Shawarma – São Paulo-style? Syrian refugees expand Brazilian palates

Many of the refugees and immigrants in Brazil's largest city never expected to own restaurants – or even to wind up here. But today, they're broadening the country's culinary landscape, already diversified through decades of immigration. 

Anna Jean Kaiser
Ghazal Baranbo and her husband Talal Altinawi, Syrian refugees now living in Brazil, pose in front of reviews at their restaurant, Talal Culinária Síria, in São Paulo.

On a Thursday morning in São Paulo, Ghazal Baranbo prepares for the lunch rush at her family’s restaurant. She carries out neatly organized trays of hummus, tabbouleh, falafel, and hindi kabab and arranges them in a buffet-style line. Her husband, Talal Altinawi, is speaking with their lawyer about the business.

At noon sharp, they’re slammed. The couple frenetically rearranges the dining room to accommodate the quick turnaround of lunch-break patrons while they take turns passing their 2-year-old daughter back and forth. They switch between using Arabic with each other and Portuguese with the costumers.

It looks like a well-choreographed dance, but four years ago Ms. Baranbo and Mr. Altinawi, refugees from Syria, could have never imagined they would own a successful Syrian restaurant in São Paulo, South America’s largest city. They used to live comfortably in a suburb of Damascus, where Altinawi was a mechanical engineer and Baranbo stayed at home with their two children. But as the civil war in Syria progressed and the Assad regime cracked down on civilians, it became too dangerous to stay.

Today, the couple is playing a part in the growing landscape of Syrian refugee-run restaurants popping up across São Paulo. Newly-arriving immigrants, who rarely have experience working in the restaurant industry, are turning to home-cooked Syrian food to make a living. It’s a phenomenon seen in this city for decades, with other waves of immigrants like Japanese, Lebanese, Cameroonians, and Armenians making a culinary foot-hold before them. The country’s open-door policy for refugees plays a big role in making this possible. And for Altinawi and Baranbo, it’s laid the groundwork for a city that’s already familiar with Middle Eastern food.

A wave of Middle Eastern immigrants in the 19th  century helped make Syrian delicacies like esfiha (savory pastries) and quibe (spiced bulgur-wheat meatballs) staples in Brazil, and it’s estimated that 7 to 10 million Brazilians have Lebanese ancestry, or almost 5 percent of the population. Newly arrived Syrian refugees are capitalizing on Brazil’s appetite for their native cuisine, bringing back authenticity and flavor and introducing more unfamiliar dishes, ranging from shawarma to baklava.

“Immigrants influence our cuisine in São Paulo, but sometimes it can get kind of ‘Brazilian-ized,’ ” says Carolina Gushiken, a lunchtime-diner at Talal Culinária Síria. She works nearby and says she’s grateful that more recent immigrants like Altinawi and Baranbo are helping bring back some authenticity to Middle Eastern food.

An unexpected path

Most refugees or immigrants here never planned to open a restaurant.

Dr. Saeed Mourad, an orthopedic surgeon from Damascus, came to Brazil two years ago. Converting his degrees and qualifications to practice medicine in Brazil was nearly impossible, so his family turned to the food industry. At their restaurant, they sell baklava, kanafeh pasteries, and sesame-covered barazek cookies, alongside Syrian-style coffee with cardamom.

“I decided opening a Syrian restaurant would be a good idea because it’s a quick way to get income. And Brazilian people really like Middle Eastern food,” Dr. Mourad says.

Many other recently arrived Syrians have followed suit. There’s Muna Sabores e Memórias Arabes, opened by a Syrian woman who sells sweets and other traditional foods that she makes in her home, and Eyad Abuharb, who’s had great success selling fast food-style shawarma sandwiches at his restaurant, New Shawarma, near São Paulo’s downtown. Adam Hamwia, who opened Adoomy in the city’s trendy Vila Madalena neighborhood, specializes in fried chicken and gyro-style wraps.

For Altinawi and Baranbo, the food solution was not an obvious one. Back in Damascus, Altinawi was arrested in what was described to him as a name mix-up (they had the wrong Talal Altinawi), and spent more than 3 months in prison. Soon after getting out, his family loaded up their car and drove the 75 miles to neighboring Lebanon.

“We spent 10 months going from embassy to embassy in Beirut. Brazil was the only place that opened their doors to us,” Baranbo says. 

“When I looked down at my Brazilian visa, I thought to myself, ‘What is Brazil? I don’t know anything about this place,’ ” she says.

They arrived in São Paulo at the end of 2013 – but it was a rough start. Altinawi began working as an engineer but, after 10 months working there, his employer went under amid Brazil’s relentless recession. Baranbo sold baby clothes on the streets.

They threw a joint birthday party for their son and daughter and served homemade Syrian food. An NGO worker who helps refugees in Brazil encouraged them to start selling street food as a side gig.

“I’m an engineer, not a chef,” was Altinawi’s response, which he still stands by, despite the restaurant’s success.

They started at a street market and eventually landed a catering job at a mosque for the entire month of Ramadan. Their friend from the NGO set up a Facebook page for them and an account on a crowdfunding site, with the goal of raising 60,000 Reais ($20,000) to open a restaurant. About 1,000 locals generously donated. 

Then it was time to take on Brazil’s infamous bureaucracy.

“There are so many documents and so many government entities,” Altinawi says. “You need a lot of time and a lot of money for this process.”

But after five months dealing with the red tape, they opened Talal Culinária Síria in April 2016. 

Diverse food history

Brazil is a popular, if lesser-known, destination for refugees. That’s mostly due to its refugee policies, which are more lenient than the vetting processes in most countries in Europe and North America. There are more than 2,300 Syrian refugees here today, and nearly 10,000 refugees from all over the world. Most immigrants find themselves in São Paulo, the country’s largest city and economic hub.

Brazil has a rich tradition of receiving immigrants, from Arab immigrants coming from the then-Ottoman Empire, often fleeing religious persecution, to Japanese and European immigrants who came to work as laborers on coffee plantations in the early 1900s, or later fled from war. São Paulo is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan.

This is reflected in São Paulo’s world-renowned food scene – which trumps other Brazilian cities in its variety. 

“Without a doubt the Syrian refugees in Brazil are benefitting from the long history of Middle Eastern immigrants who’ve come to São Paulo and built up the tradition of Middle Eastern food here,” says Tamyris Roxo, a local São Paulo food blogger who studied gastronomy, history, and culture. Their country’s food provides “a strong link for them in Brazil.”

Middle Eastern food is so ubiquitous here that there’s even a fast-food restaurant called “Habib’s,” which sells esfihas, BBQ kaftas, and baba ghanoush, alongside cheeseburgers and pizza. Its logo is a winking man with a big grin wearing a fez.

“In other parts of Brazil you can’t find such diversity, and the people aren’t used to ‘exotic foods’ because they don’t have the same history as São Paulo, which has always received so many immigrants,” says Ms. Roxo, the food blogger. 

“São Paulo’s food scene has transformed over the years, and now it’s totally eclectic. I think that in a few years we’ll be like New York City, full of influences from all over the world.”

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