Down the shaded path from a bustling public pool in downtown Toronto stands a row of shipping containers. Among the sounds of shrieks and splashes in the water, a soft voice singing in Arabic floats through the air.
The smell of sunscreen and chlorine is punctuated by whiffs of cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.
Nestled at the end of the row of vividly coloured corrugated steel containers is a tiny takeout window called Beroea Box, after the ancient name for the city of Aleppo, Syria. Here, Amir Fattal and his wife, Nour, have been serving food from their hometown of Aleppo since the end of June. Their venue is an unusual one: a blue retrofitted shipping container, designed for quick service in a small space.
“I believe that a person who is born in Aleppo has a love of food in their genetics,” Fattal said. “If you test their blood, you will see their love of music and food.”
The Fattals lived in Aleppo until 2012, when they left for Turkey after a bomb hit their apartment building. In July, 2016, they arrived in Canada with their daughter, Sally, through the private refugee sponsorship program.
Family dinners were a pillar of life in Syria, and they soon began to cook elaborate thank-you meals for their sponsors, featuring traditional food from Aleppo such as cigar-thin stuffed grape leaves and barbecued lamb with sour cherries.
These dishes are time-consuming and complex, with some recipes taking more than 24 hours from start to finish. The love and skill put into each dish was clear to the sponsors, who quickly suggested the pair open a restaurant and put the couple’s name down on a wait list for the Market 707 shipping containers on Dundas Street West near Bathurst. It was a daunting idea for the pair, who had operated small businesses before, but had no knowledge of the restaurant industry. But the appeal of sharing Syrian culture quickly overcame the fear of the unknown.
New arrivals have always shaped Canadian food identity, and the recent wave of Syrian refugees is no exception. From the Peace by Chocolate store in Antigonish, N.S., to the Tayybeh: A Celebration of Syrian Cuisine pop-up restaurant in Vancouver, Syrian newcomers are sharing the flavours of their homes with people across Canada.
Amidst the widespread media coverage of Syrian refugees arriving in Canada, the stories of the Syrians who arrived before 2015 are often overlooked.
Jala Alsoufi is one of them. She is 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 psychology and architecture at the University of Toronto. But the ongoing crisis has touched her, too, which is why she and her family have hired Syrian refugees as contractors, to work in the kitchen and to help with 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 good Middle Eastern food, but “we were never really satisfied,” she said. So they decided to create their own.
Sydney Oland, a board member at Culinary Historians of Canada who lives in Whitehorse, describes sharing a culture’s food as “the easiest way to gain a footing in any society, to share that very human experience. It’s the grand equalizer. Everybody eats.”
The eager acceptance of different foods is still a relatively new phenomenon in Canada. Franca Iacovetta, a University of Toronto professor specializing in the history of immigration to Canada, said restaurants opened by immigrant groups would often receive pushback from both the area they operated in and from Canadian authorities.
Iacovetta described people “historically trying to change and transform the food customs of immigrant women and to ‘Canadianize’ them.”
When people wanted to sample new foods, or, as Iacovetta puts it, when housewives wanted to “spice up the bored palates of family members,” there was a pressure to homogenize ethnic foods – to reduce spices and unique flavours to suit the milder Canadian palate. In Ontario, it was not until the 1960s, Iacovetta found, that people finally started to embrace new cuisines.
In modern-day Toronto, many of these barriers have disappeared. Fattal said he is able to find every Syrian ingredient he needs in the city, as long as he knows where to look.
From Aleppo’s famous hot, smoky dried pepper to sour cherries, he said more Syrian ingredients are available in Canada than he could ever find in Turkey.
At Soufi’s, which bills itself as downtown Toronto’s first Syrian resto-café, Syrian ingredients are combined with modern food trends.
The restaurant specializes in two dishes from Damascus, the Syrian capital: manaeesh, a flatbread topped with cheese, thyme or ground meat; and knaffeh, a sweet, cheese-filled dessert that Alsoufi likens to a Syrian cheesecake.
Alsoufi crafted a whole-wheat, vegan version of the manaeesh dough and engineered a vegan knaffeh with cashew cheese and vegetable 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 ground lamb.
Photos and intricate pencil drawings hang on the walls – the work of Syrian artists, who sell their pieces at the café. The artists will collect all profits from their sales.
Soufi’s is slated to open in early August, and the final days of preparation have the space buzzing. A Syrian cheese supplier stops by, while the Jordanian owner of local coffee company Hale consults on the café’s coffee program.
The cook, a Syrian refugee, is busy finalizing the details of the menu with Alsoufi’s parents. A debate ensues about whether the hummus – arranged in an elegant swirl on a platter, topped with lines of spices, a drizzle of golden olive oil and small mounds of whole chickpeas – needs more lemon.
Each aspect of the restaurant has been mulled over and discussed, from the intricate tiles on the serving counter (an homage to Islam’s traditional geometric art) to the brass ornaments scattered throughout the dining area.
A model coffee set, with each cup no bigger than the tip of a thumb, sits in the middle of a high table. Alsoufi’s grandmother brought it from Syria to Lebanon, where it was put in a suitcase and brought to Canada.
“I hadn’t seen these things since before the revolution started, so I called my grandmother and asked her to bring them,” Alsoufi said.
Alsoufi’s previous visit to Syria was in 2010, when she returned home for a summer holiday while she was living in Saudi Arabia with her parents.
“I never expected that time to be the last time,” she said.
Alsoufi wants customers to be mindful of the “situation back home,” as she refers to Syria’s ongoing civil war, but she also hopes the restaurant will allow people to see the country through a lens that is not only uplifting, but hopeful.
“We feel like this place is an opportunity to showcase the Syrian culture and traditions and the food,” Alsoufi said.
Fattal, too, is now more or less a Syrian ambassador. As passersby stop to check out his menu, he tells them about Syrian cuisine, about the rich culinary history of Aleppo and about his family’s journey to Canada.
Fattal wants people to know about the Syrian sense of humour and hear Syrian music. He wants their perceptions of the country to shift 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 the Syrian people.
He’s also a strong believer in community. Before opening Beroea Box, he and Nour cooked welcome dinners for Syrian newcomers and catered events for groups of up to 250 people. “I love this idea that refugees cook for other refugees. We love to give back,” Fattal said.
The slow-roasted meat and hours of simmering required for traditional Aleppian food couldn’t translate to meals for hundreds of people, so the couple pared down the menu to serve simple classics, such as roast chicken and potatoes and ouzi, a round puff-pastry filled with spiced meat and finely chopped vegetables.
Having never run a restaurant before, the couple took courses in food handling and oversaw each element leading up to opening Beroea Box. They organized graphic design, took detailed photos of the food and measured every centimetre of the tiny space to ensure all their equipment could fit inside the shipping container.
Their short menu features stuffed meat pies and paper-thin spiced flatbreads. The simplicity helps with navigating the tight space, and Fattal also wants to ensure he and Nour can share the cooking. They are expecting another daughter in October, after which he plans to both cook and manage food sales, easing the load for his wife.
Beroea Box has only been open for a few weeks, but Fattal already wants to open another location and then start a supper club, where people can come to his home and get a taste of family-style Syrian cooking.
He also dreams of Syrian shops, restaurants and people all collected in one neighbourhood, similar to Chinatown or Little Italy. “I don’t like to be separate. If we are together we are strong,” he said.
He is in luck: Soufi’s is just a short walk away.