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Tackling Mideast issues, one scoop at a time

Mideast politics may be fraught, but there's one thing diplomats, kings and statesmen can agree on — the ice cream at Syria's Bakdash.

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."