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Syria in Styria, or why gastronomy is always about the guest
“More ought to be done. I think the authorities don’t grasp all opportunities”, says Jan Saria. Is he referring to the situation for refugees? “No, not at all. More can be done for tourists. Visitors, business travellers. Food is important for this group. There are many business people from Asia or Germany here. It’s important to keep in mind that a stranger doesn’t stray far in an unknown city. He tends to stay within his circle”. Jan is speaking from experience. In 2012, he arrived in Graz. As a refugee.
His optimism and creativity stand him well in the struggle with bureaucratic obstacles, which more often than not defeat even well-established gastronomes in Graz. A new cooker hood needs to be installed? Nothing easier than that! Jan in considering using an old chimney vent inside the building. Let’s see if it will go through with the authorities. His solemn face briefly lights up with mischief.
At first sight, Jan and Sara are an unusual team. Sara’s words are tinged with a strong Styrian dialect. This should not come as a surprise, after all we are in Graz, the capital of Styria. However, Sara has only been living here for five years. Seven months after his arrival, her father managed to reunite the family in Austria.
“I was the first foreigner at school”, she recounts. A boy made fun of her, a friend. Friend. That’s the same word Jan had used to tell us about the “blue friendship” (editor’s note: blue is the colour of Austria’s far right party). They had complained to the major about the Arabic name of his Syrian supermarket. So, it is a friend who teased her because she wasn’t able to speak German. Yes, that bothered her. And it motivated her to study hard, to fight to learn the language. After all, she wanted to answer back. After six months, she spoke German fluently.
What is the perfect birthday present for a 18-year-old? In Sara’s case, her father surprised her with an extraordinary gift: her own spice shop, Gewürze der Welt, right next to the bustling Lendplatz. This makes her the youngest entrepreneur in Styria.
But Sara dreams of going beyond. During the day, she works at the store with her father. After that, she visits an evening school. After all, it is her dream to study. Business, of course. Gewürze der Welt is a pilot project. If it turns out to be a success, Jan wants to open more stores in other regions across Austria. Contrary to the Syrian supermarket, the majority of clients is Austrian.
A lady enters the store. She is looking for ginger. Jan offers her a bulb the size of his forearm with stubby yellow fingers where the first shoots have sprouted. No, she doesn’t need that much. He breaks off a piece, hands it to her. She asks how much it is. “Nothing”, he answers. First, she is taken aback, then she leaves the store, showering him with words of gratitude. She will come back.
“It’s not about it being for free”, Jan explains. “We offer something more, an extra service. Everyone can take a sample, tries it at home and then usually comes back for more. That’s important to me. Blending spices is an art not everyone can master, even with the right recipe”.
Interacting with his clients plays a pivotal role for him: “We spend too much time giving our customers advice. Sometimes even up to an hour, when we create a personalized blend of spices. Recently, we had a customer, who was disappointed by a spice her husband picked up at the supermarket. Here, we created a spice adapted to her individual preferences and she was thrilled. However, at the end of the day, we still sell the spice for five, six euros, no more than that.” On a financial level, this kind of service doesn’t pay. But there is more to it.
Sharing means caring
This generosity is an essential part of Syrian food culture: “We share our food”, says Jan. “Mazza. It has to be beautiful, a pleasure to look at. And it means, we are all one. We all eat together.” Just like in many Mediterranean countries, various plates with salads, hummus, meat dishes are placed on the middle of the table and invite the guests to help themselves.
The talent for hospitality runs in the Sarias’ blood. Jan himself is the 11th child of a love that knows neither boundaries nor borders: His father, a Shia musician, his mother a Catholic. They met in her home country Italy, where he was attending a seminar, and she decided to follow him to Syria. In 1982, they opened a restaurant. Five tables for a maximum of 20 guests. Who knows if it will work out? Two years later, he had to expand to accommodate 750 guests. “We easily sold over 4,000 falafel sandwiches in a day. That’s probably more than in all of Austria within a week”, Jan reminisces.
He is a master in the art of the perfectly choreographed Syrian service. In detail, he explains the rules to us. Why children are served their meal first. How a waiter intuitively senses the needs of his guests, advises them regarding the amount and combination of dishes. And tells us why the thin paper often found between the saucer and a coffee is unheard of in Syria – “after all, I don’t want to write!” – and would be highly unpractical in case the guest needs a serviette.
Hence, his first experience with Austrian hospitality – only limited to the gastronomic side, as he emphasizes – is peculiar to him: “Everyone has their own plate and concentrates on it. Meals are meant to be as fast as possible. Main, dessert, done. In Syria, we give our guests time to think. First, he can take a seat and take in the atmosphere, can choose to sit at another table if he prefers it. That’s important when you eat out. Eating out is a pleasure. Eating out means this is time for myself, for my body. I don’t want to have the feeling I’m on the run like a refugee. So, I give my guests some space. Here, as soon as you take a seat, a waiter appears out of nowhere and asks what you’d like to drink”.
Taste the difference
Supposed analogies to his local cuisine didn’t fail to surprise him during the first weeks of his arrival: “Back then, I didn’t know sushi, so I thought it was a sweet with chocolate and sesame. So, you can imagine, the taste hit me really unexpectedly.”
Another big difference to Austrian cuisine, obviously, is the use of spices. Without them, the Syrian cuisine, also highly appreciated by neighbouring countries, would not be the same. The seductive aromas enhance one’s appetite. However, blending spices is an art: “Baba is passing the knowledge his father taught him to me now”, explains Sara. She is aware of the fact that she is keeping her own traditions alive. She also knows how to cook. Especially, spaghetti.
In these intercultural encounters, naturally, there are surprises on both sides. “It’s a pity that many people believe we have camels in Syria. If I want to see any, I need to travel 400 kilometres, to Jordan or Tunisia. Camels and carpets”. The image of 1001 nights still prevails.
Much has improved, though. Partly, this is due to older generations of Austrians being more accustomed to speaking English now. Much has improved but not everything has become easier. Jan not only fulfills all requirements for the Austrian nationality, he exceeds them. However, a recent change to legislation has extended the number of years one must have lived in Austria before applying for the citizenship, from six to ten years. Jan has been in Graz for six years now.
The flavour of the distance
We are back in the belly of the store. Surrounded by vases filled with spices. Swirls of cinnamon, vibrant grains of pepper, ground spices in bright cadmium and faded ochre.
Recently, they broadcast a video about Syria on ORF (the national TV channel in Austria), says Jan. He opens it on his mobile. Images of monuments sweep across the screen: cities, palm trees swaying in the wind, a sea of faces, lively streets. Images, no more than images now. We are silent. Silent, while the brassy voice of the narrator fills the room with the glory and wonders of days past.
Sara raises her hand to her face. Her hand falls; timidly rises again. “It’s always sad to see what it was like before and what it is like now. It’s so tragic.”
“The best thing about Austria is that it is safe. Life is pleasant, nothing special. If you want to lead a good life, you need to work more than eight hours per day. Missing home hurts sometimes, but that’s the way it is.”
As we leave the shop, we carry the scent of the world with us.
Thank you, Sara and Jan!
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Gewürze der Welt