[Penang, Malaysia] Syrian cuisine at 𝗛𝗮𝗹𝗮𝗯, Chulia Street

Penang’s latest Middle-Eastern restaurant is located at 381 Chulia Street, formerly Reggae Mansion. But a million dollar makeover has rendered the place virtually unrecognizeable from its previous incarnation.
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Halab, in a departure from other Middle-Eastern restaurants in Penang which are mainly Lebanese, offers food from Aleppo, Syria, instead. In fact, we understood that Halab is actually the ancient Arabic term for the medieval city of Aleppo which, sadly, has pretty much been destroyed by the still on-going Syrian civil war.

It is no wonder that some of the most talented Syrian chefs from Aleppo are now cooking here, churning out dishes which definitely taste a cut above other Middle-Eastern eateries in George Town. Syrians and other Arabs in George Town are their base clientele, but many Penangites are also turning up to sample its offerings, including one of the largest selection of Middle-Eastern sweets I’d seen this part of town.
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Appetiser platter that we tried:
Clock-wise from top: Moutabal (mashed eggplant with tahini & condiments), Baba Ghanoush (Levantine mashed eggplant, parsley, green pepper, red pepper & condiments), Houmous (Levantine mashed chickpeas & condiments), Muhammarah (spicy red pepper dip from Aleppo, Syria).
Middle: Warak Enab (grape leaves with rice, minced beef and lemon juice).

We also tried another appetiser platter with fattoush - chopped coriander salad, which was also very well-prepared, served with pita bread.

Maajoqah - minced lamb patties, filled with green & red peppers, cheese, mushrooms and nuts. These were simply scrumptious, and I couldn’t get enough of it. The minced lamb was piquant, gently spiced with cinnamon, cumin & coriander. The melted cheese filling with onions & crunchy peppers were delicious.

Our mains:
Maklouba This is a Levantine dish of grilled chicken and eggplants, served on a bed of fragrant, spiced rice, studded with peanuts.

Shish tawook - grilled skewers of chicken, accompanied by grilled tomatoes and onions, fresh, crunchy salad, and served with a creamy garlic dip.

Everything was freshly-prepared upon order a la minute. Lovely smokey flavours from the barbecued meats.

Hot, milky ginger tea was delicious, served together with the oddly-named vulgar dessert (pronounced ‘vool-gah’) which was described as being made up of dried milk, orange blossom water and liquid starch. It was not too sweet and tasted more pleasant than its description.

Those with a sweet tooth can opt for one of the platters of baklava and other sugar/syrup-laden sweets on offer.

The place tends to get busier as the evening wore on:

Address
Halab
381, Chulia Street, 10200 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +604-251 9550
Opening hours: 11am-4am daily (yes, they open till 4am in the morning to cater to Middle-Easterners’ fondness for socialising and shisha-smoking throughout the night).

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I’m a fan of Middle Eastern food and the dishes all look like very good versions. I’m particularly keen on muhammarah as a dip which, in the versions I’ve eaten, has finely crushed walnuts in it giving a little texture.

I’ve had maklouba before and enjoyed it. I was in a Palestinian restaurant the other night where the owner claimed it originates from his country. A bit of research (Wikipedia) tells me it originates from the Galilee which is the region of what is now Israel that adjoins Lebanon. As such, it’s perhaps no surprise that it’s also made on the other side of the border.

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The menu here played safe and described it as a “Levantine” dish, which basically encompassed practically all the states in that part of the world. :joy::joy:
It was delicious.

I did ask a PR personnel there if there were any Lebanese staff in the restaurant - she said, no, practically everyone - from the kitchens to the front of house are Syrians, as are the owners.

Similar in my part of the world. I can think of three restaurants that describe themselves as Lebanese but are actually Syrian. Maybe it’s better PR - similar, at least in the UK, to Iranian owned places usually saying they are Persian.

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It is the same in the US as well, you see “Persian” restaurants, but never Iranian.

I know on London’s “Arab Street”/Edgware Road, there are Syrian restaurants which tout themselves as serving “Damascene cuisine”.

Back to Halab for dinner this evening. We initially wanted a steak dinner at Vikings, a newly-opened grill/steakhouse, but most Continental restaurants in George Town are still closed on Boxing Day.

Halab, on the other hand, was bustling and the restaurant inside was fully-booked out by the holiday crowd, with seasonal feasting at full swing. So, we ended up sitting al fresco, surrounded on 3 sides by local Arab customers puffing their shisha pipes. :joy:

We started off with some cold drinks - I had a lemon juice. The Arab-Muslims here do not partake in alcohol, so they put more emphasis in preparing their juices, including some interesting fruit juice mixes.
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The appetiser platter was pretty good and just perfect for two of us. It consisted of, among others, the Aleppo dip, Muhammara; the ubiquitous (and my all-time fave) Hummus; a very piquant Mutabbal; and a very lemony Yalanji, Syria’s answer to Greek Dolmades. I’d skip the yalanji here, unless one has a fetish for boiled grape leaves.

We also ordered some crisp, golden-fried cheese-filled spring rolls (more Lebanese than Syrian here, although Halab’s chefs are all-Syrian). These were very good.

Our main course was Roast Chicken with Rice (“Dajaaj al Riz”) - very well done indeed, with a juicy chicken reclining on a bed of saffron-tinted rice, speckled with toasted pistachios and cashews.

That’s it. Diet starts tomorrow.

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My first time back at Halab in quite a few months - this time for a light lunch. Business is much quieter than pre-COVID days but seems to be doing relatively well, compared to other eateries in the vicinity, as Penang is still under a conditional lockdown - a party of 2 and two more parties of 4 each entered the restaurant just after noon today, after I’d placed my order.

Green apple juice - Halab is a halal restaurant, so no alcohol is served. Instead, one gets to choose from a wide selection of fresh fruit juices, and creative blends of some of those juices. I just settled for a tall glass of chilled fresh apple juice.

Started off with the house salad: Halab Fattoush, which consisted of a selection of fresh vegetables, crisp-fried pita chips, and black olives, dressed in lemon & olive oil, and drizzled with tahini.

Main course is Kibbeh Labanieh - Syrian kibbeh - deep-fried bulghur wheat pastel dumplings stuffed with minced lamb - cooked in yoghurt, and served with a platter of raw vegetables.

I’ve always enjoyed my meals here - a reliable kitchen, good service, comfortable ambience, what more does one need?

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Back at Halab for Sunday lunch, as I wanted to try the Daoud Basha dish I’d seen on its menu the other day. The popular Levantine dish consisted of lamb meatballs in a stew flavored with pomegranate molasses. I Googled for the origin/history of the dish, and was given to understand that it was of Baghdadi origin, but popularized by the Ottoman Turks to the Arab countries under its rule.

The name “Daoud” (which is “David” in Arabic) and “Basha” (It came from the Turkic “pasha”, referring to a high-ranking official, but pronounced with a “b” as “p” as a sound does not exist in Arabic) was variously attributed to diverse personalities, from a high-ranking Armenian official who adored the dish, to a Baghdadi noble man whose kitchen came up with the recipe.

The version here at Halab was delicious - lamb meatballs in a tomato-accented, garlicky stew flavored with pomegranate molasses, served with scented long-grain Arabic rice, and a platter of fresh vegetables & pickled gherkins.

The starter earlier was Hummus Beiruti, a pumped-up garlicky version of the usual chickpea-based hummus. This Beirut version incorporated copious amounts of minced garlic and, at Halab, chopped parsley, then topped with chopped tomatoes dressed in olive oil before serving. It went beautifully with warm pita bread.

I finished off with a pot of Adeni tea - a slightly spiced, sweet milk tea which originated in Aden, Yemen.

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Any idea if this is related to the Halab(s) in KL? I think there are two here. Or just a common restaurant name?

Yes, they are related.

Day 49 of the current lockdown in Malaysia, with daily average of 5,300 new COVID cases for the past week. Restaurants are still not allowed dine-in customers.

Lunch take-out today was from Halab:
Falafel, served with pita bread, pickles, salad and tahini sauce.

Lamb mandi - very tasty, lightly-spiced fall-off-the-bone tender lam bshank, served on a bed of aromatic long-grain rice.

The take-out costed only MYR 55 (US$13.25/£9.60) for two persons.

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“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold

Market stall in Lima
Credit: TXMX 2