We’re sitting with Ali Snoubar, the Syrian chef and co-owner of Al Shami in Merrylands. He tells us he has no family in Sydney – his sister and six brothers (a nurse, five chefs and one baker) are scattered around the world. “They were all working with me, in our restaurant [in Damascus], but when the war started we had to run away. We didn't want to serve the army and we didn't want to fight,” he says.
When Snoubar fled Syria, his plan was to go to Qatar and apply for a visa to Canada. But it didn’t work out, and he was stranded there with no rights and earning little money. After returning to Syria, an Iraqi restaurant maître d' invited him to work in a restaurant in South Korea.
There, Snoubar befriended Ji Yun Lee and Sang Que Lim. The couple wanted to back him in a new restaurant, but he couldn’t stay in Korea either. He’d applied for a visa in Australia though, and was accepted. “I told them [Lee and Lim], come to Australia, it's very multicultural here, we can have success. So they sent me money and now they are working with me. They make my food now.”
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The restaurant they opened together was the first Al Shami on Merrylands Road in Sydney’s western suburbs. It was a tiny place that barely fit 25 people, but became a meeting place for the Syrian community. “There were only a few Syrian families [but] no one knew about the restaurant. I advertised on the radio [using] my voice. They heard my accent and they told each other. It was a long time since they'd had this food,” says Snoubar.
The original restaurant is gone now, replaced by a bigger, fancier place with Syrian antiques and intricate mosaics, located on the other side of the railway station. “I was sending customers away. ‘No seat, no seat.’ Some of them were waiting outside in the rain. I was so unhappy.”
It wasn’t just Syrians. Many Lebanese and Iraqi diners were queuing for a rare taste of Middle Eastern comfort food. While most Levantine (the region around modern Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories) restaurants in Sydney rely on the same menu of kebabs and meze, Syrian home-style comfort food is rare because it’s more finnicky to prepare or simply deemed not glamorous enough.
The most basic dish is rice and white bean stew – a meal Snoubar says is eaten weekly by all Syrians. There’s also a tomato-y okra stew; fatteh (flatbread smothered in strained yoghurt, chickpeas and olive oil); and mosakaa (an eggplant and tomato stew like the Greek moussaka, but eaten with pita bread). “I learnt most of these from my mum. When I was in Qatar, and even here, I would call my mum and ask her. She always tries to teach me,” says Snoubar.
That’s the unglamorous fare; at the other end of the spectrum there’s Syrian-style dumplings with spiced beef, arayes (crisp fried pita bread stuff with onions and meat) and either kibbeh (dry meatballs with bulgur and minced onions) or lamb shanks slow-cooked in yoghurt until they’re tender enough to fall apart from just a light wiggle.
Snoubar says he’d liked to cook again with his brothers, all together in Sydney at Al Shami, but it’s impossible. “I would like to bring my brothers here but [the government] refuse. It's too hard.”
102–106 Railway Terrace, Merrylands
(02) 8677 1671
Sun to Mon 11am–10.30pm
This is another edition of Broadsheet's Local Knowledge weekly series, where Nick Jordan explores the eateries at the heart of Sydney's different cultural communities. Read more here.