Syrian cafe sweetens Londoners’ Ramadan with traditional treats

LONDON (Agencies): Syrian sweet shops in the UK capital have seen an increase in both supply and popularity in recent years and have become among the favorite places to visit, especially during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

During the fasting month, Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn till dusk. This means it is also a month filled with tasty traditional dishes and desserts, each particular to different Islamic countries or regions.

Pistahoney Cafe, a quaint Syrian sweet shop in west London, is one such place and prides itself on its authentic taste and high-quality ingredients. Within a fairly short time of set-up it has been distributing its goods throughout the UK.

Most sweets in the Levant countries are made using semolina, filo pastry or flour, and are stuffed or topped with a type of sweet cheese, nuts, or fresh cream, known as “qishta” in Arabic.

However, during Ramadan, special desserts are also made and the normal ones are usually stuffed with more fresh cream and more sugar, Anas Sheekh Aly, director of Pistahoney Cafe, told Arab News.

“This Ramadan, we managed to bring our qishta cream from Syria to get the real taste for people, because this is the original one and, as usual, everybody knows that we only use the original stuff here in Pistahoney,” he said.

The cafe’s journey began five years ago with a small factory and then the shop was opened in Acton, an area with a large Arab population.

“The idea was, before we couldn’t find the real taste here in London and we needed someone to really bring the flavor, the actual one,” Aly said. “I thought, why not me?“

He said he started bringing pastry chefs to London so that they could replicate the “real taste” because many places use cheap or impure ghee or non-traditional qishta with cornflour.

“In the beginning, people didn’t really know us properly and we didn’t really use too much advertising at that time, we just relied on our flavor and taste,” he said.

“People started saying, ‘Oh here we can find the real taste, here we can find the Damascene sweets, here we can find the Palestinian kunafa.”

Aly said that the business began to expand around the UK via word of mouth, and now, via the website, people with sweet tooths across the country are able to make orders.

The family-run small shop is growing in business and reputation and tries to supply sweet products for anybody who misses specific things in their home country and cannot go back for various reasons.

“We talk to our customers, we treat every customer like he’s our only, we talk to them, we educate them all the time. Like, will you try these? Let’s try this, this is we make from semolina, we make this from kunafa, we make this from flour.”

Different nationalities visit the cafe everyday apart from Arabs, and it has gained regular customers from Britain, the US, Poland and Romania. “Even Turkish people come and buy their sweets from us,” he said, as Turkish and Arabic sweets are similar.

Aly said that it was important for him to educate the different nationalities in London about Syrian products, and deliver his goods in the heart of the capital, because he is sending a message.

“London is a very cosmopolitan place and has lots of people and lots of nationalities. It’s at the heart of the world here,” he said.

“We deliver the message here in London because from London you can go to all over the world after . . . and for you to be bright in a place (like this) you have to be unique,” Aly said.

He said there are a lot of competitors in his field and he has had several bumps during the past five years, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a big impact on all food businesses.

The UK’s exit from the EU also greatly harmed his business, as before Brexit he had started to deliver to some parts of Europe but afterwards he could not manage it. It has also affected supply chains.

“But we know our way, we know our path (and) we always managed to find a way.”

Aly said that he still has not reached any of his goals and ambitions, was still at the beginning, and is hoping to achieve a lot more.

“As long as I’m working, I’m delivering the message, I’m delivering Damascus, which is important for me,” Aly said. “It’s the city I was born, it’s the city I was raised, it’s the city I love, it’s the city I’m so proud I come from, so I should deliver the real Damascus.”