This tiny Syrian restaurant has outstanding dips — and a vast menu of delights
Zain Alsham is at 485 Morden Road in Oakville, Ont.
Jason D'Souza: So I understand that the family we're visiting today were some of the first newcomers to arrive in Canada in 2015?
Suresh Doss: Yes. In response to the Syrian refugee crisis, Canada has resettled thousands of Syrians since 2015. I met 21-year-old Abdullah Kedeh a few months ago.
Abdullah and his family were some of the first to arrive here in December 2015. He's joined by his dad, Zaher, and his mom, Taghred, and his three siblings. The family is from Damascus, but Abdullah was really keen to point out that they're from a municipality called Al-Midan.
He'd always remind me they're proud to say that they're from Al-Midan.
Jason: Why is that?
Suresh: So from what I understand, Al-Midan is this large trading centre in the greater Damascus area. But from speaking to Zaher and Abdullah, it is also recognized as a key cultural and culinary capital, which is what inspired his dad Zaher to start cooking at the age of 12.
Zaher leaves school and he starts learning how to make baklava. He says Al-Midan was this very inspiring place where large portions of the neighborhood feel like you are walking to an open market. There were hundreds of small restaurants that can spill out onto the street.
And then at the age of 19, he opens his first restaurant.
Jason: He started cooking at the age of 12 and by 19, already opening a restaurant?
Suresh: Yeah! He opens up this dessert shop making dozens of varieties of baklava — this wonderful, flaky pastry that's not overly sweet.
Decades pass, the family ends up running two restaurants along with a successful catering company. But because of the war, they end up moving to Oakville in 2015. Abdullah says that there was this desire from the moment that they landed as a family to open a restaurant.
Years past and they eventually connect with the Dar Foundation, which is this Muslim religious and community centre in Oakville. And essentially, they have taken over the kitchen space that is adjacent to the centre.
Jason: OK, is this place easy to find in Oakville?
Suresh: Not at all, it's off the main road. There are no signs; it doesn't even show up on Google Maps if you're just browsing. You have to type in the name: Zain Al-Sham. It's a very tiny space. But here you have the family cooking a really expansive menu. I would say close to 40 traditional Syrian dishes, with dishes that I've never had before in my life.
This is a planned experience and it's intended to be shared with a group. So I would recommend that you go online, look at the menu, and organize a few friends together for a patio or a picnic in the park.
Jason: Let's say I have my group of friends — we're ready to feast outside. What should we be ordering?
Suresh: So there are a number of offerings at Zain Al-Sham and I think every experience can be new.
Let's start with the mezze, the appetizers. You can get the family's interpretation of hummus, which is this wonderfully creamy chickpea dip that's dressed with a generous amount of olive oil and accented by the sliced cucumbers. There's tabbouleh, which is the salad with parsley and bulgur wheat.
There's fattoush, which is roughly chopped lettuce tossed with cucumber and tomatoes, and then kind of finished off with this dome of fried pita chips.
Muhammara, one of my favourite dips, it's just a dip of roasted red bell peppers with walnuts and then accented by pomegranates.
There are two amazing eggplant spreads, the muttabal and baba ghanoush. These are both outstanding interpretations of eggplant dishes where they're kind of made to look into a dip and they're accented with parsley and walnuts.
Those dips alone are worth a visit. Tear lots of flatbread and you dip and scoop and I promise you'll be happy.
Jason: It should be illegal how much you're making my mouth water this morning.
Suresh: Moving on to the main dishes. There are many that I want to share, but I'll list a few.
Kibbeh — which is this ground meat, deep fried — that's made with pounded bulgur .There are many variations of it throughout the Arab countries. Here you can order fried kibbeh to accompany a rice dish, but the clutch move here is to get the kibbeh labneah, where you have these fried fritters that are then dunked in yogurt. It's this wonderful textural contrast between this fried meat and that's got the bulgur, and then you have this creamy cooling yogurt.
There are a variety of slow-cooked rice dishes. I really like the chicken mandi, which is chicken that gets a long marinade and it's cooked in its own juices. And then maybe for something even more substantive, you should try the mhashy.
Jason: I must admit I've never heard of mhashy before. What is that?
Suresh: This was a first for me as well. Picture a whole zucchini and whole eggplants that have been cored out and they're stuffed with rice and ground meat, and then they're slowly cooked in this tomato sauce with plenty of garlic. It's just so good. But it's such a lesson in subtle notes that kind of dance with each other. It's really wonderful. You got the contrasting textures between that soft zucchini meat and the beef as well.
Jason: That sounds amazing. You mentioned Zaher used to make baklava back in his restaurant in Syria. Is he still making baklava?
Suresh: Yes. So over the past year, the mom has taken over the savoury menu and Zaher makes baklava every day. You can easily just walk in and get a box with a variety of different types. Again, just a master class in subtle pastry. They're not very sweet, but it's a great way to end your trip here.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.