The market is packed with tables full of syrup-soaked, flaky pastries; crumbly sugar cookies; golden cake; and steaming cups of Turkish coffee. Organized by Tucson Welcomes Refugees, the Syrian Sweets Exchange is a bake sale run by Syrian refugee women who call Tucson home. More than 500 people came to the third event. Syria is a country famous for its food—especially its sweets. These events and the availability of these baked goods have been opportunities for cultural and personal connection that allows the bakers to share their food and financially support their families. Reema Abu Zead, who arrived with her family 14 months ago, says of the bake sales, “I’m happy to introduce my culture to Tucson. I get to meet people here. Syrian women like to feed you; it’s a way to share culture.”
A wide array of sweets are available to sample, including baklawah, basbousa, katayef, eswaret as-set, asabea’ Zainab, ghorayebah, and many more. One reason to attend the Syrian Sweets Exchange is to sample family recipes of each baker. Many of the women say they would like to eventually open an in-home bakery business to help supplement their family’s income.
As baking brings joy, it also engenders change. These women must slightly shift and change their recipes to accommodate differences in ingredient tastes and availability. In this way, baking also becomes a form of adaptation and growth. Baking is an invaluable connection to memories, community, family, and home. So, we asked the bakers: What is your favorite sweet to bake?
“Kunafa, basbousa with cream, and Syrian pound cake. It’s easy for me to make them because I’ve practiced a lot! They all remind me of my family. I used to make and serve kunafa at night when my family was all together. I also used to buy kunafa from a local shop in Darah, Syria, when I would walk around town with my friends.”
— Noor Alhuda
“Katayef with nuts. I enjoy making it and have my own special secret recipe. It reminds me of Ramadan overseas, and of my family and Syria. Making baklawah reminds me of my mother—it connects me to her. I always want to improve my work and make it nicer. My mother liked making baklawah the old fashioned way, and now I’m making it something new. Mine is a new shape, and now I’m able to add different nuts and different butter.”
— Reema Abu Zead
“My favorite is warbat, because my children like it, too. It reminds me of Damascus, and it’s something you can’t find anywhere in Tucson.”
— Manahel Asmadi
“My two favorites are osh el bulbul (bird’s nest) and basbousa (semolina cake). Basbousa is easy to make, is not too expensive, and sells well. Osh el bulbul reminds me of the old market in Midan, Syria, where they sell the best sweets on earth.”
— Safaa Taata
“Asabea’ Zainab (Zainab’s fingers), eswaret as-set (lady’s bracelet), baklawah, and fatayer. I like all of them! My mother used to make Asabea’ Zainab when it was cold in the winter in Syria to help keep us warm.”
— Mariam Alhmed
“Making basbousa always reminds me of my mother. I learned to make khaliyat an-nahel (the beehive) after moving here. I need some assistance when making khaliyat an-nahel as it’s more complicated. Making it reminds me of life overseas.”
— Zainab Almasri
For more information about the Syrian Sweets Exchange, visit the Syrian Sweets Tucson Facebook page.