Syrian refugees serve up flavours of home in Cairo satellite city

6 October City has seen the number of Syrian restaurants and delis mushroom, as Egyptians get a taste for the refugees’ food

Two years ago, the foreign food on offer in 6 October City – a 30-year-old satellite town 10 miles west of Cairo – was limited. “It wasn’t much more than McDonald’s and KFC,” said one long-term resident, Hisham Abdallah, an importer of medical supplies. It was a quiet place, too – one that only burst into life during term-time at the local university. “6 October depended on the students,” said Abdel Aziz, the manager of a local restaurant. “When they went, so did the work.”

But then came the Syrians. Of the 300,000 Syrian refugees thought to now be in Egypt (unofficial estimates are far higher than the UNHCR figures), about 30,000 are thought to have settled in 6 October City – and almost all of them in the past 18 months. No one is quite sure why they came. Some say it’s simply cheaper than Cairo, others because it’s marginally greener. But once there were a few installed, the crowds followed.

“They’re calling it Little Damascus,” joked Alaa, a Syrian doctor who volunteers at the Syrian Refugees Union, one of several support groups recently set up to cater for the city’s expanding Syrian community. “I don’t really feel like an outsider,” said Omar Azzedin, a baker, “because there are so many Syrians.”

With the Syrians came their food. Two years ago, there was just one Syrian restaurant. Now there are 40 – with 20 new Syrian bakeries, and up to 100 Syrian grocers. There are half a dozen Syrian sweet shops and a Syrian cheese factory, while several Syrian families now run homemade delivery services from their kitchens. At the Damascene Lady, the city’s original Syrian restaurant, where customers can wipe their feet on a picture of President Bashar al-Assad, staff numbers have doubled to cope with increased number of customers.

It is because Syrian menus are more varied, Syrians proudly argue. “When we first opened, Egyptians would come in out of charity,” said Aboul Kheir, a Syrian deli owner, who has branded the outside of his shop with the logo of the Free Syrian Army. “But then they noticed the difference in quality and they starting coming back because they were addicted to it. Now I’ve got more Egyptian customers than Syrian.”

Kheir’s cheese counter offers a good explanation for their popularity. Egyptian cheese shops often only stock three kinds of cheeses. But Kheir also sells mshalale, a knotted cheese from Hama; majdoule, a braided cheese from Homs; musanana, cubes studded with sesame seeds from Aleppo; and surke, a cheese coated in thyme.

“When they come here and see all the different kinds of delicacies that we have, and their quality, Egyptians don’t really understand why the revolution kicked off in Syria,” said Kheir, who arrived in 6 October City at the beginning of the year. He claimed that while Egyptian cows were fed better than their counterparts in Syria, the milk they provided was often sullied in the Egyptian cheesemaking process by chemicals. Syrian cheesemakers were less likely to use chemicals – diminishing the quantity of their output, but increasing its quality. “In Egypt, 100kg of milk produce 23kg of cheese, while the traditional Syrian way produces 12kg,” said Kheir, adding that his profits went to a local Syrian refugee centre.

Syrian confectioners and bakers also drew differences between their food and Egyptian equivalents. Syrian sweets used natural ghee, and a wider range of nuts, said Mohamed, the owner of the Damascene Rose – a new sweet shop. Likewise, Syrian bread is usually made from white wheat, rather than Egyptian wholegrain. Unlike Egyptian bread, it is made from solid dough, not liquid – creating a fuller texture, reckoned Azzedin. “The Syrians here weren’t really happy about the quality of the Egyptian bread, so I tried to answer that need.”

Eating at the Damascene Lady, Egyptian Hisham Abdallah said that while the grills and kebabs of local Egyptian restaurants were often predictable, Syrian restaurants typically offered a broader menu. Abdallah had the option of sfiha, boat-shaped breads, filled with meat; or kibbeh, balls of mince, cooked in yoghurt.

“Syrians have affected the food scene in 6 October,” said Kheir, when he spoke to the Guardian in June. “A lot of Egyptians tell me that they wish we would stay here and never go back to Syria.”

But following the fall of Mohamed Morsi, and a corresponding rise in xenophobia, the plight of Syrian refugees in Egypt remains more uncertain than ever.

Additional reporting by Mowaffaq Safadi

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