Syrian newcomers add another layer to Canadian food identity

August 1, 2017

By Eleanor Davidson, Globe and Mail |

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.

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