Toronto is Experiencing the Start of a Syrian Food Boom

In the kitchen this month at Newcomer Kitchen, a project in Toronto that began in March 2016 as a way of giving newly arrived Syrian refugees who were temporarily living in airport hotels a chance to cook a meal. From left, Amina Alshaar, Aisha Mastou, Muna Nazha and Rahaf Alakbani.
Ian Willms for The New York Times

The interior of Soufi’s, a fast-casual restaurant in downtown Toronto, is tailor-made for Instagram. There are white subway tiles, vintage photographs, a chalkboard menu and a selection of bric-a-brac assembled by an owner, Jala Alsoufi, a recent architecture and psychology graduate. The barista (her younger brother, Alaa) even sports the scruffy beard and Blue Jays cap favored by food-service workers along this hip stretch of Queen Street.

But Soufi’s offers hints of something more unusual than just a place to get lunch. They include the sinuous melodies of old Arabic pop songs, the whiff of sumac and za’atar in the air, and the yellow-and-black T-shirts the staff wears, proclaiming, “From Syria, With Love.”

Until recently, Syrian cuisine hardly existed in Toronto. With just a few hundred families, the Syrian population was too small to support a restaurant scene. But over the past two years, following the high-profile resettlement of more than 50,000 refugees in Canada, the Toronto area — where over 11,000 of them live — is experiencing the green shoots of a Syrian-food boom.

The entrepreneurs behind these ventures display the striking diversity of Syria’s refugee population. They are as young as 17 and as old as 70, urban professors as well as illiterate farmers. They identify as Shia, Sunni, Druze, Kurd, Alawite, Christian or just Syrian. Some worked in food businesses back home. Others never cooked in their lives.

In a city whose culinary landscape is proudly defined by its immigrant foods (more than half of all Torontonians are foreign-born), the emergence of Syrian cooking illuminates an immigrant community’s integration into the broader population, and the bridge that food can build to a new life.

But this group’s arrival in Toronto also points to something new. “The Syrians are coming at a time that is very different than other immigrants before them,” said Suresh Doss, a food journalist who focuses on the city’s immigrant shops and restaurants in suburban strip malls.

Fadi Kedi keeps various customer orders organized during a lunch rush at Soufi’s, a fast-casual restaurant that is part of a growing Syrian food scene in Toronto.
Ian Willms for The New York Times

Unlike the Filipinos or Sri Lanken Tamils (including Mr. Doss’s family) who opened food businesses clustered together in immigrant neighborhoods to cater to their countrymen, the Syrians have spread their enterprises across the Toronto area, at a time when the entire city is obsessed with anything edible.

They can market their meals on platforms like Instagram to a wider audience, tapping into a “visual obsession with food” that Mr. Doss says rewards the most “novel, spicy and authentic cuisines” that Torontonians can get their hands on.

And Canada’s embrace of the Syrian refugees has brought them a sort of celebrity status that can translate into sales and long-term success.

Manaeesh flatbread sandwiches baking at Soufi’s.
Ian Willms for The New York Times

“There is such a positive attitude toward new businesses that newcomers have been starting here,” said Jala Alsoufi, 23.

In August, Ms. Alsoufi opened Soufi’s, one of about a half-dozen Syrian food businesses to appear around Toronto in recent years, with her parents, Shahnaz and Husam, and her brother Alaa, 26. (A younger brother, Ayham, is still in high school.)

Though originally from Damascus, the family lived for two decades in Saudi Arabia, where Husam worked as a civil engineer and Shahnaz as a social worker. Unlike the majority of recent Syrian arrivals, who came as refugees, Jala moved here first in 2012 to study at the University of Toronto, and her family followed three years later. Because Canada did not recognize Husam’s engineering qualifications, and the family quickly learned about the scarcity of Syrian food in Toronto, they decided to open a restaurant.

“We wanted to highlight Syrian cuisine, which had gotten lost in the shadows of Middle Eastern cuisine,” Jala said, noting how Lebanese and other Arabic restaurants had cloaked their restaurants in a generic “Mediterranean” label, for broader appeal.

At Soufi’s, Anthony Daher, left, a regular customer, chats wth Odai Nakawa, an employee.
Ian Willms for The New York Times

Soufi’s is defiantly branded as a Syrian restaurant. Shahnaz, speaking in Arabic as her daughter translated, said the family wanted to demonstrate that Syrians were “more than just victims.”

“We wanted to consciously be light and airy,” Jala added, “because even though the situation in Syria is very unfortunate, it is important to show Syrian culture, music and art.”

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SOURCE: NY Times, David Sax