U of T welcomed New York Times Food Editor Sam Sifton and a panel of Syrian chefs and restaurant owners to the Isabel Bader Theatre on January 15 for “A Toronto Tasting with The New York Times,” which showcased Syrian contributions to Toronto’s food scene.
Joining Sifton were Jala Alsoufi, who immigrated to Canada in 2012 to attend U of T and is now a co-owner of Soufi’s, a Syrian restaurant and cafe on Queen Street West; Rahaf Alakbani, a Syrian refugee and co-founder of Newcomer Kitchen, a non-profit group which brings female Syrian refugees to cook and sell meals, the proceeds of which are split between the cooks; and Rasoul Salha, who immigrated to Toronto in 2009 and opened Crown Pastries in Scarborough with his brother in 2015.
Also sitting on the panel was David Sax, a Toronto-based food journalist who has written for The New York Times on Syrian food in the city, for which he interviewed Alsoufi, Alakbani, and Salha.
Sax lives near Soufi’s, and told the audience that, during the summer of 2017, he had walked across a stretch of Queen Street West and noticed that a storefront was boarded up. On it was a sign that read, “Coming Soon: Soufi’s, a Syrian restaurant.”
“The thing that really struck me about it was that the way they said ‘a Syrian restaurant.’ It was so different from the other Middle Eastern restaurants, Lebanese restaurants, even Saudi restaurants that I’ve written about, are generally called Middle Eastern or Mediterranean,” said Sax. “Especially at the time, given what was going on in the news with Syria and the war, to have them sort of proudly proclaiming it showed that it was something different.”
Alsoufi described how the rest of her family — her mother, father, and two brothers — immigrated to Canada two years ago, and that the idea to open a restaurant that was specifically Syrian came to them a year ago. Soufi’s has a deliberate Syrian atmosphere, whether in its music or its staff, who are all Syrian, said Alsoufi.
“Of course everyone knows about the events happening in Syria. First it’s really unfortunate, and we wanted to shed a positive light on the Syrian culture and show people that we’re still a vibrant culture and that should still be celebrated,” Alsoufi added.
Newcomer Kitchen, run by Alakbani, is completely self-sufficient. 60 women, rotating in groups of eight, come in each week to make 50 three-course takeout dinners, costing $20 each. Newcomer Kitchen has recently faced an indefinite future, with its hopes for government funding to cover administrative costs not panning out. Alakbani has “appealed to the public for donations.”
Sifton remarked that showcasing Syrian cuisine in Canada was important for an understanding Canadian and Torontonian culture. “The question of Syrian food in Toronto is of course interesting because of Toronto’s, and Canada’s, relationship with displaced Syrians,” he told The Varsity. “Canada welcomed 50,000 Syrians with open arms and with these sponsorship programs, there are more than 10,000 of them in Toronto and talking about the food businesses that they’ve started is a pretty good way of understanding their place within this melting pot of a city.”
Sifton further described how how patterns of immigration often reflect themselves through restaurants and food. Sifton says that half of Toronto residents were born elsewhere, and Toronto’s various neighbourhoods, such as Chinatown, Greektown, and Little Korea, reflect the city’s cultural relationship with immigrant communities via food.