It was the kind of restaurant where you take guests visiting from out of town to help them understand what you love about your home.
"Some corner in your stomach will taste that food and maybe you will feel that your stomach is smiling, happy," says photographer Issa Touma, who grew up in Aleppo, Syria, of the sandwich shop in question.
These days Aleppo is the symbol of the devastation of the Syrian Civil War. But before that, Aleppo was Syria's food capital -- known for its diverse mix of Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and European food cultures. And the place Issa's talking about was famous.
"It was a pilgrimage spot," says journalist Adam Davidson (below), who visited the restaurant in 2003 with his then girlfriend, Jen Banbury (below left, now his wife).
Issa took Jen and Adam to try those amazing sandwiches, just as he had with so many guests visiting his home city.
More than a decade later they still have vivid memories of that meal.
"I just wish I had somehow documented it," Jen says. "Clearly that place is long gone. Who knows whether the owners are alive or dead."
But what if it's not?
This week on The Sporkful, we're going on a quest to find out what made this place special, and what happened to the shop and its owners. Are they, too, victims of the Syrian conflict?
Can the fate of this restaurant tell us something about the fate of Aleppo?
The journey starts with Part 1 today and concludes with Part 2 -- out tomorrow.
Along the way, we'll take you from Aleppo to Austria, from Detroit to New York to Istanbul -- all in search of a sandwich.
Interstitial music in this episode from Black Label Music:
- "Minimaliminal" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Child Knows Best" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Private Detective" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Feel Real Good" by Will Van De Crommert
- "Midnight Grind" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Broken Castle" by Bijou Basil
- "Asphalt Gods" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Narwhal" by Casey Hjelmberg
Photos: FlickrCC; courtesy of Jen Banbury + Adam Davidson
Dan Pashman: In 2003, Adam Davidson and Jen Banbury were living in Baghdad. They were working as reporters, covering the Iraq War, and they were falling in love.
Adam Davidson: Early on, it was sort of, as was common at the time, it was like two journalists hooking up in a war zone and it wasn't entirely clear this was gonna be a long term thing. And in fact, at some point we thought, "Oh boy, this is not gonna last the afternoon", and then...
Jen Banbury: I think I thought that this morning though. Wait, how long have we been together now?
Adam Davidson: We've been together a long time.
Jen Banbury: Yeah.
Adam Davidson: And you didn't think that this morning, right?
Jen Banbury: No, I didn't. I didn't. I'm in for the long haul.
Adam Davidson: But it was around cutting into December of 03', I think clear to us, like, "Oh this is a really like—we're a real couple. This is like not just a war time thing." And we took this vacation.
Dan Pashman: Adam and Jen went to Aleppo, in Syria. Today, Aleppo is the symbol of the devastation of the Syrian Civil War but this was before that. Back when you might actually go to Aleppo on vacation. A friend put them in touch with a local photographer named Issa Touma. And Issa said, "While you’re here, you have to go to this sandwich shop."
Adam Davidson: People are walking in and they see us and they're like, "Ahhh you're here for the sandwich." And Issa like pretty quickly was like, "Yeah, they've never had it before."
Jen Banbury: Right.
Adam Davidson: "This is their first time," and there was an excitement. This was a pilgrimage spot. Sort of looked like a pizza place, more than a deli in a New York context. Like there's a long counter with glass displays looking at all the stuff. The thing that stuck out at me was there as a tray of sheep brains.
Jen Banbury: I mean, they were sort of laid like almost like in a jewelry store because they had clearly been washed and they weren't gory in any way. They were just these big brain jewels in a row. And then the other meats were also on display but somehow, yeah, the sheep brain got pride of place.
Dan Pashman: Beyond the sheep brains, though, Jen and Adams’ memories of the sandwiches start to get kind of fuzzy.
Adam Davidson: I remember like mayonnaise but more magical than mayonnaise.
Jen Banbury: Radishes.
Adam Davidson: Radishes.
Jen Banbury: I definitely remember radishes.
Adam Davidson: Like pickled radishes. And I remember corn.
Jen Banbury: And there must have been a cheese, too.
Adam Davidson: We decided not to go with sheep brains.
Jen Banbury: Yeah, I kind of wish we had. I really do but we didn't.
Adam Davidson: I had chicken and you had...
Jen Banbury: I had the tongue, which felt conservative but I love tongue.
Adam Davidson: What I remember vividly, is like, a softness and a crunchiness, Like it was perfectly balanced.
Jen Banbury: And then the bread was extraordinary. It was like one of the best sandwich baguettes I've ever ever had. And there was also, clearly, so much behind the preparation of the meats and it was sort of fall-y apart but not too much.
Adam Davidson: I remember us both like just staring at the guy who made it in shock. Like it was like woah.
Jen Banbury: Right. We each finished our enormous sandwiches and we seriously discussed each getting another one, even though I was so full, I probably could have taken a six-hour nap.
Dan Pashman: Do you wish now, you had gotten another one?
Adam Davidson: Now, I just wish I had a sheep brain one.
Jen Banbury: Yeah.
Adam Davidson: Yeah, I feel like we should have at least tasted it. We didn't have to eat the whole thing.
Jen Banbury: Now, I just wish we had somehow documented it because clearly that place is long gone. Who knows whether the owners are alive or dead?
Dan Pashman: When people come to visit you from out of town, what’s the one restaurant that you say, while you’re here, you have to go to this place? It could be fine dining, it could be a taco shack or a waffle House, but you’ve got that place. And when you take your guests there, what you’re really saying is, I want you to eat here because it’ll help you to appreciate my home. Well for Issa, and for a lot of people in Aleppo, this sandwich shop was that place. Now, that city’s mostly destroyed. Jen just assumes the restaurant’s gone. But is it possible it’s still there? Well, as you’ll hear, when you’re talking about a shop in a city that’s largely cut off from the rest of the world, that’s a really hard question to answer.
Dan Pashman: So today on The Sporkful, we’re going on a quest. What made this sandwich shop special? What exactly was in those sandwiches? Has it really been demolished? Are the owners alive or dead? And what can the fate of this place tell us about the fate of Aleppo? We’ll take you from Aleppo to Austria, from Detroit to New York to Istanbul, all in search of a sandwich.
CLIP (PERSON 1): So corner in your stomach will test that food. Maybe it will feel your stomach smiling, happy.
CLIP (PERSON 2): Oh wow, this is emotional.
CLIP (PERSON 3): Hello?... [phone call continues in Arabic]
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. The Syrian conflict began with the Arab Spring in 2011. A lot of Syrians were protesting the oppressive regime of President Bashar Al Assad, and he began a brutal crackdown. Fighting escalated and since then various rebel groups have been battling the government and each other. Fighters and weapons have poured in from outside the country to support all sides. Meanwhile most average Syrians are caught in the middle, millions have fled. And while it does seem the worst fighting has passed and the regime will retain power, it’s not over. Dozens of towns remain under siege.
Dan Pashman: One person working to tell the stories of Syrians is Issa Touma. He’s the artist who took Adam and Jen to that sandwich shop, years ago. Adam connected me to him on Facebook. Issa’s still in Aleppo, a lot of the time. His mother’s there too, but he also lives for stretches in Europe, where he gives talks about Syria. He’s managed to raise awareness without angering the government.
Dan Pashman: Okay, you there?
Issa Touma: yeah, I'm here. How is Adams?
Dan Pashman: Adam's good, he has a son now and he's very busy.
Issa Touma: Wow.
Dan Pashman: When I talked with Issa, he was in Vienna. He grew up in Aleppo. If you’ve seen a photo of the city in the last few years, chances are it was crumbled buildings and rubble as far as the eye could see. At the height of the war, fighting between the government and opposition groups essentially put Aleppo under siege. Supplies of medicine and food were cut off. People starved. Issa tells me his family learned how to cook moldy bread into a dish they could eat. After we talked about his experience in the war, our conversation turned to the sandwich shop.
Dan Pashman: The sandwich shop that you took Adam to...
Issa Touma: yeah.
Dan Pashman: What was it called?
Issa Touma: Syrjeia.
Dan Pashman: How did you spell that? Like, "S...
Issa Touma: Hmmm, it's very like popular family name. I don't...
Dan Pashman: Oh, it's a family name, okay.
Issa Touma: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And where in Aleppo is it?
Issa Touma: The original center was in front of the public garden. Later, they opened another shop, faced the other street, which is really where Adam eat.
Dan Pashman: Okay, so Adam went to the one on Fisol, street?
Issa Touma: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: When you went to Syrjeia, what was your favorite sandwich to get?
Issa Touma: Umm, I eat usually the rosto because I like it, yeah, a lot.
Dan Pashman: Rosto?
Issa Touma: Yeah.
*Dan Pashman: Rosto is ground meat, rolled and stuffed with veggies, nuts, sometimes egg. After it’s cooked it’s sliced.
Dan Pashman: Can you describe to me, what does it taste like?
Issa Touma: Hmm, that difficult. I don't know. Some corner in your stomach will taste that food and maybe it will feel that your stomach is smiling, happy.
Dan Pashman: When was the last time you were at this sandwich shop?
Issa Touma: Around seven years ago, yeah.
Dan Pashman: So Issa didn’t know much about the details of the sandwiches. He thought the original place was still there, but like he said, he hadn’t been in years. It felt like we’d hit a wall pretty early in our quest. Issa had given us one crucial piece of information though. The sandwich shop’s name, which is also the last name of the family that owns it – Syrjeia.
Dan Pashman: We looked online, but all we could find was a Facebook page for an Afghani restaurant in Turkey. We had a Syrian-American friend, who speaks Arabic, look online too but nothing. And the thing is, even if we were able to get a phone number for Syrjeia, the Syrian government monitors peoples’ calls. The folks in Syrjeia would be understandably wary of a call from a stranger asking a bunch of questions, even if it was from an Arabic speaker. That kind of call, coming from outside the country, could get them in trouble. We needed some kind of back channel connection. So we cast a wide net in the US. We reached out to organizations that work with Syrian refugees, friends in immigrant food communities, friends of friends whose parents came to the US from Syria decades ago. We put out the call. We’re looking for people from Aleppo who know the sandwich shop Syrjeia. And that’s how we found Shadi Martini.
Dan Pashman: Do you remember that sandwich?
Shadi Martini: Oh yeah, yeah. I remember everything. Not only at Syrjeia, other places also because I love these sandwiches.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, a break in the case and an unbelievable story. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. So we spent months trying to find someone from Aleppo who knew about this sandwich shop. And then…
Shadi Martini: I remember Syrjeia pretty well. There we have something called Central Park in Aleppo, so something like New York. So it was at the corner and in front of Central Park and it's a very nice place. It's not a big one. It's a small one but it's always busy.
Dan Pashman: Shadi Martini was born and raised in Aleppo. After going to college in Lebanon, he ran businesses in Europe. Then in 2009, when he was 38, he came back to Aleppo to run the hospital his family owned.
Shadi Martini: So growing up in Aleppo, I was confined to a community which is a little bit upscale community. A community that was exclusive but when I started running the hospital I met all segments of society. I went out of my comfort zone and went to meet my employees at their homes. You know, I participated in weddings, funerals. I was invited to lunches with my employees, met their family. So somehow I saw the real Syria.
Dan Pashman: Did you ever go with any of those folks to Syrjeia?
Shadi Martini: Oh yeah! You know, we would especially late at night. Food is an essential thing in the life of Aleppians. So it's very sophisticated, the food. We really appreciate it when we are having a bite. We want it to be perfect meal. So if you have a lousy place for sandwiches, or for whatever, you can't survive. Dan Pashman: Shadi tells me Damascus may be Syria’s political capital, but Aleppo was always the food capital. And even though it’s a big city, three and a half million before the conflict, it feels like a small town. Everyone knows everyone. Shadi says the folks at Syrjeia knew him so well, sometimes he didn’t even have to order.
Shadi Martini: It's like old friend, old buddies that you know them. You know? it's being there. Eating it there and talking to the people that makes it probably more delicious than anywhere else.
Dan Pashman: And what about the brain sandwich? Can you describe that one to me?
Shadi Martini: Oh, that's my favorite, actually. It's a magnificent sandwich but the problem with it, if you have high cholesterol, it's dangerous for you. The way they do it, they boil it so you don't have any smell or anything. They will cut it like you cut a tomato and then they'll put it in the bun and then they'll put in on a toaster. And then they will put inside, also, the tomatoes, the pickles, there the Syrian pickles and the lemon juice with some garlic.
Dan Pashman: And so the brain is kind of soft and fatty and tender. So the richness of the brain with the sort of the zing and the tart of the lemon and the garlic...
Shadi Martini: And it melts. It just melts, you know? It melts in your mouth. It's like mushy like this. And you put this 7 spices that we have. We call it Bhar, but it's 7 spices mixed together. It also gives a uniqueness to the sandwich and when you eat it it's like it's over and very quick. It is delicious.
Dan Pashman: When was the last time you had that sandwich?
Shadi Martini: Oh, it's been a while. It's been–since I left Aleppo in 2012.
Dan Pashman: That 7 spice mix, Shadi mentioned, it's found across the middle east. It varies a bit by region and even from one family to the next, but it’s usually got cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, cloves, paprika and black pepper. Aleppo was once a hub of the global spice trade. Its market was built during the Ottoman Empire, in the 1400s and 1500’s, and stood for centuries. In 2012, in the midst of the war, the market was destroyed. The 7 spices isn’t the only aspect of this sandwich that we got to talk about. There are other classic middle eastern touches – lemon juice, pistachios, pickled vegetables. Then there are the aspects that are uniquely Syrian.
Shadi Martini: Syria is a crossroad country. So throughout history, it's always a mix of cultures. You had a lot of fillagins, you had a lot of cultures mixing together. So that's the uniqueness—that's brought the uniqueness of the food.
Dan Pashman: You remember how Jen talked about the sandwich baguette being one of the best she’d ever had? Well, France occupied Syria for decades after World War I. Hence, French bread. Shadi says some of Syrjeia’s sandwiches use spicy red pepper, that comes from a strong Armenian influence. During the Armenian Genocide, refugees poured into Syria. In fact, many Armenian recipes call for Aleppo pepper. And now, to be clear, Syrjeia wasn’t the only place in Aleppo that made these kinds of sandwiches. They just did it better. Like the best barbecue place in Houston or the best burrito place in San Francisco. So to recap, you got a city obsessed with food. A tight knit community where personal connections run deep and ingredients that are unique to this place. It seems like Syrjeia could only exist in Aleppo. And that’s why it’s so important to Shadi. But there’s another reason, maybe even a bigger reason. Because Shadi’s experiences at Syrjeia weren’t just about the food, or the atmosphere. As he said, he grew up privileged, in an exclusive community. Sharing meals with his hospital employees at Syrjeia helped him connect with what he called, the Real Syria.
Shadi Martini: I didn't know the sufferings of other Syrians. I didn't know the worrying of other Syrians and the majority of Syrians. I just thought that everyone lived like me. And if someone complained—why was he complaining? You know? It's a good life. Well, it's a good life for me, not for him.
Dan Pashman: There were other pivotal moments for Shadi in Syrjeia, especially as the Syrian conflict was escalating. He remembers that at one of his last trips there, the atmosphere had changed.
Shadi Martini: The situation in Syria was very tense. So people started not really talking to each other that much. Because they were so afraid that they might say something that would turn out to be dangerous for them. So that was strange for me. Before that, we used to talk a lot, laugh a lot. All of a sudden people started being quiet.
Dan Pashman: Around this time protests in Aleppo were increasing, but the government insisted it was a small group. Regular citizens were taking to the streets, but the government said the demonstrators were terrorists and radicals. And when everyone's staying silent out of fear, you can start to wonder, "Wait, is everyone else seeing the same thing I’m seeing? Or am I the only one?" So that was the atmosphere at Syrjeia when Shadi was there by himself one night.
Shadi Martini: The government's line was, "They are all terrorists, extremists, radicals. Islamics that want to overthrow the government," and we knew better. We knew that there were only normal folks that just wanted some freedom, some change. And we were all watching but we didn't know each other, so we were only looking at each other and then spontaneously, we understood that we all disagree with the line of what the government is saying on TV. And we just started laughing.
Dan Pashman: So you guys are sitting over lamb brain sandwiches at Syrjeia, and this thing comes on TV and you're like, "Look at us, here we are, the terrorists."
Shadi Martini: Yeah. Yeah, apparently everyone saw the same because we just started looking and laughing. We didn't say anything, we just laughed because we knew it was a lie but everyone was afraid of the other. If you live in a police state, where everything is under control and everything is monitored then everything I knew—be very careful of what you say and what you do.
Dan Pashman: So connecting with those people, connecting with different Syrians through his work, it all led Shadi to make a decision that would change his life forever. Because many of the demonstrations like that one on TV were happening at the local university. Which was right near Shadi’s hospital.
Shadi Martini: So mainly the protests will come out from there. There, people will be beaten, chased and a lot of them will escape and try to head our way. So it was normal for us to see people running and trying to go into one entrance of our hospitals and escape from the other entrance to elude the people chasing them.
Dan Pashman: Around that time Shadi started getting pressure from the secret police and other enforcement agencies.
Shadi Martini: Each and every representative of these branches would come to me, as the manager of the hospital and tell me, "If you have anyone who was beaten in the demonstration or shot, you have to inform us immediately." And if you don't do it, they will come and pick me up.
Dan Pashman: In case it’s not clear, picked up means getting arrested, interrogated, possibly tortured, possibly killed. And when most Syrians get an order like that from the secret police, they follow it.
Shadi Martini: I remember one guy got beaten in front of the hospital. They thought he was a demonstrator and he was bleeding all over. And one of my employees called me and said, " This guy was beaten because they thought he was demonstrator, shall I call the number that I have?" And I told him, "Why do you need to call them? The guy wasn't a demonstrator." He said, "Yeah, but he got beaten." So that's the mentality of that my employees had. They were so worried that if they didn't call, that they would get arrested.
Dan Pashman: Shadi told his employee not to call anyone. But it wasn’t just Shadi’s workers who were terrified. It was also the patients. One time a six-year-old-boy was brought into the hospital with a gunshot wound. He was with his grandmother. He told the police the terrorists did it and that satisfied the interrogators.
Shadi Martini: Then we took him to the operating theater and I remember the surgeon coming, who operated on him, coming and laughing. And I told them, "Why are you laughing?" And they said, "Remember this kid that said that terrorists shot him?" He said, "We asked him, 'Who shot you?' and he looked at me but there was no parents around him. He told him, 'Well the terrorists were on tanks and they shot me.'" And but at that time, early 2011, the only people who had tanks were the army, the regular army. No one else had tanks. So we knew immediately that was the government that shot him but he was coached by his parents to say, you know, you never say the government or the soldiers. You will say the terrorists because that way we won't get into trouble. That's how people coached everyone, not to say the truth. Just to stay safe and get the treatment that they needed.
Dan Pashman: There was always someone from the police in the hospital. There was so much fear and intimidation there that soon, people who needed help stopped coming in.
Shadi Martini: And that was when we started trying to help them.
Dan Pashman: In other words, Shadi decided to disobey the order from the secret police. To try to treat people instead of turning them in. One day, when a woman came into the hospital after being shot in the leg, the authorities were close behind her.
Shadi Martini: And they came and they said, "We want to take her for interrogation." And we told them she can't go. She just got in. She needs to go to an operation. And I said, "No, we're taking her." So we said, "Well you can't. You have to wait a bit." They said, "Okay." We always had someone there armed or there waiting for her. So we tried to call her relatives and told them this is what's gonna happen. So what we did is, we smuggled her out. And they were waiting for her in another place and in front of her room. And when they went in, there was no one. So that's how we did it.
Dan Pashman: And so the secret police come into the room, where they expect to find her recovering from surgery and they find that she's gone.
Shadi Martini: Yes.
Dan Pashman: What happens next?
Shadi Martini: Well, they asked us where she is. And I said, "I don't know. I can't tell you."
At that time it was early one so—and people didn't expect that we were in on it.
*Dan Pashman: But as time went by and Shadi kept doing this, he started to think someone might be on to him.
Shadi Martini: And at that time, there was a lot of kidnapping of wealthy figures and people. So I remember a guy who I knew fairly, who was an interrogator, and he came to me and he told me, "Shadi, your father is a prominent figure in this city." And I said, yes. Well he said, "Well, you should take very good care of him." And I said, "Why?" He said, "You never know, who would kidnap him or take him. You know? You should take care of him, shouldn't let him walk like this by himself." I interpreted as threat. I was worried. I was very worried. I made someone try to be with my father all the time when he goes on his walks Or try to be behind him in a car or something because I was very worried.
Dan Pashman: Then things got worse.
Shadi Martini: We had one doctor that was kidnapped and tortured and was thrown on a roadside ditch. And this doctor was known that he would treat anyone who came to his clinic. And he would help these demonstrators. So we knew—somehow interpreted the warning, like be careful of what you're doing and stop doing it.
Dan Pashman: But Shadi didn’t stop. In fact, he started doing a lot more.
Dan Pashman: Tomorrow, the second and final part of our story
CLIP (SHADI MARTINI): We are discovered, our names are on each and every roadblock.
CLIP (FADIA): They said, we are coming back to rebuild this place. We will never leave Aleppo.
CLIP (SHADI MARTINI): Most of us are so traumatized of what we went through, what we witnessed, that we try not to think about it.
CLIP (FADIA): Hello?
[conversation in Arabic continues]
Dan Pashman: That episode drops tomorrow.