Syrian Eats on Istanbul Streets
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Chicken shawarma, hummus and fatteh are expanding their dominance!
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
The minute 27-year-old Ahmed Halabi stepped off the plane in Turkey from war-torn Damascus, he made a beeline for the Tarbush restaurant in Istanbul and chowed down on a bowl of fatteh with steamed chickpeas, cumin-spiced yogurt and olive oil. “It tastes just like home,” Halabi said, as he topped off his dish with crushed pita chips.
Syrian food has been making a tasty home for itself in Turkey. Since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Turkey has played host to 1.8 million Syrians like Halabi, who settle in küçük Haleps — or little Aleppos — in major cities such as Istanbul. The deadly conflict has brought not only refugees over the border, Halabi notes between bites, but also new Syrian-owned restaurants that promise to deliver a slice of pre-war life for Turkey’s newest immigrants.
… munching on crispy falafel, toasted Syrian bread and eggplant stew …
Eating means business. More than 26 percent of foreign-owned companies created in Turkey last year were established or co-established by Syrians, and among these nascent businesses were small-scale restaurants like Tarbush, started by Zabadani-born Mohamad Bitar. He currently owns two more restaurants and a bakery in Istanbul, which swell with Syrians munching on crispy falafel, toasted Syrian bread and eggplant stew on any given day of the week. “Syrians are slowly starting to fit into Turkish life,” said Bitar, a teacher-turned-cook who credits his business savvy and knowledge of Turkish for providing him a head start in Turkey’s restaurant game. He fills his eateries with Syrian workers who earn 1,000 lira, or $404, in the first few months and receive paid vacations every 50 days. “We are like a family,” Bitar added. He said it’s his job as a Syrian man to help his fellow Syrians.
Tarbush isn’t the only go-to place for Syrian eats. Across the Bosphorus River, Faroj al Zalem, a fast food chain, is filled with Arabic script and Syrian tunes. Patrons chat over creamy hummus and chicken shawarma. “Everyone who comes here sees this as a little Syria,” said restaurant manager Muhammad Hamadadeh, who fled Damascus seven months ago. He’s created a space where everything resembles home, from the food to the culture to the language.
But not everyone is confident that these Syrian eateries will stay long. Hande Bozdogan, director of the Istanbul Culinary Institute, is “skeptical” about their long-term success. It comes down to capital. Restaurant operations are expensive, she explained, “especially if you have limited funds.”
Like it or not, Hamadadeh from Faroj al Zalem believes that Syrians are here to stay. “We can’t go back,” he said. In other words, Hamadadeh ultimately wants to help create a more permanent Syrian presence in Turkey via sweet semolina cakes and fried kibbeh croquettes. And as refugees travel farther and wider in the Middle East, food just might be an easy way to grow more stable roots.