Friday, June 24, 2016

As thousands were fasting, I enjoyed a filling Syrian lunch in Paterson

At Aleppo Restaurant in Paterson, an appetizer spread called Muhammara is made from a red pepper that has been described as having "a vivid taste, sweet and smoky and faintly pungent" ($6).

Meat Arayes, another appetizer, invites you to add Muhammara and Hummus spreads to the seasoned beef inside the toasted pocket bread ($6).


You can have Paterson's bustling Middle Eastern bazaar pretty much to yourself during the holy month of Ramadan.

On a sunny and hot Tuesday afternoon, there was barely any foot traffic on Main Street in South Paterson, but Muslim and Christian merchants kept their restaurants, bakeries and produce markets open.

Outside some restaurants, banners advertise Ramadan Buffets.

Customers paying for their purchases at Brothers Produce on East Railway Avenue see a sign wishing them "Happy Ramadan."

At Aleppo Restaurant on Main Street, owner Mohamed K. Jello (pronounced JILL-lo) said he has been fasting from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day, then filling his tables with customers who clamor for his Syrian specialties, including a special dish made with quince.

"I'm feeling a little woozy," he said after handing menus to me and my son, and noting he is forbidden to eat or drink water and coffee during the fast.

It doesn't seem fair that Orthodox Jews only have to fast on one day each year while Muslims fast for 30 days during Ramadan, which ends this year after sundown on July 5.

Aleppo's peppers

In a February 2010 review, David Corcoran of The New York Times noted the restaurant is named after the city of Aleppo, a major stop on an ancient trade route.

"The city gives its name to a red pepper with a vivid taste, sweet and smoky and faintly pungent," Corcoran wrote.

Then -- before the civil war destroyed large parts of the city -- one of Mohamed Jello's daughters dried Aleppo peppers "on the sun-washed roof of her house, preserves them and sends them to Paterson."

"The chef takes it from there, mincing them to a fine dice and whipping them with chopped walnuts, olive oil and spices into a vibrant, stop-sign red version of the appetizer spread called muhammara."

The red-pepper spread is the spiciest dish to emerge from the Syrian kitchen, where much of the food is prepared with tamarind, anise-like licorice root, lemon, fresh parsley, cumin, garlic, allspice and other aromatic seasonings. 

A freshly made Arabic Salad is lightly dressed in olive oil, lemon juice and chopped parsley ($5).

Hummus gets a drizzle of olive oil, a dusting of ground Aleppo pepper and cumin, and chopped parsley ($5).

A small plate of pickles and a basket of pocket bread for scooping up spreads are complimentary.

Turkish coffee ended our filling lunch.

The 60-seat dining room is filled at 8:30 p.m., when Jello serves Muslims who are ending their daily fast during the holiest period on their calendar. Two flat-screen TVs broadcast live from Mecca, the holy city in Saudi Arabia. Ramadan is said to be the month in which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Aleppo's menu includes more substantial fare, including whole red snappers, kebabs and other entrees. The restaurant is at 939 Main St. in Paterson at Thomas Street; 1-973-977-2244. Open daily.

In the Paterson Farmers Market, Brothers Produce at 327 E. Railway Ave. appears to have doubled in size, and now has nine checkout lanes to handle the crush of customers -- three times as many registers as before.

The popular store also has a second, much larger parking lot across Knickerbocker Avenue.

Brothers Produce is open daily; 1-973-684-4461.

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