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.
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.”
Fortunately for the large number of refugees, many of whom fled with little more than what they could stow in their hand luggage, it’s not just citizens of the host countries who’ve profited from these fledgling new enterprises.
Hundreds of Syrians who might otherwise have struggled to find employment now earn a living churning out everything from bitlawa—pistachios rolled in puff pastry and vegetable ghee before being dunked in syrup—to barazek, cookies coated in sesame and sweetened with honey. At the Syrian Al Durra food company, which produces apricot jelly, hummus, and rice among other things from its factory on the outskirts of Cairo, managers have done what they can to integrate refugees into their growing workforce.
“Of course we try and help our people,” says Alaa Aldaweer, a senior salesman at the firm. “All the managers are Syrian because we’re trying to keep the Syrian taste.” The company, which shifted most of its operations out of Syria on the eve of war, is among those to have contributed almost $1 billion worth of business to Egypt since hostilities began.
But despite their popularity, Syrian chefs in Egypt haven’t had it all their own way. Sky high price increases for some foodstuffs have massively boosted their expenses and pushed some out of business. Pistachio prices, for one, have leapt from $8.5 per kilo in 2011 to around $30 now. Perhaps jealous of the Syrians’ success, a number of local competitors also appear to have called in the cops on a few occasions.
And there’s seemingly no overcoming some local preferences either, as the Assar brothers found after they were forced to substitute soft cheese—a traditional Syrian ingredient—for cream in their knafeh.
For most Syrian sweet shop owners, however, the very nature of their work is compensation enough. By painstakingly re-creating the dishes their families have cobbled together for generations, they hope to keep happier memories of Syria alive. And now during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when purchases of sweets soar, many simply welcomed the opportunity to bring their pastries and treats to a wider audience. (See “Breaking the Ramadan Fast—Deliciously.”
“It gives us a nice feeling working with our food,” says Mohammed Assar. “It’s home.”
Peter Schwartzstein is a British-American journalist based in Cairo. He focuses on geopolitical issues across the Middle East, and his work frequently appears in National Geographic and other publications. You can find him on Twitter @pschwartzstein.