"The amount of food a guest eats is proportionate to his love for the host." –Syrian proverb
Back in the day in Syria, nobody knew what vegan food was, but we made it daily. In my family, hora'a osbao, a meat- and dairy-free lentil dish whose name means “finger burner,” was a mealtime staple.
I was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1982 to multiethnic parents. My extended family is scattered around the country, which meant I was introduced to a variety of regional Syrian foods from a young age. Every once in a while, among the standard national dishes served at banquets, lunches, iftars, and dinners, I would come across a hidden local gem.
That’s what happened one day in Damascus, where my aunt Nadia lived. It was summer, and I was 13 years old. We sat down to lunch at her apartment, and on the table was kibbeh, a pounded bulgur dish that was nothing out of the ordinary, and something that resembled a salad. “Try it!” she urged. “You don’t have anything like this in Aleppo.”
So I took a bite, and have been making hora'a osbao ever since. The combination of lentils, fried pita, garlic, cilantro, pomegranate molasses, and caramelized onions was everything I craved. It’s basically Damascus on a plate. The spices and crunchy bread topping are reminiscent of fattoush, which explains why hora'a osbao is appetizer fare in Syria. (In my house, it passes for a main, and nobody complains.)
I suppose there’s an element of deception to the dish: It looks simple but is chock-full of time-consuming (if technically simple) components: homemade pita chips, slow-simmered lentils, and cilantro sauce.
The combination is irresistible, as evidenced by the dish’s name: Legend has it, hora'a osbao’s story began with an overzealous and hungry husband who had a habit of tasting his wife’s food before sitting down to dinner. One day, she was tending to a pot of yet-to-be-named hora'a osbao, and it was so tantalizing to her husband that he burned his fingers trying to snag a bite.
I can relate. Absolutely nothing beats the joy of opening the fridge at any time of the day and scooping myself a portion of hora'a osbao to be eaten hot or cold. It’s even better the next day (though it’ll keep for up to three).
The recipe I’m sharing is my aunt’s, and despite having experimented with other versions, it remains my go-to.
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