United in the Joy of Ice Cream

Shoppers from all over the Muslim world converge on Souq al-Hamidiyya, in the Syrian capital of Damascus. The shopping street runs from the medieval ramparts of the Old City to the west, all the way under the ruined arch of the temple of Jupiter, to the Umayyad Mosque plaza, 400 meters inwards.

As you walk from the ramparts, tourist souvenirs slowly give way to tacky sexy lingerie. But as you approach the magnificent Umayyad Mosque, the belly-dancing outfits fade away, and  prayer beads and embroidered Qu’rans take their place.

And in the middle of the tin-domed promenade, an unlikely shop attracts record crowds: Bakdash, reknown throughout the Middle East for its amazing arabic ice cream.

Believe the hype: this is, hands down, the best ice cream in the world.

Ten Centuries of Ice Cream

It’s no happenstance that Syrians hold the key to magnificent ice cream. The origins of the dessert can be traced back to the Persian Empire, and the Arabs were the first ones to incorporate milk products into the Persian recipe. As early as the 10th century, ice cream was eaten widely in the city of Damascus, as well as in Baghdad to the east.

The variation known as ‘Arabic ice cream’ differs from Western confections; in addition to fresh cream, the confection contains mastic, a resin native to the region; and sahlab, an extract from the orchid plant.

The traditional method of preparing Arabic ice cream involves churning it with long, heavy paddles, by beating down on them with force.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aITYIzuBKCo[/youtube]

Once the ice cream has been throroughly beaten into a thick, elastic concoction, one step remains: rolling the ice cream in a mixture of crushed cashew and pistacchio nuts.

Minarets and Ice Cream Cones

The resulting ice cream is the kind you end up obsessing about. I sure do, long after I’ve left Syria. It’s slightly sweet, elastic yet utterly soft. You pick up a spoonful, and the ice melts in your mouth into the complex flavors of fresh cream, mixed with pistacchio and cashew.

Bakdash’s ice cream is one of the dozens of wonders hiding within the maze-like streets of Damascus’s old city, filled with tiny alleys, friendly vendors, coffee and narghile shops, bakeries, and elegant courtyards. It’s a joyful counterpoint to the somber magnificence of its mosques and Medieval stone ramparts.

When you sit at Bakdash’s long common table, you rub shoulders with Arabs and Muslims from all over the world, from young Lebanese fashionistas, to burqa-clad Iranian grandmothers on pilgrimage.

Wherever they are from, whatever brings them to Damascus, they all soon dip their spoons in the icy confection, and when the taste of pistacchio and cream touches their tongue, they all nod in silence.

For the next five minutes, children on a hot damascene day, we are all united in the joy of ice cream.

Where to Go

Bakdash lies on the wide promenade called Souq al-Hamadiyya, which stretches westward from the Umayyad Mosque plaza. Start from the main entrance of the mosque (the one on the west side), and walk west, under the Arch of Jupiter, and through the market. You’ll find Bakdash to your left.

Ice cream at Bakdash comes in either plain or fruit flavor, and both are highly recommended. A bowl of fabulous ice cream will set you back 50 SYP, or roughly $1 USD.

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

4 comments

  1. Oh my, that is the most beautiful ice cream I’ve seen! I also appreciate the historical and cultural background too.

    Great job, and I’m thrilled I found this site! I’ll be returning often to peruse your culinary delights around the world.

  2. Wonderful! Wish we could be there with you. Such an amazing place. We were invited to stay with a family near Homs. To this day, we call them and send them our love. We will return..In’shalla!

    In the meantime, we look forward to reading more of your posts from this underrated corner of the globe. Thanks so much for such a wonderful blog (I particularly loved your piece on that charcoal coffee in Indo too!)

  3. I was wondering if you know the name of the ice cream mixer/freezer that he is beating the ice cream in….I wanted to buy one actually

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