Culinary traditions lost as Syria's civil war continues

Syria's ongoing civil war has not only displaced millions of people — it's brought the country's food exporting industry to a halt. And a Canadian spice importer says he's not only feeling the pinch of the shrinking industry, but is deeply worried for former business partners who are now refugees.

Canadian spice importer laments not only loss of goods, but of friends in Syrian conflict

Children carry bags as Syrians flee the city of Aleppo wait in February 2016. Some culinary traditions are being left behind as people leave Syria, says CBC food columnist Khalil Akhtar. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

The conflict in Syria has left hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions more without a home. Some of the oldest archeological sites in the world have been destroyed.

And thanks to the mass migration of people, some Syrian culinary traditions are being left behind.

The Syrian city of Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. As such, it has some deep-rooted culinary customs, like the Aleppo pepper — a spice that dates back at least 2,000 years to a time when the city was a stop on the Silk Road.

Syrian spice exports dry up

Aleppo pepper only gained some modern global acceptance in the last decade or two, according to Philippe de Vienne. He's a Canadian spice importer who co-owns the Montreal spice shop Épices de Cru

He says the prized sweet-hot Aleppo pepper was just one of the products he imported from Syria. The richly flavoured pepper tastes sort of like a combination of dried fruit and chillies, and has become a favourite of cooks around the world.

Canadian spice importer Philippe de Vienne (right) says many of the people he once dealt with in Syria are now refugees, while others have simply not been heard from. (
It's still available — but more likely now to originate from Turkey than Syria, says de Vienne.

In the past, he also brought in wild herbs like za'atar, and Middle Eastern and Mediterranean herbs that grow in the very dry and hilly regions of Syria. 

"The [Aleppo] peppers took a year or two before we could source [them] from people who knew what they were doing in Turkey," he said. 

"The cumin was a different story. The climate and soil of Syria is quite unique, so it produces a cumin that was highly appreciated by many. It was very different from the cumins of Morocco or India."

De Vienne said he no longer has access to cumin, peppers and za'atar from Syria. Nor does he find the same quality of Aleppo peppers, which came out of their namesake city for thousands of years.

'They simply disappeared'

Over the last five years, Syrian exports of all food have more or less dried up. And de Vienne says many of the farmers and exporters he once dealt with in the country have left. Others have simply not been heard from.

"People who had become our friends simply disappeared. That was the impact for me and for us was mostly emotional — knowing your friends are in the middle of a war and there's very little you can do," he said.

"Many are refugees. Our agent, he's now a refugee. And actually, he found a job in the spice market in Istanbul."

Hopeful for peace

But de Vienne hopes peace will come back to Aleppo one day.

"[Aleppo] has seen more than one invasion," he said. "It has survived. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. So it's going to survive. The people of Aleppo are indestructible," de Vienne said.

People who once populated the spice markets of the city will one day be back, he thinks. 

And he hopes that when peace returns, so will the spice trade.

About the Author

Khalil Akhtar

Food Columnist

Khalil Akhtar is a syndicated food columnist for CBC Radio. He takes a weekly look at some of the surprising aspects of your daily diet. Khalil is based in Victoria, B.C.