Toronto Suddenly Has a New Craving: Syrian Food

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“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.

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At Soufi’s, Anthony Daher, left, a regular customer, chats wth Odai Nakawa, an employee.

Credit
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.”

The Alsoufi family has purposefully struck a balance between traditional Syrian flavors and contemporary Canadian tastes. Soufi’s employees are exclusively young, Syrian refugees. Some wear head scarves and beards, while others prefer tight jeans and rolled-up sleeves. The meat is halal, but beer is served, and a sticker supporting gay, lesbian and transgender causes is displayed on the front door.

The menu is built around two quintessential Syrian street foods: freshly baked manaeesh flatbread topped with a variety of ingredients, from sujuk (spiced ground beef) to crumbled halloumi cheese with braised, lemony spinach; and knafeh, a warm sweet dish of gooey cheese and phyllo strands, scented with rose water and soaked in syrup.

Jala refuses to make something as overtly fusion-y as a “manaeesh burrito,” but you can order avocado as a topping, and her vegan knafeh, called “banoffeh,” is made with coconut caramel, bananas and tahini, inspired by her love of banoffee pie, that edible portmanteau of 1970s supermarket staples like sweetened condensed milk and whipped cream.

The first Syrian food business to make its mark here was Crown Pastries, a small bakery opened by the brothers Ismail and Rasoul Alsalha in 2015, in a strip mall along a stretch of road in Scarborough (the eastern quarter of the city) that is dominated by Lebanese butchers and shawarma shops.

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Ismail Alsalha hands out samples of his homemade sweets to customers at Crown Pastries, the first Syrian food business to make its mark in Toronto.

Credit
Ian Willms for The New York Times

The brothers fled to Canada as refugees in 2009 from Aleppo, citing a dangerous situation they declined to discuss. While Ismail finished high school, Rasoul supported him by working in Lebanese bakeries from dawn until dusk, but the goal was always to open a Syrian bakery.

“With other Arab bakeries, you cannot taste the butter or nuts, only sugar,” Rasoul said dismissively.

Crown Pastries is a recreation of their grandfather’s bakery of the same name, which operated in Aleppo’s old city from 1980 until the start of the civil war in 2011, when it was abandoned. It is where both brothers learned the trade.

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