Last April, one day after the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun, Syria, Tamara Briggs's aunt and uncle fled their hometown, Jisr al-Shughur, 62 miles northwest. Two days later a bomb took out the building next door, which in turn flattened their house. "They're in Aleppo now," Briggs says.
Jisr al-Shughur, in northwestern Syria near the Turkish border, is the town Briggs's father, Monib El-Khatib, came to Ann Arbor from in 1978 to study land-use planning at Eastern Michigan University. Briggs's mother, Jinan, followed a year later. She began taking culinary classes at a community college, and after graduating, she spent six months in France training under a pastry chef.
In 1991, the couple opened a small storefront bakery on a well-hidden side of a strip mall, offering typical French and Middle Eastern pastries, and custom-made cakes for weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries. But over time, Jinan noticed that her customers often seemed less interested in her baguettes and croissants, and were drawn more to the home-style Syrian food she gradually incorporated into her offerings.
These were foods most Syrians would never go out for, things you'd never taste unless you were invited into the home of someone from Jisr al-Shughur—a bright purple baba ghanoush, for example, the usual eggplant replaced with beets, which are abundant around Jisr al-Shughur. She made tabbouleh baladi, a salad of red and green cabbage, fine bulgur, mint, red pepper, pomegranate molasses, olive oil, tomatoes, onions, and parsley, usually made in wintertime, when brassicas are in season. And she made kibbeh al toum, a very particular version of the bulgur and ground meat amalgamations found all over the Middle East, hers taking the form of fist-size footballs of meat, grain, and garlic, boiled, then smothered in brick-colored muhammara, a puree of spiced red pepper and walnuts. "Lots of Middle Easterners are like, 'I don't what that is,' " Briggs says. "But this is what we make in our city."
Over 26 years Exotic Bakeries & Syrian Cuisine, evolved into a kind of full-service deli—something that doesn't actually exist in Syria. It's also been the sole proprietor of Syrian food in Ann Arbor, and one of the very few in the Detroit metropolitan area. Even in nearby Dearborn—which has the largest proportion of Arab-Americans in the U.S. and is the country's promised land for great Middle Eastern food—there's only one dedicated Syrian restaurant.
"Syrians are known to be highly educated," Briggs says. "That's why you won't see a lot of restaurants." Also, Syrian immigration to the Detroit area historically has been limited, relative to Lebanese, and more recently, Yemeni and Iraqi. But since the start of 2015, nearly 19,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the U.S. Over 2,000 of them are in Michigan, more than any other state apart from California.
Many of these families are living in small homes in nearby Ypsilanti. A few have found work here and there making labor-intensive food like kibbeh for restaurants and parties. One woman waiting for her green card works in the kitchen of the Briggs family's deli.
The family refurbished a car for her, and they're working on others for refugees in need. The deli is set up as a drop-off point for donations of toys, clothing, furniture, appliances, and other goods for the newcomers.
"My cousins are in the same position," Briggs says. "So I want people to treat them as good as we're treating these people."
Jisr al-Shughur was an early flash point in the Syrian civil war, the site of clashes between armed militias and government security forces, prompting a crackdown by the Syrian military that led most of its civilian population to flee. Since then control has shifted back and forth between the government and a variety of Islamist insurgent groups. One cousin fled after the Al-Nusra Front (also referred to as Al Qaeda in Syria) kidnapped him, held him for two weeks, and then released him with a warning.
"Our city is gone," Briggs says. "Pretty much flattened."
Her father saw it coming, halting construction on a retirement home and putting the money aside to help the extended family weather the coming storm. Today the deli helps support family members scattered across the Middle East and Europe—in Idlib, Aleppo, Turkey, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Arab Emirates. Briggs and her immediate family applied to sponsor many of them, but she says their hope died when Donald Trump took office.
If Jisr al-Shughur has been destroyed, it's some small consolation that its food traditions are preserved in a small deli in suburban Michigan. Some two dozen salads and sides reside in the refrigerated display case, along with mamoul, baklava, and other Levantine sweets. In addition to French pastries, there's an array of the savory hand pies called fatayer, stuffed with meats, cheeses, and/or vegetables, plus a full sandwich menu ranging from conventional kefta and chicken shawarma to house specialties like the Aleppo (eggplant baba ghanoush, veggies, feta, pita chips, and fattoush dressing) and the Jinan (ajjeh, aka the Syrian omelet, with tabbouleh, pickles, and garlic sauce).
Briggs, a former teacher who's taking over the business as her parents near retirement, has known many of the deli's customers her entire life. They draw from Ann Arbor's ethnically diverse population, but it's somewhat ironic—though it makes perfect sense—that very few of them are Syrian.
"Syrian people cook at home," she says. "And this is home cooking. When they go out they eat stuff they don't get to make. Stuff that takes a long time."
When Ann Arbor's Syrians do go out looking for Syrian food, you might find them some 42 miles to the east at Al Chabab (12930 W. Warren Ave., Dearborn, MI, 313-582-2927), a two-year-old restaurant specializing in the food of Aleppo. There's an array of kebabs, sandwiches, and appetizers, and some off bits, including a whole sheep's head. But excellent Aleppo-style dishes you'll want to prioritize include kabob bil karaz (meatballs served in a sweet cherry-pomegranate sauce), kabob khashkhash (minced with chile pepper, garlic, and pine nuts), and kabob al halabi (or "Aleppo," served under a mountain of tomato-sauced pita). Since Aleppo is known for its many varieties of kibbeh, do not miss its most beloved: kibbeh nayyah, a flattened disk of fresh raw meat minced with onions, mint, and crushed red pepper and drizzled with olive oil. It's Syrian steak tartare, born in one of the oldest cities in the world. v