On the walls of a tiny ten-seater restaurant near New Friends Colony, shelves hold tins of food for sale: pickled carrots, brinjals, olives, olive oil, jams, honey, hummus, cookies, and much more. The tins feature an unsettling name: “Ghouta,” after the city on the outskirts of Damascus whose destruction and devastating civilian casualties has been writ large over headlines recently.
It is to escape such deadly conflict that, 7,000 Syrians are said to flee their homes every day. The UNHCR says that displaced Syrians represent the world’s single largest refugee crisis, surpassing the number of Afghan refugees fleeing decades-old conflict in that nation. More than half of Syria’s population has been forced to flee: 5.4 million Syrians have fled their country since 2011, and over six million are internally displaced. Yet, they are the smallest number of asylum-seekers in India, numbering only to a few hundred.
The Ghouta tins occupy pride of place in what looks, at first sight, like a family’s living room, with two toddlers as the epicentre of a small, happy universe. Sali and Nadia dance to Arabic pop playing on a 32-inch TV screen mounted on a wall. Their parents, Sara and Abu Tariq, smile and laugh, doting on their girls jumping about in identical, tomato-red frocks. Upon spotting us, Abu Tariq waves, and signals: the restaurant is open.
They lower the volume of the music, pick up the girls, showering them in kisses, and lead us to the four-seater table right by the glass-door of Ya Mal Alsham Syrian Restaurant. “Al-Sham (known as Levant in English) is the region comprising modern-day Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria,” Tariq explains. Syria: that’s their home country, of which the restaurant is itself a make-believe slice. A huge photo of one of the seven historic gates to old Damascus covers nearly an entire wall.
Sali, who comes back in to pay close attention to the music videos, is not yet two, and the only one of this small family to be born in India, their country of temporary refuge. The family came here two years ago to escape the multi-factional war in Syria that began in March 2011. Her elder sister, almost three, was scared as a baby by the constant bombings and mortar shelling. “Her mother decided that we should leave Syria,” Tariq says. They don’t know if their home in Damascus is still standing. Home, for now, is a place in Sarita Vihar. Their families are scattered across Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Germany.
He used to sell and repair mobile phones in his old life. In Delhi, Tariq landed a job as the manager of this restaurant after a meeting with Abdullah Hamouda, the chef who cooks the food at Ya Mal Alsham as well as its older Sarita Vihar branch, ‘Asharq-al-Awsat.’ Both are operated under the label MEC Syrian Food. Abdullah, like Tariq, came here after the war began; their boss is a businessman from Rajasthan who owns the restaurants.
As patrons start to trickle in for the evening, Tariq assumes his spot at the counter. (At any given time, at least one of his kids want to climb into his arms, regardless of when he’s on-duty.) S, the 17-year-old server, resident of nearby Okhla Vihar, hands out menus and steps in to interpret when Tariq needs help explaining the details of his dishes to Indian customers. When a middle-aged man with a bandaged nose and wearing a dishdasha (or thaub), a gown-length shirt, walks in, Tariq is the one to take his order in Arabic. He wants food that isn’t fried; Ya Mal Alsham has plenty to offer. Many of its patrons, like this man, are medical tourists who come in to Delhi from West Asian countries to undergo treatment at the city’s large hospitals.
It is to their palate that the restaurant caters first and foremost. “We make food that is low on spice, keeping the natural taste of ingredients, with only olive or sunflower oil to enhance their flavours,” says Tariq. All the food is prepared at the Sarita Vihar branch and fetched in here by Tariq. Only last-step processes, such as frying the falafel or french fries are done in the kitchen here.
The menu is extensive – mutton, chicken and fish-based delicacies balanced by vegetable and egg dishes for non-meat eaters. “Lots of fresh vegetables are available in Syria, that is why we have so many vegetable-based dishes,” says Tariq. The tiny establishment goes into a tizzy to seat a group of students from nearby Jamia Millia Islamia. Tariq and S move the furniture to accommodate the seven friends, while Sali and Nadia become the centre of the group’s attention. Their orders will be familiar to most Delhi residents: kebabs, shawarma, and macaroni. They’ve decided against trying newer dishes.
Tariq, who has been up since 7 am and will work until 1 am, steps out for a smoke. “There is so much more to Syrian cuisine, but people here know only shawarma,” he says, as he sits on a chair with a view of the restaurant from outside its glass door, the busy CV Raman Marg behind him. “We can’t also serve many of the Syrian dishes in the restaurant because they take a lot of time to prepare.” With the hand holding the lit cigarette, Tariq sketches in the air the act of preparing items such as koosa mahshi, a dish of brinjal stuffed with rice and minced mutton. “If, say, my wife sits down to prepare this dish for the restaurant, each serving will take an hour to prepare.”
He turns to Sara for help in recalling more of what they know from home. Yalangi, she answers in Arabic: a delicacy of grape leaves stuffed with rice which sounds like the Turkish dolma, and which makes Tariq beam. Some things from their old kitchen have accompanied them here. Next to the Ghouta tins on the wall, another shelf holds an ornate metallic kettle and matching mugs without handles, each the size of a pinkie finger, placed on a wall-tray: “a souvenir from home.”
The kettle is called dallah, the cups called fenjan, and they are used to serve coffee “so strong you can only have a little of it,” as we learn. That coffee is not available in Delhi. The coffee Tariq is thinking of is certainly not the one he serves (although Ya Mal Alsham’s coffee is one of the most memorable black coffees to be had in Delhi, we feel).
Home, for them, is in these little mentions of memories and memorabilia. “We thought one year, two years, but it is still on,” Sara says in English, as the evening wears on. “Nobody knows when this war will end.” Her eyes grow moist. Tariq has submitted their paperwork to the FRRO, the Foreigners Regional Registration Officer who processes all paperwork for migrants in India. “They will decide where we stay or go,” says Tariq.
“If peace returns to Syria, I would go back. But it is not in my hands,” Tariq says. “I don’t know when. Nobody knows.”
Getting there: 88, Ground Floor, Sarai Juleina, opposite Escorts Hospital Gate number 2, New Friends Colony, or call +918800880277 or +91 8800880266.
Akshita Nagpal is a multimedia journalist based in New Delhi, India. She has reported and shot for Scroll.in, The Caravan, The Wire, and The Hindu.
Wake up to daily updates on what to eat/shop/do in your city