Islamabad: Abu Amir was too busy cutting the fresh slices of meat for shawarma to notice the queue around his food stand “Syrian Taste”. The queue was getting longer by every minute at the stall located in Islamabad’s classy F-10 area. “Yalla finished” he announced humbly. “Please come back tomorrow,” he comforted them.
As he was working on the orders, a young customer asked: “You are Abu Amir, right? The Syrian Shawarma guy?” Abu Amir looked up and nodded. “Can I please get a selfie with you?” the customer requested. “Oh sure, brother, come, come,” replied the food stall owner, donning a white robe and matching headdress. “I heard a lot about this guy on social media and came to taste authentic Arabic food. Shawarma is already finished but at least I got a selfie with Chef Abu Amir,” Atif Rehman, 26, told Gulf News. “You are most welcome in Pakistan,” Atif told the Syrian chef as he shook his hands.
The way Abu Amir greeted his customers and the love and respect he has garnered from people was proof that this Syrian refugee is already a celebrity chef in Pakistan.
STORY OF SYRIAN TASTE
When Abu Amir was growing up in the Syrian city of Homs, he would occasionally prepare Middle Eastern desserts such as basbousa, kunafa and baklava, but never thought he would be famous for his shawarmas. How did it happen? Through hard work and strong belief in Allah, he says. Sharing his struggles, the chef said, some days he worked over 20 hours a day. “My hands and back ached so bad but I never gave up.” The 32-year-old first started with food delivery service from home. “Shawarmas were one of our best-selling menu items so I decided to open the food stall and here I am,” he says, smiling while placing thinly-sliced meat to be wrapped in the flat bread. “These are special homemade flour tortillas, soft and fresh,” he said.
“LOVE OF THE PEOPLE IS MY STRENGTH”
When he first opened the food stall in June 2019, he served less than 100 people a day and now more than 450 shawarmas are sold within a few hours. They also sell hummus and falafel kebab and desserts including baklava, basbousa, and kunafa. The signature shawarma costs PKR 290 ($1.85, Dh6.8), which is slightly pricier than local shops but people find it reasonable because of authentic taste. When asked how is the business going, Abu Amir replied: “Alhamdulillah (Thanks be to God) it is His blessing and love and respect of the people of Pakistan which is helping me grow.” Pakistan, he says, has given him the confidence and chance to recapture the dream of a better future.
CHEF’S URDU LANGUAGE SKILLS IMPRESS THE CUSTOMERS TOO
Besides food, what surprised customers most is that Abu Amir can perfectly converse in Urdu. “I learnt the language about six months ago to talk with customers. It’s important for me to directly talk to them, teach them about our food and get to know their feedback.” Abu Amir whose friends also call him ‘Muhammad Adnan’ is the owner of the food stall but there are five other employees. “They are Pakistani but have spent some time in Arab countries so I feel comfortable with them speaking Arabic.” At the food stall, the guys often switch between using Arabic and Urdu with each other.
JOURNEY FROM SYRIA TO PAKISTAN
Abu Amir immigrated to Pakistan in 2012 as the civil war in Syria forced more than 1 million people to flee their homes. He belongs to Khalidiya district of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city. Since the war broke out in 2011, most of his family and friends had to leave their homes. His parents and siblings are in Lebanon while he came to Pakistan where one of his sisters was married. Seven years ago, he was just a refugee but now he is lovingly known as “Syrian Shawarma guy” in Islamabad. “I am happy and extremely satisfied with my life in Pakistan. But Syria will always remain in my heart,” he said with his eyes slightly moist from the smoke of the grill or old memories.
Beyond his culinary successes, Abu Amir also found love in Pakistan. “I got engaged to a Pakistani girl,” he said as his cheeks flushed. Pointing at his ring, he said he will be a married man in two months’ time. “My fiancee is a good cook too,” he says. “Together we hope to turn this food stall into a top restaurant,” he said.
Items on the menu:
WHAT’S HIS SECRET?
The Syrian chef, famous for his delicious Arabian cuisines in Pakistan, believes that cooking from the heart adds the magic taste to his food. “I prepare the food with my hands but the real cooking always comes from the heart.”
The making of Arabian Shawarma
The quality of the meat and the right mix of spices used in the marinade is what makes a shawarma delectable. Marinating process is the key, he said. “The secret is to marinate the meat for up at least 24 hours. It needs to be juicy and full of flavour but not spicy.” It is also best to prepare the dough for the base in advance.
June 2019 — opened the food stall
PKR 290 ($1.85, Dh6.8) — cost of shawarma
450 — shawarmas sold daily in few hours
7 — years ago he shifted to Pakistan
F-10 Islamabad — where the food stall is located
Fast Facts on Syrian Shawarma man
• He hails from Syrian city of Homs
• Abu Amir is now living in Islamabad
• He opened the food stall in June 2019 and rose to popularity
• He will marry a Pakistani girl this year
Refugees in Pakistan
Pakistan is home to the largest refugee population in the world mostly made up of 2.7 million Afghan refugees, according government estimates. There are also 400,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, several hundred thousand Bangladeshis and a small number of Iraqis, Yemenis and Africans.