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Toronto Restaurant Shows World That Syrian Culture Isn't Defined By War

Food restaurants Soufi's Syria Toronto

This family-run restaurant hires Syrian refugees and wants to show the world that Syrian culture isn’t defined by war.

Our family is aware that we're not what most people would imagine if they thought of a Syrian family. It kind of challenges their idea of who Syrians are and what they're like. 

One of the things that Sufi's has really gone out of their way to do is to brand themselves, not as a Middle Eastern restaurant or a Mediterranean restaurant but a Syrian restaurant and putting their Syrian identity front and center and saying you know this is nothing to do with politics and conflict. This is about a culture.

I was running away from things back home in our country that I didn't like much because you know in Syria the situation is so hard. In Saudi Arabia, even though we were there for 20 years we were still strangers there, we have no rights. I was more ambitious to have better chance for my family. The decision came, to come to Canada.

I was born in Damascus, Syria and when I was about a year old my family moved to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. After I finished high school, I got accepted into U of T here in Toronto. I'm 17, I was alone in this big city. It was a really big culture shock. When I tried my first Shawarma here, it was nothing like the Shawarma that you would have in Syria or even in Saudi. That sort of realization now there was something missing is what gave us the idea that we could actually do something together and open up a Syrian restaurant.

When we opened it was a Syrian cuisine, some people came just because you are Syria not because our food is good. No, our food is good. I know our food is good but they [laughter].

Not many people are familiar with what Manaeesh is or what Kenafa is. Most people when they think of Middle Eastern food think Falafel, think Shawarma, think Hummus. Manaeesh is essentially a flatbread. It's something that we would usually have for breakfast. So first thing in the morning, my granddad would come in with like four boxes of Manaeesh and we'd all eat like five each. Manaeesh is topped with either cheese or Za'atar which is another classic or other varieties of toppings like meats and and pepper paste and spinach. It's so delicious and so fresh and so warm. It was something that really reminds us all of growing up in Syria.

My parents being new to the country and not really being able to work with their degrees in what their qualifications given that their degrees are in Arabic and they studied in Syria. It was sort of difficult for them to start something here the restaurant was an opportunity for us to do something together. My mom is the head chef. She came up with most of the recipes and she manages the kitchen downstairs. My brother is in charge of the front of house. He's the main barista. My dad is in charge of the finances and the accounting. And then myself, I've been focusing more on the marketing and creating marketing material.

She's doing amazing work again. She has the vision. The design of the restaurant is her. You know the menu, the media, the marketing. We're lucky we have her.

In the beginning we would spend over 18 hours of the day together. So just being around the same people who happens to be your family for a very long time is bound to create little little problems.

You learn who has tempers. Who doesn't.

Who has a temper?

I'm not gonna complain about my brother like he complained about me.

Kneffeh is a very popular Middle Eastern and Syrian desert. What it is is a phyllo pastry layered over melted cheese served hot with an orange blossom sugar syrup. We got the pastry. We chopped it up and then we massaged it in clarified butter or ghee. Once that's done, we start preparing the cheese which is a mix of Akawi and Mozzarella. We also a massage them together and then the actual preparation of the Kneffeh is the layer of Kneffeh and then a layer of cheese and an another layer of Kneffeh and then it's baked once it comes out of the oven hot, we pour the sugar syrup on top and then top it off with pistachios.

[In Syrian Arabic] Syria has changed a lot. Sometimes we see places as if it's not Syria. It's destroyed. Everything has become worse.

It's still fresh. I remember one of the girls in the kitchen, the air shows that used to happen, they just freak her out because she comes from her area where airplanes have a very different meaning.

I decided that we mostly need the Syrian to be with us in the restaurant and especially the refugees are coming.

When these newcomers first come they're not really given much of an opportunity, there's a language barrier and they do have skills but they can't really be applied in Canada.

We can feel that we are doing something for the refugees. At the same time we can use their expertise because they are really good.

At the end of the day, it's a win-win situation for both of us and if anything we need them more than they need us.

Syrians are people. We're not just what they see in the news. We're more than that and despite everything that's happening there we are still a very vibrant culture.

Any time that a culture is able to sort of sell its food and bring it out into a community, what they do is really sort of personalize and humanize the immigrant experience. Food is one of the easiest ways to create a cultural understanding because it requires nothing other than an appetite and open mind.

[H/T: Uber Eats Canada]


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