Civil war has scattered Syria’s bakers, pastry chefs, and restaurateurs. For the foodies—and children—in their new communities, it’s a tasty turn of events.
Picture of syrian pastries that look like birds’ nests filled with nuts
Syrian sweets made with nuts and various forms of phyllo dough are famous for their quality and flavor.
At 2 p.m. every weekday, schoolboys in downtown Cairo pour out into the street and set off in hot pursuit of their afternoon sugar fix.
For the most impatient among them, speed is of the essence, and any of the old Twinkies or chocolate-flavored wafers—available for as little as ten cents at one of the many cornerside kiosks—will do to sate their hunger.
But for those with more discerning sweet tooths, there’s only one place on their minds. Textbooks in hand, they dash through the traffic-clogged avenues toward the Bloudan Oriental Patisserie. There, under the benevolent glare of the Assar brothers, they gorge themselves on stringy and syrupy Damascene pastries like knafeh.
“They know Syrians have the best knafeh, so they always come,” says Mohammed, the older of the duo, who fled their conflict-ridden homeland a little over four years ago. “Even early in the morning, they want our sweets!”
The Syrian civil war, which first erupted in 2011, has been an absolute catastrophe for that country’s people, over five million of whom have fled into exile in neighboring states. But for the wider Middle East, which has also struggled to cope with the fallout from these massive people movements, Syria’s implosion has come with a thin silver lining.
Thousands of top cooks, restaurateurs, and ice cream parlor owners are among those to have joined the exodus. And as they’ve found their feet, countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey have benefitted tremendously from the influx of a people renowned across the Mediterranean for the quality of their food.
Residents of Amman can now sample the delights of Bakdash, formerly Damascus’s most famous ice cream spot, which since 2012 has doled out its pistachio and Arabic gum concoctions from the streets of the Jordanian capital. In Erbil, Iraqi Kurds can dine out at a recently opened offshoot of Naranj—reportedly Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favorite restaurant. Meanwhile, visitors to Istanbul are confronted with a bevy of newly available Syrian delicacies, ranging from spicy grilled meats to fermented yogurt.
Many Syrian bakeries like this one in Damascus, pictured in January 2013, can no longer operate since the civil war broke out. Many refugee bakers are bringing their sugar skills to neighboring states, opening shops of their own.
But in Cairo, where candy and pretty much anything doused in sugar is king, few Syrians have made themselves quite as welcome as the small cadre of pastry and baklava chefs, who’ve toiled to bring their unique flavors to this megacity. In a country that’s not known for its cuisine, their pistachio and cashew-laden wares have earned them a dedicated clientele from all walks of life. Even in affluent districts, where they compete against a raft of sushi restaurants and Italian delis, Syrian refugee businesses have more than held their own.
“Egyptian sweets are just concentrated sugar, but with us we use different ingredients, and people appreciate this,” says one baker in the embassy-and expat-heavy Zamalek neighborhood, who declined to give his name for fear of endangering his family back in Syria. Mohammad Assar gave another take on his countrymen’s more highly rated cuisine: “Egyptians are always in a rush. We [take]our time with food,”reports national geographic.