Diwan pays homage to Syrian cuisine

Aga Khan's restaurant rolls out all-Syrian menu

The striking Aga Khan Museum in North York was created to promote Middle Eastern culture and history its on-site restaurant, Diwan, acts as a culinary companion. McEwan Foods took over the reins of the spot last year, doing an upscale (if not always entirely authentic) take on the region’s many rich flavours.

To  commemorate Syria: A Living History, a sprawling exhibit which opened this weekend and features pieces from the Louvre and the MoMA, the restaurant overhauled its menu to feature an all-Syrian lineup.

Though the dining room is a striking take on a 19th-century Syrian home, Diwan chef John Kovac says that hasn’t historically extended into the menu.

“There hasn’t been much Syrian influence at Diwan up until now, but it is a work in progress,” he says. 

The former Fabbrica chef – whose background is eastern European – dove into research on Syrian cuisine, guided by Rim Mossa, a Diwan cook who immigrated from Aleppo: “She has been a huge help and inspiration in teaching me the flavours of her native Syria.”

He also headed to Syrian spots like Mississauga’s Reyan. “I had a rice dish with lamb, toasted almonds, scented with allspice and cinnamon topped with braised lamb chops that was fantastic. I couldn’t stop eating the rice. Simple, tasty food.”

A large part of the research involved teasing out the origins of many Middle Eastern dishes, which can be found across several countries but with specific regional variations. A lot of what we think of as Middle Eastern food, he notes, is really Lebanese food, largely thanks to a significant Lebanese expat population in North America: “It can be difficult finding authentic Syrian recipes due to a small if non-existent Syrian population outside of Syria itself.”

At Diwan, the result is a roster of dishes that includes shurbat addes (red lentil soup), kebab karaz (lamb meatballs braised with sour cherries and pine nuts) and Syrian-style kebab kofta and fattoush. At Mossa’s suggestion, he added lahana, cabbage salad with beets, pomegranate and lemon dressing. Going forward, he hopes to give the restaurant a greater Syrian focus.

77 Wynford, at Don Valley, 416-646-4670, agakhanmuseum.org/dine

nataliam@nowtoronto.com | @nataliamanzocco

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