An old woman enters the tiny shop run by a Syrian family, the Paloulians, in central Yerevan. She picks up a small round plastic container of homemade hummus, curiously reads the label and then asks: “What is this?”
Levantine cuisine (the culinary culture of the Levant, which comprises the modern states of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and parts of southern Turkey) is the new unknown for residents of the Armenian capital. An estimated 15,000 Syrians of Armenian heritage – such as the Paloulian family – have arrived in their ancestral homeland since the outbreak of war in Syria, and they are having an unmistakeable impact on the local food scene.
A century ago, the Paloulians’ ancestors fled to Syria to escape the Armenian genocide. “In Aleppo we were in the construction industry, distributing building materials and supplies,” Mari Paloulian recalls. Today, she lives in Yerevan and works in the shop that her brother opened in 2014, selling dried fruits, herbs and spices, as well as homemade Syrian dishes.
Their small business is thriving in this small country of approximately three million in the southern Caucasus, a region with a very different palate to that of the Middle East. Meat is widely used as the main ingredient of most Armenian cuisines, while in the Middle East stews, flavoured with olive oil and spices, are served with meat-free side dishes.
“When we first opened the shop, only Armenians we knew from Syria came to us for spices and Syrian meals,” Paloulian says. “Now, we have more and more local customers. Our hummus and moutabal [an aubergine and tahini dip] does not last longer than one day.”
The influx of Syrian-born Armenians has brought new flavours to Yerevan.
Today, signs written in Arabic advertise Syrian food, and an underpass, just a few metres from Yerevan’s huge Soviet-style Republic Square, is populated with small stalls and tiny food shops.
The underpass is known as the Aleppo Shopping Center and the shopkeepers are all Syrians of Armenian extraction, specifically from the war-torn city of Aleppo.
The stalls in the underpass offer sahlab (a hot, creamy drink made from the tubers of orchids), shish taouk (marinated chicken kebab), spicy sujuk sausages, and various other herbs, spices and dishes.
“Many successful Syrian Armenian businessmen and merchants have no choice but to open small grocery shops or operate street food stalls in Yerevan,” explains Arziv Hajinian, manager of the Liban Restaurant in Yerevan.
Armenia has opened its doors to Syrians, yet the country’s fundamental economic problems and widespread poverty have forced many of the arriving refugees to start small street businesses or to apply for asylum in western countries.
Hajinian, a Lebanese immigrant of Armenian origin, came to Yerevan in 2002. One year later he opened a restaurant that serves Levantine food. “The natural taste of the meat is what people like the most in Armenia,” he says. “Chickpea, sesame and eggplant-based dishes were unknown in Yerevan prior to the current refugee crisis.”
“We get to know each other by sharing food”
It is not only Armenia that has been influenced by the current wave of Syrian refugees. In Europe, even countries like Denmark, with its strict anti-immigration laws and unwelcoming policies, is enjoying the influential food customs of its latest arrivals.
Over ten days this August, the annual Copenhagen Cooking and Food Festival put on a special one-day showcase for Syrian cuisine. Trine Hahnemann, the Danish chef and food writer who organised the event, celebrated Syriens Gryder (Syria’s Pots) under the theme of ‘Tradition and Renewal’, and with the help of DFUNK, a youth organisation for immigrants, served Syrian dishes in the heart of the Danish capital.
“The best way to get to know, accept and understand each other is by sharing food,” Hahnemann explains to Equal Times. “Immigrants have always brought their traditional foods to other countries, and the Danish food landscape has been affected by the impact of these new cultures.”
Hahnemann is also guiding a group of young Syrian men in their quest to establish a series of pop-up restaurants across Denmark to facilitate their integration into Danish society. “Our political system asks these people to give up on their own culture and tradition,” she says.
“To integrate does not mean one should give up on their culture and become Danish. Instead, true integration is about exchanging and finding a cultural balance to function better in the new society while maintaining your own stories and life styles.”
On a sunny September Saturday, despite the new border regulations that have gone into effect, no police officer boards the train to check the passports of the passengers traveling from the Danish capital to Sweden. Nevertheless, the train is delayed due to “unauthorised people” crossing the Oresund Bridge on foot and attempting to enter Sweden.
Unlike Denmark, Sweden has kept its borders open to the influx of the Syrian refugees. Swedish society has a long history of cultural enrichment by welcoming the refugees who escaped the Holocaust, the wars of the former Yugoslavia and the War on Terror.
In 2015, Sweden accepted the largest number of refugees per capita in Europe. For many Syrian refugees, Sweden’s third largest city, Malmö, became the final destination to begin a new life. This is why Malmö’s Möllevången neighbourhood has become the epicentre of Sweden’s burgeoning Syrian scene.
“Almost every month a new eatery opens,” says Dale Cox, a 37-year-old British chef who lives in Malmö. “People’s taste in food has changed immensely in Malmö with the opening of these new places.”
According to Cox, the current boom happening in Möllevången is not only about food and restaurants. “The neighbourhood is now a hipster district for many young Swedes who eat there, shop there and hang out in that part of the city,” he says.
The names of the shops and restaurants along Möllevången’s Central Street speak volumes about the demographic changes taking place in the area. Names like the Sultan Palace Grill and Mezze, Mollans Falafel, Jalla Jalla and Saffron line the street. At Möllevången’s main square, the crowded Saturday fruit and vegetable market takes place, while nearby, people fill the roadside tables of restaurants.
The market does not appear to be Scandinavian; rather, vendors can be heard shouting in both Arabic and Swedish persuading customers to approach their disorganised stalls. Instead of selling fruits and vegetables in small packages and plastic containers, large piles of fresh fruits and vegetables are offered for sale. People in the market speak Arabic, Kurdish and Persian and examine the fruits and vegetables for freshness.
A few metres from the market, the recently opened Tanoor restaurant serves Syrian cuisine. “For a long time, Europeans have travelled to the Middle East to taste our food,” says Yousef Al Awad, Tanoor’s former manager. “Now that we are here, we can serve them the food that previously they could only find in our home countries.”
Back in Damascus, Al Awad worked at the renowned Casablanca restaurant. In 2014, he arrived in Sweden and in April 2016, when Tanoor opened, he began working as the restaurant’s manager.
“This is not only about food,” Al Awad says. “With a place to serve food, you also introduce the culture, the tradition and the way of thinking that goes with it.”
The story of Al Awad and Syrian food did not end with the Tanoor restaurant. Last August, he opened another food place, Zeit & Zaatar, in Malmö. The video of Zeit & Zaatar’s opening is saved on his phone: in the video, Syrians in traditional clothes play Arabic music on the street in front of the restaurant.
“This is also one way to contribute to Sweden’s economy,” he explains. “That’s how we can give back to the country that hosts us, as well as adding a new flavour to their food culture.”