart.
Also, rinse your rice before you start, giving it a good rub under running water to wash away all the excess starch.
Cut the lamb into 1-2 inch cubes and season with salt and pepper.
Heat up some oil in a pan and sear the meat until it browns on both sides.
Add the chunks of onion and sweat them on a lower heat until they start to caramelize. This will release the onions’ natural sweetness and have them end up tasting really good.
Now add in the bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, cloves, and garlic and let them roast until they become aromatic and fill out your kitchen with their smells. This should always be done with spices to help them better release their natural flavors.
Add water to about halfway up the height of the meat chunks. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for about 2-2 ½ hours or until the lamb is tender. Keep skimming the top of the water using a spoon to leave a clear broth for the end, and keep an eye on the water level, in case you need to add some more.
While the meat is cooking, take another deep pot and add some butter, if you like, along with a little olive oil. Allow them to heat up, then add the vermicelli and stir well. Fry them until they are golden brown, which will make them nice and crispy.
Add the rice and stir in well with the vermicelli, making sure to coat the rice well with the oil that’s in the pan.
Add the water to the rice and bring to the boil. Let it keep boiling until the liquid level comes down to that of the rice in the pot. Now turn the heat down to the lowest setting, cover and leave for 17 minutes – no peeking! Then turn the heat off and keep the lid on for another 15 minutes to let all the steam in the pot get absorbed by the rice.
While the rice and the meat are cooking, you can roast your pine nuts. Heat a pan on a medium heat then add the nuts, monitoring them very carefully and keeping them moving. Once you see them start to turn golden, and you can smell that delicious roasting aroma, it’s time to take them off. Set them aside.
Once the lamb is ready, remove the cubes from the pot and keep them warm. Pour the cooking liquid through a sieve and discard all of the chunky bits. Set the strained broth aside.
In a large pot, whisk the yoghurt with the egg, cornflour, remaining salt and pepper, crushed garlic and 250ml of the strained cooking liquid. Add more if you’d like your yogurt to be more soupy.
Turn on the heat and, stirring constantly to prevent coagulation, cook the yoghurt over a low heat until it comes to a simmer. Cook it for another 2 minutes once it boils, then turn off the heat. Stir in the chickpeas.
Place the lamb cubes in a deep serving bowl, then pour over the hot yoghurt. Now sprinkle the pine nuts and dried mint and work the whole thing over with a few turns of a black pepper mill. Serve up the rice and vermicelli mixture as a side dish.
Bel Hana Wel Shefa!
OUR TAKE ON THE RECIPE
We very much enjoyed the end product of our shakriya adventure: the stew alone, without the yogurt, is very aromatic and reminded us quite unexpectedly of a Vietnamese Pho. The yogurt soup, on the other hand, is very Mediterranean – like a shawarma garlic sauce.
The meat was really aromatic and flavorful, and was well worth the slow sweat of the onions and the roasting of the spices at the beginning of the process. The tanginess from the yogurt perfectly cut into the richness of the meat, and the pungency from the garlic further helped those aromatics in mellowing down that distinct lamb aroma, which doesn’t always please everyone.
We think that any kind of meat would go well in a shakriya. Next time we make shakriya, we might try it with chicken, or get more adventurous with some beef, mutton, or even duck. Another thought we had was to potentially add some more vegetables, like maybe potatoes and carrots, just to really push home the nutritional balance of the dish.