Along Millet Street in the Istanbul neighborhood of Aksaray, tiny plastic tables crowded with Syrian meze dot the sidewalks. Sweet, syrupy desserts glimmer in restaurant windows. Syrian refugees began moving here nearly six years ago, after the war in their country began, to build businesses inspired by the flavors of home. At night, the streets are packed with diners and meanderers, who wander among the dozens of Syrian restaurants and shops. Chains from Damascus have opened branches here, their neon awnings announcing broasted, Syrian-style fried chicken, in looping Arabic script.
With around three million refugees, Turkey has the largest Syrian population in the world outside of Syria. While the media has mostly shown images of migrants in camps, at checkpoints, and trudging up beaches, the vibrant scene that unfolds daily along one of Istanbul’s oldest boulevards shows another side of the refugee crisis. When humanitarian catastrophes drive people from their lands, the displaced often arrive bearing a great gift for their adopted countries: their culinary traditions. For a recent example, look at the U.S., where pho was practically unheard of until the influx of refugees after the Vietnam War made it ubiquitous.
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Syrian cuisine shares some qualities with Lebanese food, but it is known for its particular emphasis on whole grains and natural ingredients, as well as its masterful use of tahini, lemon, and herbs. Half a decade ago, such dishes were nowhere to be found on Millet Street; today they’re everywhere. “Istanbul is a place of constant migration, but I haven’t seen communities take root, where they would thrive and then have their own restaurants, until the arrival of the Syrians,” said Ansel Mullins, co-founder of Culinary Backstreets, a culinary tourism organization that began in Istanbul and now operates in cities around the world, from Rio to Tokyo. “It’s a positive side to a really negative story.” The company offers custom food walks that visit the neighborhood’s best Syrian restaurants, like Salloura, which last year Culinary Backstreets included on its list of Istanbul’s “Best Bites.”
Turks can be hesitant to embrace foreign cuisines, so it has been a challenge to sell locals on the Syrian kitchen, according to Myriam Imad. She owns Pop One, a fast-food chain from Damascus that came to Istanbul last year. One restaurateur whose appeal extends beyond Aksaray is Mohamad Nizar Bitar, who owns six restaurants and two bakeries around the city. A former businessman who previously made a living importing Turkish ceramic ovens from Damascus, he opened his first restaurant in Istanbul, Tarbus, on Millet Street in 2011. When I joined him there for dinner on a warm summer night, he explained that he’d named the restaurant Tarbus—another word for a fez—because it originated with the Ottoman Empire, which once ruled both Turkey and Syria. He wanted to stress the countries’ historic ties. Waiters in crisp button-down shirts brought tabouli, lamb stew, and kibbeh (fried croquettes stuffed with beef, walnuts, minced red peppers, and spices). As I ate, Bitar explained the differences between the Turkish and Syrian kitchens. “Turkish food lacks spices,” he proclaimed. “They don’t experiment with cuisine." He is able to source all of his ingredients locally; the key, he said, is what you do with them. He hires only Syrian chefs with restaurant experience, and mixes Tarbus’s zaatar, a Levantine blend of thyme, oregano, and marjoram, himself.
Bitar arrived in Istanbul at the outset of the Syrian Civil War. At home, he’d been writing Facebook posts encouraging dissent, and back in 2003 he’d been briefly jailed for making political statements, so when the Arab Spring crackdowns began he feared that his outspokenness would make him a target. He bribed his way off the travel-ban list and drove into Turkey. His father had taught him how to cook and it had been a hobby he’d always loved, so in Istanbul he rented a small basement room in the heart of the noisy city and began selling hummus. Word spread quickly within the Arab community. After a few months, he needed a bigger location. Today, he employs more than 300 people, including Muslims, Kurds, and Christians in a melting pot of exile. “I like young people who want to learn, who want to build a new home, a new life, to be united,” he told me.
Among the employees is Mustafa, a 22-year-old from Aleppo. On Mustafa’s first day of work as a busboy three years ago, Bitar walked him to the bathroom, pulled on a pair of rubber gloves, got down on his hands and knees and began scrubbing. Mustafa stared in disbelief—here was a wealthy man cleaning a toilet like the lowliest employee. Bitar told him all the employees were expected to clean the bathroom when they had free time, including the owner. “We are all here kicked out of Syria,” Bitar explains to all new hires. “There’s no room for dignity anymore.” In addition to working hard, Bitar makes only one demand of his employees: no politics. Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but please leave it at home.
In the last three years, Mustafa has climbed his way up to becoming waiter, learned Turkish, and saved enough money to bring his parents and seven siblings to Istanbul. He told me he makes a point of smiling at customers, even on bad days. “It’s not only my job that depends on it, but this restaurant depends on it,” he explained.
Other Syrian entrepreneurs quickly followed Bitar’s lead. Millet Street’s unofficial Syrian restaurant row now includes Anas Chicken, a fast-food joint with a neon green awning that serves broasted and meat kibbe the size of baseballs. Imad and her husband opened their Istanbul branch of Pop One a few doors down, in order to move their children out of Damascus. One challenge she said she faces is that, although Pop One is famous in Damascus, many refugees are from the northern part of the country and aren’t familiar with its hard-earned reputation.
Salloura, a bit further down, is one of the most upscale restaurants on the street, with glass-topped tables and decorative carpets festooned on the ceiling. Among the dishes it serves are mashy, hollowed-out vegetables stuffed with meat and rice; molokhia, chicken with okra seasoned with lemon; lahmajun, open-faced meat pies flavored with mint; and ozi, chicken with pomegranate. Sitting at a long shared table during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, I got to talking with Ahmed Almranazi, a 25-year-old trader who travels back and forth from Aleppo. The food at Salloura tasted like the northern Syrian food he’d grown up with, he told me as he forked a piece of walnut-infused kibbeh. “I’ve tried them all,” he added, “and this is my favorite."
Back at Tarabus, Bitar told me that all the competition had had no impact on Tarabus’s popularity, and indeed, the tables of his flagship restaurant, which is open 24 hours a day, were full every night I visited. One night I sat next to a young pregnant woman named Widad and her mother at dinner. For them, it was a rare night out, and they ate slowly, savoring a plate of fetteh—a dish of thick yogurt, shredded bread, and chickpeas. “It reminds me of Damascus,” she said happily.