Tackling Mideast issues, one scoop at a time

DAMASCUS, Syria — Call it ice cream diplomacy.

For foreign diplomats traveling to Damascus, a local ice cream parlor has become an unlikely, yet essential, first stop.

Praised by locals and frequented by statesmen, the 115-year-old shop, called Bakdash, attracts several thousand customers daily and sells more than 500 kilograms of ice cream.

“Everyone in Arabia knows about Bakdash,” said Ghaissan Bakdash, a co-owner of the shop and grandson of founder Hamdi Bakdash, who opened it in 1895. As is typical to businesses in Syria, Hamdi passed Bakdash on to his two sons, who passed it on to their sons, who today operate the internationally renowned shop. Lonely Planet calls it a “souq-shopping must” and tens of thousands of viewers have watched YouTube clips of burly men pounding the ice cream into thin, stretchy layers.

Part of its fame comes from a convenient location among the important attractions in Damascus’ Old City. The shop is located on the al-Hamidiya souq, a covered market that dates to Roman times and leads to the entrance of the Umayyad Mosque. One of the world's oldest and holiest mosques, it supposedly houses the head of John the Baptist, while Jesus is meant to appear at its southeastern minaret on Judgment Day.

But it's the shop's high-profile custom that lends it an added aura of holiness.

During state visits, President Bashar al-Assad leads his honored guests on an orchestrated tour of the Old Town, complete with a stop at Bakdash. Past customers include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Jordanian King Abdullah II and the foreign ministers from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi. Assad orders several vats of ice cream to be delivered to his private residency at least once a month, added Wissam Bakdash, operations manager and a cousin of the owners. The suggestion has been made that barring lactose intolerance, Robert Ford — still awaiting Senate confirmation as the new U.S. ambassador to Syria — might do well to stop here as one of his first diplomatic acts.

So many diplomats visit that Wissam can't seem to keep their visiting dates straight, nor was he certain which official from Cyprus visited this month — but it was somebody important, he assured GlobalPost.

Bakdash owes its fame to the traditional methods it employs.

Though ice cream parlors line the streets of Damascus and offer a range of flavors, none are as famous or highly regarded. Bakdash serves lemon, strawberry and chocolate ice cream, but almost everyone orders its famed homemade vanilla, which costs $1 for a cone or dish heaped with ice cream covered in pistachios and cashews.

“It's the only place that still uses the traditional, handmade way,” Wissam said, adding that other shops use electric mixers to produce their batches.

As he spoke inside the parlor on a late April afternoon, the room echoed with a rhythmic “smack.” An attendant, the sleeves of his white T-shirt rolled over his giant biceps, pounded the ingredients together using a heavy, wooden mallet. A black-and-white photo of Hamdi Bakdash doing the same adorned the wall behind him. After a thorough pulverizing, the ice cream was peeled from the vat, rolled and placed in a bin, like dough. To serve it, workers tore off pieces and piled it into cones or dishes.

Along with this spectacle, another secret to Bakdash’s fame, said Wissam, is its product’s ingredients. They consist of milk, sugar, syrup and vanilla. Unlike most Western ice creams, those made at Bakdash doesn't use eggs. Instead, the shop uses mastic, a type of plant resin, and sahlab, a flour ground from the tubors of orchid plants. Mastic and sahlab are the same thickening agents used in the famous “dondurma” ice cream ubiquitous in Syria's northern neighbor, Turkey. This gives it a sticky, elastic texture that is slow to melt — helpful for visiting diplomats wanting to keep their business suits drip-free.

One recent customer, Jurgen Van Poppel from Belgium spoke with international authority on the subject of Bakdash’s superiority.

“We've tried a few shops already,” said Van Poppel, 40, a self-professed ice cream aficionado vacationing in Syria last month. Poppel attends an annual ice cream competition among local manufacturers in his hometown, Antwerp, and he said Bakdash would fare well in the competition, despite Belguim’s proficiency in making top-quality sweets. He preferred Bakdash over the other parlors he visited in Damascus, because “they really make it here — you can see them doing it.”

Even more than tourists and politicians in search of a populist photo-op, Bakdash is beloved by locals. Daily, Syrians — mostly young men — fill the shop and its long, Formica tables. Joining the hordes is an easy, conspicuous way for visiting politicians to partake in a cultural institution that is both benign and universal.

“It’s very hot in Syria so we all like ice cream,” said one customer, a 25-year-old engineering student named Mohammad Ahmad, adding: “It’s my favorite."