Syrian newcomers using food to tell the story of home, find their way into Canada


Dpossess the shaded path from a bustling public pool in downtown Toronto stands a row of transport containers. One of the sounds of shrieks and splashes in the water, a gentle voice singing in Arabic floats through thenbsp;air.

The smell of chlorine and sunscreen is punctuated by whiffs of cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.

Nestled at the end of the row of coloured corrugated steel containers is a very small takeout window named Beroea Box, after the ancient name for the city of Aleppo, Syria. Here, Amir Fattal and his wife, Nour, have been serving meals from their hometown of Aleppo because the end of June. Their place is an unusual one: a blue retrofitted transport container, designed for fast support in a smallnbsp;space.

“I believe that someone who’s born in Aleppo has a love of food in their genetics,” Fattal said. “If you examine their blood, you will notice their love of music andnbsp;meals{}”

The Fattals lived in Aleppo until 2012, when they left Turkey following a bomb struck their apartment building. In July, 2016, they arrived in Canada with their daughter, Sally, through the personal refugee sponsorshipnbsp;app.

Family dinners were a pillar of life in Syria, and they soon started to cook elaborate thank-you foods for their patrons, including traditional food from Aleppo such as cigar-thin stuffed grape leaves and barbecued lamb with sournbsp;cherries.

These dishes are time-consuming and more complicated, with some recipes requiring over 24 hours from beginning to end. The love and skill put into every dish was apparent to the patrons, who immediately suggested the set open a restaurant and put the couple’s name down on a wait list for the Marketplace 707 shipping containers on Dundas Street West near Bathurst. It was a daunting thought for the group, who had operated small businesses before, but had no knowledge of the restaurant business. However, the allure of sharing Syrian culture quickly conquered the fear of thenbsp;unidentified.

New arrivals have always shaped Canadian food identity, and the current wave of Syrian refugees is no exception. From the Peace by Chocolate shop in Antigonish, N.S., to the Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine pop-up restaurant in Vancouver, Syrian newcomers are sharing the flavours of the houses with individuals acrossnbsp;Canada.

Amidst the widespread media coverage of Syrian refugees arriving in Canada, the tales of the Syrians who came before 2015 are oftennbsp;overlooked.

Jala Alsoufi is among them. She’s the general manager of the soon-to-be-opened Soufi’s café on Toronto’s Queen Street West, and came to Canada in 2012 to study architecture and psychology at the University of Toronto. Nevertheless, the continuing crisis has touched her, also, which explains why she and her family have hired Syrian refugees as contractors, to work in the kitchen and also to assist withnbsp;front-of-house.

The idea for Soufi’s hit just over a year ago, when Alsoufi’s parents and two brothers joined her in Canada. The family searched for great Middle Eastern food, but “we were not really happy,” she said. So they decided to make theirnbsp;own.

Sydney Oland, a board member in Culinary Historians of Canada who lives in Whitehorse, describes sharing a culture’s food as “the easiest way to obtain a footing in any society, to discuss that very human experience. It is the grand equalizer. Everybodynbsp;eats.”

The keen acceptance of different foods remains a relatively new phenomenon in Canada. Franca Iacovetta, a University of Toronto professor specializing in the history of immigration to Canada, said restaurants started by immigrant groups would frequently receive pushback from both the area they functioned out of Canadiannbsp;authorities.

Iacovetta explained people “historically hoping to alter and transform the food habits of immigrant women and to ‘Canadianize’nbsp;them{}”

When people wanted to sample new foods, or, as Iacovetta puts it, when housewives wanted to “spice up the bored palates of household members,” there was a pressure to homogenize cultural foods — to cut spices and special tastes to match the milder Canadian palate. In Ontario, it wasn’t till the 1960s, Iacovetta discovered, that people finally begun to adopt newnbsp;cuisines.

In modern-day Toronto, a number of these barriers have disappeared. Fattal said he can discover every Syrian ingredient he desires from town, provided that he understands where tonbsp;seem.

By Aleppo’s famous hot, smoky dried pepper to sour cherries, he explained more Syrian ingredients can be found in Canada than he could ever find innbsp;Turkey.

In Soufi’s, which bills itself as downtown Toronto’s first Syrian resto-café, Syrian ingredients are combined with contemporary foodnbsp;tendencies.

The restaurant specializes in two meals out of Damascus, the Syrian capital: manaeesh, a flatbread topped with cheese, thyme or ground meat; and knaffeh, a candy, cheese-filled dessert which Alsoufi likens to a Syriannbsp;cheesecake.

Alsoufi crafted a whole-wheat, vegan version of the manaeesh dough and engineered a vegan knaffeh with cashew cheese and vegetablenbsp;ghee.

The vegan flatbread is slathered in a fragrant red pepper paste, with jolts of paprika and hints of sesame running throughout. For the meat-inclined, a spiced lamb version features traditional dough, topped with a generous helping of paprika-infused groundnbsp;lamb.

Pictures and intricate pencil drawings hang on the walls — the work of unsigned artists, who sell their bits at the café. The artists will gather all profits from theirnbsp;earnings.

Soufi’s is slated to start in early August, and the last days of preparation have the distance buzzing. A Syrian cheese provider stops by, while the Jordanian proprietor of neighborhood coffee firm Hale consults about the café’s coffeenbsp;program.

The cook, a Syrian refugee, is busy finalizing the details of the menu with Alsoufi’s parents. A discussion ensues about whether the hummus — arranged in an elegant swirl on a platter, topped with traces of spices, a spoonful of gold olive oil and smaller mounds of whole chickpeas — needs morenbsp;lemon.

Each feature of the restaurant was mulled over and discussed, from the intricate tiles on the serving counter (an homage to Islam’s traditional geometric artwork) into the brass ornaments scattered throughout the diningnbsp;area.

A version coffee set, with every cup no bigger than the tip of a thumb, sits in the center of a top table. Alsoufi’s grandmother brought it from Syria into Lebanon, where it had been put in a bag and brought tonbsp;Canada.

“I had not seen these things since before the revolution began, so I called my grandma and asked her to bring them{}” Alsoufinbsp;stated.

Alsoufi’s previous trip to Syria was in 2010, when she returned home for a summer vacation while she had been living in Saudi Arabia with hernbsp;parents.

“I never anticipated that opportunity to be the final time,” shenbsp;stated.

Alsoufi wants customers to be aware of the “situation back home,” as she describes Syria’s continuing civil war, but she expects that the restaurant enables people to see the nation through a lens that’s not only uplifting, butnbsp;optimistic.

“We feel like this place is a chance to showcase the Syrian culture and customs as well as the meals,” Alsoufinbsp;stated.

Fattal, also, is now more or less a Syrian ambassador. As passersby stop to have a look at his menu, he informs them about Syrian cuisine, about the rich culinary history of Aleppo and about his family’s travel tonbsp;Canada.

Fattal wants people to learn about the Syrian sense of humor and listen to Syrian music. He desires their perceptions of the country to change from war and heartache to an understanding of Aleppo’s richly spiced foods, of the Syrian love of hospitality and the warm, smiling demeanours of their Syriannbsp;individuals.

He is also a strong believer in community. Before launching Beroea Box, he and Nour cooked welcome dinners for Syrian newcomers and catered events for groups of up to 250 people. “I really like this idea that refugees cook for additional refugees. We love to return,” Fattalnbsp;stated.

The slow-roasted meat and hours of simmering required for conventional Aleppian food could not interpret to foods for hundreds of individuals, so the couple pared down the menu to function easy classics, such as roast chicken and potatoes and ouzi, a round puff-pastry full of spiced meat and finely choppednbsp;veggies.

Having never run a restaurant before, the couple took classes in food handling and oversaw each element leading up to opening Beroea Box. They organized graphic design, took detailed photographs of the food and quantified every centimetre of the very small space to make sure all their gear could fit within the shippingnbsp;container.

Their brief menu features stuffed meat pies and paper-thin spiced flatbreads. The ease helps with navigating the tight space, and Fattal also needs to make sure he and Nour can share the cooking. They are expecting another girl in October, and he intends to both cook and handle food sales, easing the burden for hisnbsp;spouse.

Beroea Box has only been available for a couple of weeks, but Fattal already wants to start another place and then begin a supper club, where people may come to his house and find a flavor of family-style Syriannbsp;cooking.

He also dreams of Syrian stores, restaurants and people all gathered in one neighbourhood, very similar to Chinatown or Little Italy. “I really don’t like to be independent. If we are together we’re strong,” henbsp;stated.

He’s in luck: Soufi’s is only a brief walknbsp;away.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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