Editor’s note: We’re sorry to report that Şam Şerif is now closed. The sweets shop next door is thankfully still open.
Turkey as a country does not deal in absolutes, even though some of its more bombastic citizens are known to. So when one hears the numerous bewildered complaints about Istanbul’s dearth of falafel and hummus, the correct response is not “Turkish food is not chickpea-compliant,” but “You are not going to the right restaurants.”
There’s a place in Kadıköy that advertises “Gaziantep’s famous chickpea wrap” and then offers the parenthetical “(falafel).” The Fatih district and the Gaziosmanpaşa and Bayrampaşa neighborhoods are dotted with tiled rooms selling künefe, kibbeh and all else Levantine. Or, much as with Vietnamese food in the U.S., one can trust numerology, stopping by restaurants with a 63 (the digits found on license plates issued in southeastern Turkey’s Şanlıurfa) or 27 (Gaziantep) in their name.
That said, there are times when food merely on the Arab-Turkish spectrum will not do. There are times when one has a hankering for Levantine food made by an Arabic-speaker for an Arabic-speaking audience. This feeling is presumably most sharply felt by the members of Istanbul’s growing Syrian refugee population. The market has made room for Syrians longing for a slice of home and perhaps baklava as well, for signage in Arabic promising the beloved tastes of pre-civil-war Damascus or Aleppo. The tastes of Syria are unfortunately in high demand now in Istanbul, but mostly in the neighborhoods where Syrians have coalesced in the past few years. How they’ve come – and how these places taste – is remarkable.
“Where do I go to eat Syrian food?” The jeweler motioned for one of his assistants to close the shop door. It was a rainy Monday morning, so business was slow even in the Spice Bazaar, but this was a conversation worth having. The store, Maison d’Alep, is run by two brothers from Aleppo who still maintain their workshop there. We talk about business, but also a bit about fast food joints. We compare kadayıfs, and it seems as though he’s unwilling to give up any names or cooks – as if he’s still in shop mode and wants to bargain in information. After fending off inquiries by suggesting the falafel at Hatay Sofrası or any of a number of respectable versions of künefe (shredded pastry and cheese in syrup), he smiles at the question of where he takes his family to eat. “If you want a nice place, go to Şam Şerif.”
A quick metro ride goes from Eminönü to a prim and proper restaurant in Yusufpaşa. At this relatively early hour, the only people in the restaurant are the waiters, a few men with bushy salt-and-pepper moustaches, and a man watching the grill heat up while languidly smoking a cigarette. There are pros to coming in early. There’s no rush to the proceedings, and the mezes can be enjoyed without the mad lunch dash and techno-arabesque.
Şam Şerif covers the standards and has a few special Damascene dishes, such as fatteh, a sort of savory bread and yogurt soup. The fattoush is lemony and crispy and dripping with pomegranate molasses, with an overall effect that is greater than the sum of its parts. The baba ghanoush seems like it’s made with equal parts garlic and eggplant, and the pita to sop it up with is the chewy kind that’s tough to find elsewhere in Turkey. We also get a few sfiha hot from the grill. Far smaller than lahmacun, their Turkish cousins, the sfiha have a chewier, pita-ier crust more reminiscent of New York-style pizza than lahmacun. Chewiness seems to be a theme and, if nothing else, shows flour formulas slightly different from those in most of Turkey. Aside from being delicious, it also forces diners to be ruminants, enjoying the meal with patience and more studious mouths.
Before the kibbeh comes out, a man wearing a corduroy jacket struts through the front doors. He calls out, “Ya Habibi!” – probably not to announce the kibbeh’s arrival, but maybe. Şam Şerif has two kibbehs on offer; one is the more familiar lemon-shaped fried pocket of lamb and onion. The other is baked and much more interesting. Looking like the progeny of both cornbread and çiğ köfte, it has a deeply smoky – almost burnt – taste of isot (also known as urfa biber, a type of dried chili) and tangy sumac. As declarative as the corduroy-clad’s brotherly yawp, the spiciness and tartness of the dish make clear its deferral to Syrian tastebuds. It is similar enough to Turkish food to be Turkish, but the spices would make a more skeptical eater pronounce it “off” instead of “delicious.” Receiving the bill in Arabic would probably not help turn such a frown upside down.
Şam Şerif’s Aksaray digs suit it well. It holds not the change offices of tourists, but Arabic-language real estate offices, electricians and pizza parlors. Some Arabic knowledge is useful for navigation; our waiter spoke only a little Turkish, and a widely recommended falafel shop identified itself as “Tarboush,” the Arabic name for a fez. The two storefronts for Tarboush both have “Fez” in slightly smaller Latin script (as well as good falafel and fresh-squeezed juice served in a veritable flagon for only a few lira). Şam Şerif runs a sweets shop right next door, which is where the true differences from Istanbul cuisine become apparent. The keşkül, an almond-flavored milk pudding, is very runny and more almondy than sweet. The real stars are the sesame confections, however, which resemble a mix between helva and baklava, but are nuttier and far less sweet than that combination might sound.
Eating dessert outside the now bustling restaurant and with the grill beckoning, we get into a conversation with the Diyarbakır Kurd working as a maître d’, greeter and business-end-solutions provider for Şam Şerif. Although he asserts that the restaurant gets many Germans, Turks and Americans, it’s all Syrians in the restaurant and on the streets. It’s also all Syrians in the kitchen. Though it helps to have someone familiar with the Istanbul restaurant economy signing his name on documents and making sure that the business runs smoothly, it is very clear that this is a Syrian operation by and for the Syrian community in the city.
The restaurant’s staff and patrons include many former engineers, physicians and other sorts of professionals who would rather spend their days doing something other than lingering over kadayıf. But for many of the refugees leaving the civil war in their homeland, places like Şam Şerif provide some employ or at least some hummus for those stuck in a new normal far more awful than they could have imagined just a few years ago. It’s not a tourist destination or a headline-grabber, but a way to find stable ground in an impossibly unstable situation. The falafel, as crispy on the outside and neon-green on the inside as it is, is just a way to find this stability, a true kitchen-formed zen for a community in Istanbul.
(photos by Vedat Bonfil)
Asher Kohn studies land use and disuse. He is also a regional co-editor for Ajam Media Collective and can be found on Twitter at @AJKhn.