The Syrian war which broke out a decade ago displaced thousands of Syrians who fled their war-torn country to settle elsewhere – and a large number made Egypt their home. In a bid to earn a living, many Syrian men opened restaurants and the kitchens for these eateries were managed by Syrian women who recreated original and authentic Syrian flavors for diners.
What helped the Syrian restaurants to provide the refugees with a steady income is the distinctive taste of Syrian cuisine. It also gave the Syrian women an opportunity to become financially independent and continue the culinary culture of their homeland.
Here are some authentic Syrian restaurants in Egypt and the stories behind them.
Zeit Zeitoun Kitchen
This project is run by Syrian Lina Shaker Kassah, age 46. The idea of the project started when Lina was the director of the Syrian Women's Association Center in Al-Obour region in Egypt. The association conducted several income-generating activities, including the kitchen, the aim of which was to provide an income for the Syrian families.
"We opened the kitchen in 2016, and the team consists of six women now and meets certain standards to ensure the quality of food,” Lina Kassah the founder of Zeit Zeitoun project told Majalla. “Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the team grew to 15 and the majority of the workers are Syrians and we have an Egyptian driver because he knows places well,".
"We provide food to Syrians, Egyptians, Lebanese and other nationalities as well," Kassah added. "Popular items include stuffed grape leaves, vegetarian food, kabsa, kobeba, pies and pastries."
The project presents Syrian and Damascus cuisine only and it provides food for events in places such as the Contemporary Picture Center and Goethe Institute, embassies, weddings, and other gatherings.
Working during Ramadan is a great challenge for Zeit Zeitoun project. Members of the team take orders a week earlier to avoid work pressure.
"The pandemic affected us badly in the past year. Embassies and institutes closed and there were no events and even after the places started to open, there are few numbers of people working and attending events. All this affects our work and I had to also reduce the number of women who work because of infection and social distancing precautions," Kassah stated.
The prices of food at Zeit Zeitoun are average because they depend on the quality of food. Kassah told Majalla that she is more particular about the quality and the freshness of the food rather than the demand and number of plates sold.
"If I make Sambousek for example, I am interested in producing four excellent pieces better than producing a hundred medium ones," Kassah said.
The project is the revenue-stream for six women and their families, and the most beautiful thing says Lina is that it is becoming increasingly popular in Egypt and is generating positive feedback and excellent word-of-mouth publicity.
"One of the most beautiful comments I heard from my guests is “I felt like I am in Syria!" This is because we preserve our Syrian food heritage. We cook as our ancestors used to do, for example, I strictly follow the recipes of my mother and grandmother," Kassah said.
Zait Zeitoun also offers classic Syrian sweets such as Mudlaqa with cream, Kunafa Nablusia, and Halawat Al-Jeben.
Kassah hopes to expand further in Egypt, and reach all homes and get back to the original level of busy kitchen traffic of the pre-pandemic times.
We cooperate with Egyptian companies regarding distribution and marketing, but we want to distribute more and reach Cairo without middleman companies because the profit they take affects the team’s income. We also hope to hire a place in Cairo because it is the capital and the work will be better.”
The project has a Facebook page highlighting the food, menu and offers. They try to be present on social media for feedback and to receivie requests.
Syrian Kobeba before entering the oven. (Mn Beiti l Beitak kitchen)
Mn Beiti l Beitak (From my home to yours)
Mervat Ayman Ghanem, 38, who has been living in Egypt for eight years now, has been providing home-cooked Syrian food mainly for university students with the help of her mother. Her project ‘Mn Beiti l Beitak’ started three years ago.
"I have a WhatsApp group and when I started I sent the link to international student groups, whether Syrians, Jordanians, Palestinians or Iraqis," Mervat told Majalla, "I worked in many places when I came to Egypt, but I decided to open this project because we as Syrians are good in making food, for example, we make Syrian kobeba, Fereek, Borek and pastries. There were not many resources available either. My mother and I also work on our own, and I am responsible for all orders, bills, and cooking."
It was not that easy to start a project on one’s own without facilities or a big team, she says. But she has built her reputation for wholesome food now and is popular especially with students.
The prices of the meals ranges from fifty to eighty pounds for a meal for two.
"I am looking forward to seeing that the project grow and making my own special place," Mervat said.
Women prove in all times, places, and under any circumstances that they can face difficulties and find appropriate opportunities to flourish, grow and continue their lives.