Damascus chocolatiers bring taste of Syria to Texas
Yazan Ghraowi’s family knows chocolate. His great-grandfather, Jamil, began making candy in Damascus at the start of the 20th Century.
Later, his grandfather, Tayseer, continued the tradition by opening a factory in the Syrian capital in 1939, where he and his siblings made chocolate, candy and marmalade.
In the decades since, the Ghraowi name has become synonymous with high-quality Syrian chocolate, from pieces of dark chocolate bursting with pistachio and almond fillings, to milk chocolate with hints of dates, raisins, apricots, cherries and other fruit.
“They were actually one of the first people who started introducing chocolate into Syria,” Yazan, 19, told Middle East Eye about his grandfather’s work in those early years. “My dad was always with him: helping him in the factory, learning how to make chocolate.”
And now, the Ghraowis have taken their family business to the United States, after Yazan, his father, chocolatier Bashar Ghraowi, and his mother, Mais Kayal, moved to Texas late last year.
“Whenever I go to a new school or a new sport club or meet new people and tell them my name, they immediately ask me if we’re related to the family who makes the chocolate,” Yazan said about the recognition of his family name in Syria.
“It’s really famous, the chocolate family.”
The Ghraowis chose to relocate to Corpus Christi, Texas – a town about two hours south of San Antonio on the Gulf of Mexico – because that is where Bashar Ghraowi’s brother, Dr Ayman Ghraowi, has lived with his family for more than 20 years.
Dr Ghraowi’s wife, Sohair Sabawi, told Middle East Eye her husband worried about his relatives in Syria during the ongoing war. They especially feared for Yazan, who at only 19-years-old could have been drafted into the army at any time.
When they discovered a work visa that allows a foreign business owner to open up a new branch of operations in the US – and bring along a spouse and any children under the age of 21 – Sabawi said the family jumped at the idea.
But after finally securing the permits, Yazan and his parents’ departure from Syria for the US in October of last year divided their family.
While Yazan’s sister, Nour, was already in the US for school, another sister, 27-year-old Ala’a, was denied a visa to the US. Yazan’s 94-year-old grandmother also stayed behind in Damascus.
Ala’a is now running the chocolate shop in Damascus while her father is away.
“They were kind of emotionally broken up. They wanted to come and save Yazan’s life, and yet they have ties back home,” Sabawi said.
Having to ‘start from zero’
The Ghraowis first left Syria at the end of 2012 for Egypt due to the conflict. Some family members returned to Syria after only six months, while Yazan, his mother and his older sister Ala’a stayed in Egypt for two years.
But starting over – and starting a business – in the US has not been easy.
“You always have a lot of chances that things are not going to be working,” Sabawi said about the questions she asked herself as she helped her brother-in-law set up the new factory.
“How is the business going to take off? Are we going to be starting the business and making money and people are going to love us? Or are they going to hate us … [and] be prejudiced against us?”
Bashar, 54, has struggled with the language barrier – though Yazan said he is picking up English quickly. Finding good equipment and ingredients to make traditional confectionery favourites has also been a challenge.
“He was actually kind of afraid to start a new company at his age, to start from zero,” Yazan said.
But after securing a short-term lease to share a factory space, and ordering machinery from Austin and abroad, the production of chocolate began. And now the US-based factory is taking walk-in customers and online orders.
If all goes well, the next step will be to open a store in the city, too.
“They don’t have a chocolatier in Corpus [Christi] and they’re happy to have one,” Sabawi said about local people’s reactions to the business.
“They’ve been supportive, and encouraging him to stay and hoping that he will stay and they’ve been buying and sending families and relatives and friends. It’s been really nice.”
A long history of Arabic sweets
While chocolate is not native to Syria, sweets more generally go back thousands of years in the region, explained Muna Salloum, the co-author of several books on the history of Arabic sweets, including The Sweets of Araby.
“There’s a long history of sweets going back to pre-Islamic [times], which we call Ancient Syria. The sweetening agents were always honey, or there’s something else called manna, or al-manna al-salwa, which is sap from a tree,” Salloum explained.
She told Middle East Eye that the sweet-making process dates back to when Arabs reached Persia, present-day Iran, which had already begun to refine sugar in block and powdered form.
One of the earliest cookbooks discovered dates back to the 10th century in Baghdad. Known as Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Cooking), it contained over 550 recipes. “A lot of them are sweets and they all use sugar, some use honey as well. A lot of them are deep-fried, a lot of them are stuffed dough,” Salloum said.
Arabic sweets also morphed into favourites people around the world enjoy today.
Zalabiya, a deep-fried fritter that developed in pre-colonial Syria - the area that now encompasses Palestine, Jordan and Syria today - is known as mushabak in certain parts of the Middle East, and jalebi in India and South Asia, she said.
Cannoli – the fried pastry stuffed with cream made famous in Sicily, Italy – actually takes its name from the Arabic word qana or its plural, qanawat, which means “tube,” Salloum explained.
“The Arabs are known for their sweets, that’s for sure, and we have the traditional sweets served during Christmas and Ramadan that everybody has to have on the table. But chocolate is a new thing,” she said.
“Arabs are very ingenious about taking a product and creating something with it. Chocolate became a worldwide phenomenon and I would say in Damascus there are a few companies there that make the best chocolates in the world.”
While Ghraowi chocolates are some of the most well-known, the Zenbarakji sweet company also began producing fine chocolates in the 1930s in Damascus. The Art Chocolate company, based in Aleppo, is another family company with a long history in the country.
Salloum said using traditional flavours and fruit like dates makes chocolate made in the Middle East unique.
“They stuff them [the chocolate shells] with dried apricots or with dates. How many people would do that? That’s very Arabic and it’s going to be identified as something that came from the East, even though the product itself, the main product, comes from the New World,” Salloum said.
Back in Texas, Yazan Ghraowi, said he hopes to eventually go back to school to pursue his interest in fine arts. He stopped attending Damascus University after only one year of studies due to the war.
His father, meanwhile, has been more than happy to be reunited with his passion.
“Seeing the face of people when they eat the chocolate, and seeing how special it is, it makes him happy. Chocolate is his [whole] life … He was really happy to start making chocolate again,” Yazan said.
Bashar and his wife plan to return to Damascus to oversee the shop during the busy Islamic holy month of Ramadan and Eid holidays, Sabawi said.
Leaving means they will have to re-apply for the special permit to re-enter the country, but Sabawi said the family is not too worried. They recently received an extension for their business operations, and that bodes well for re-entry, she said.
Bashar has even begun putting new twists on some traditional, family recipes.
“What he’s doing right now is mixing the two cultures into chocolate,” said Yazan, explaining that his father is adding pecans, blueberries and cranberries – ingredients he wouldn’t easily find in Syria – into the mix.
“He wants to show the people the way they make chocolate in the Middle East and also make chocolate that people love here.”