SAO PAULO, Brazil: In a region where the first Arab immigrants arrived in the 19th century and where approximately 18 million people have Middle Eastern roots, Arabic cuisine has become an integral part of local cuisine in several countries in America Latin. A new generation of Arabs on the continent are now seeking to expand the concepts and possibilities of their culinary traditions.
In Brazil, where researchers estimate that at least 10 million people are of Syrian or Lebanese descent, the kibbeh and sfiha have become so popular that many people have forgotten their Levantine origins. “Sfiha was mainly brought to Brazil by Armenians from Aleppo,” Lebanese-born chef Georges Barakat told Arab News.
When he arrived in the city of Sao Paulo in 2004, he realized that Brazilians were very interested in Arabic cuisine. Since he opened his restaurant Shahiya in 2012, he has been reinventing Lebanese dishes by giving them contemporary attributes without losing their roots.
“As with any other cuisine, Arabic cuisine can be transformed, but always keeping its essence,” he said.
“I try to provide my customers with nostalgic recipes that remind them of the food they used to eat with their grandmothers, but with a modern twist.”
Both in Shahiya, located in an upscale neighborhood of Sao Paulo, and in his work as a culinary consultant at the Mount Lebanon Club – one of the most traditional institutions of the city’s Lebanese community – Barakat offers a high level culinary presentation and a sumptuous atmosphere.
His experiments include grape leaf rolls stuffed with Portuguese cod, a fusion of the traditional Lebanese dish with a filling popular in Brazil. “I want to appeal to different tastes. Nobody will lose anything with this effort,” he said.
Brazilians have turned sfiha into their own dish and are now making sausage and even chocolate versions of it. In Mexico, the historical presence of Arab immigrants has also generated a curious synthesis with the local cuisine. The most notorious example is the Arabic taco, a fusion between the Arabic shawarma and the Mexican taco.
It was a creation of Assyro-Chaldean immigrants who settled in the city of Puebla in the early 1920s.
“My grandfather and his brother realized it was not easy to find pita bread, so they started using tortillas,” said Zacarias Galiana, the heir to Tacos Baghdad – the pioneering restaurant in the production of Arab tacos – to Arab News.
“They also replaced yogurt with chipotle sauce, and the favorite meat became pork.”
Galiana, who makes the chipotle sauce created by her grandfather, also serves a more Arabian version of the taco, using a more pita-like tortilla and traditional shawarma toppings such as yogurt and onions. “We are totally connected and fusion cuisine is a natural consequence,” he said.
In Chile, where at least 600,000 Palestinians form their largest community outside the Middle East, the new generation seems eager to innovate.
Jad Alarja, a 33-year-old Palestinian-born chef in the capital Santiago, is a culinary instructor on the online platform Ochomil.cl and teaches viewers how to prepare traditional Arabic dishes. He’s not afraid to experiment with new flavors and textures.
“New generations are ready for new culinary experiences, but we Arabs tend to be stuck with the same old ways of doing things,” he told Arab News. Alarja’s classes were shared on social media by the Palestinian community in Chile. Sometimes it gets negative feedback.
“Once I learned how I make tabbouleh and someone said, ‘I come from a family of five generations of cooks, and that’s not the way to make tabbouleh’,” he says.
“Why do people prefer to compete to see who makes things in a more traditional way instead of creating new things?”
Alarja said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many Arab Chileans have started cooking and selling food, which could help expand the reach of Arab cuisine in the country.
The expansion of Arab food in Latin America is also the result of the influx of Syrian refugees, who have been arriving in the region for 10 years due to humanitarian visas distributed by countries such as Brazil and Argentina.
Some of them opened restaurants and served the food they used to prepare in Syria, which can sometimes surprise Latin Americans accustomed to specific Arab cuisine.
Haneen Nasser, a 30-year-old Syrian who arrived in Argentina six years ago, married a Lebanese Argentinian and settled in Santa Rosa, a small town in the province of La Pampa.
There they started cooking in 2018 and quickly surprised their customers. “The city doesn’t have a big Lebanese community like Buenos Aires and Cordoba, but people have their own ideas about Arabic cuisine. Sometimes we impact them,” she told Arab News.
This was the case of the mint and cheese sfiha, a traditional dish from his hometown of Latakia but hitherto unknown in Argentina.
“Even my Lebanese mother-in-law didn’t know. Now it’s a hit, especially among vegetarians and kids,” Nasser said.
A graduate in English Studies, she never cooked professionally in Syria but fell in love with the idea in Argentina. At one point, she asks her mother and aunt in Syria for help with some recipes.
“We are now opening a small restaurant with the idea of not only serving food, but also introducing our culture to people,” Nasser said. “This is our life project for the future.
Barakat said, “Many Arab chefs go to Europe for training and end up becoming chefs of foreign cuisine. I am the opposite: I want to be an ambassador of Lebanese – and Arabic – cuisine all over the world.