AMMAN – A broiling Thursday in early August. A persistent knocking can be heard near Medina Street. Intrigued by the mesmerizing rhythm, we follow the sound. Next to the renowned Habibah Sweets shop in this city, we find a new building with a large sign on the front: BAKDASH. We’ve fantasized for years about this famous Syrian ice cream; indeed, before we left for Jordan, our foodie friends were all urging us to try it. And now, without even intending to, we find ourselves right in front of the newly renovated, local branch of the Bakdash ice-cream shop. Mastic ice cream, here we come.
There are certain institutions that are immune to economic fluctuations and major upheavals. Such is the Bakdash ice-cream enterprise, which after seven years of civil war and more than half-a-million dead, is still making its famous product every day in the Al-Hamidiyah Souq in the old city of Damascus. And in our case, it is also weathering Jordan’s high cost of living, which is bringing masses of people to the streets in protest.
At the end of the day, when the winds of this Middle Eastern hell keep heating up, what everyone wants – in Damascus, Amman or Tel Aviv for that matter – is some cold and refreshing ice cream. And not just any ice cream, but one of the best in the region.
In 1895, when the Ottoman Empire wasn’t aware that its end was nearing, Mohammad Hamdi Bakdash opened his ice-cream parlor in Damascus. Since then – throughout the French conquest, one War of Independence and an unending civil war – it has opened its doors every day, serving thousands of Syrians daily.
It’s not only in Damascus that the name Bakdash is a synonym for superb Arab ice cream. The same is true in other Syrian cities (Latakia, Tartus, Sweida) and, over the years, in other countries, too: Turkey, Russia and, recently, the United States. While rebel troops and ISIS forces have been plundering whatever they can get their hands on to trade it for cash or weapons, the refrigerators and ice-cream-making equipment at Bakdash in Damascus have been left intact. You don’t mess with national pride.
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The family opened the Amman branch in 2013, following a drop in business in Syria due to the war, and with the thought that their product would be appreciated in Jordan as well. The Amman shop opened just as the first Syrian refugees began to stream over the border, and the Bakdashes realized they could at least offer them a familiar taste from home. This is also why a large number of Syrian restaurants have opened in the Jordanian capital in the last few years, although the locals seem to be flocking to them in even greater numbers than the Syrian newcomers. Indeed, the Bakdash family recently completed a major renovation of the shop to better serve the throngs of Jordanians lining up for the ice cream.
Kinder Bueno and mastic
After experiencing warfare in the Damascus market, the family decided also to open a small branch in one of Amman’s upscale malls, in one of the capital’s affluent, westernized neighborhoods, because, they reasoned, if the city’s rich folk won’t come east – we’ll bring the ice cream to them. The price, though, is just as affordable: a dinar or a dinar and a half (roughly $1.40 to $2.10), depending on the topping.
Whatever branch you go to, at Bakdash you’ll find the usual suspects: vanilla and chocolate, as well as flavors like Bounty, Kinder Bueno and salty caramel. But with all due respect to them – we'd come for the flagship flavors, the ones that brought us from afar. The first of these is "mastica," a flavor based on the sticky sap of the mastic tree, which gives the ice cream an unusual consistency not easily found back home (we tasted and liked the ice cream in the Israeli Arab town of Shfaram, and we’ve also had it in Greece, but it’s not quite the same thing), and also makes it melt more slowly than any other ice cream – no small matter in broiling-hot desert cities.
Tel Aviv ice-cream shops mostly try to emulate the creamy products of Italian gelaterias, but mastic ice cream is everything but cream. It has a marvelous pliancy and the delicate flavor of milk cooked with mastic, along with a note of pine. To achieve the incredible elastic consistency, its producers perform a local ritual that has become a trademark: energetically beating the ice cream with wooden poles (in a process that's similar to using a mortar and pestle) to soften it a bit. Then the lovely mixture is formed into a small ball, coated with a combination of coarsely ground pistachios and salted cashews, placed in a cone – and it’s on to the next satisfied customer.
The taste? Divine. If the Middle East has a taste, this is its essence – the subtle, sweet flavor of milk and rosewater, the unmistakable presence of mastic and the scent of pine. A delightful saltiness and crunchy nuttiness complete the picture.
Another wildly popular classic found here at Bakdash is booza, a pistachio ice cream specially concocted with milk and cream. And don’t miss the sahlab ice cream either, still made from orchid-bulb flour (not cornstarch, as you find in Israel), which looks like a crazy mash-up of the familiar Middle Eastern drink with knafeh, covered in kadaif-pastry threads with a gentle drizzle of syrup on top.
Now Bakdash is planning to expand to more locations around the globe. As horrific images from Syria continue to flood the world unabated and Jordan struggles with its economic woes, at least soldiers on all sides – along with rich and poor citizens, tourists and locals alike – can still beat the Mideast heat with some of the best ice cream around.