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Where I work: Booza Emessa ice cream shop 

Before the war broke out, Samer Aljokhadar ran a string of ice cream stores in Syria. Now he’s back in business in Halifax.

"I loved ice cream as a child, but we were from a poor family," says Booza Emessa's Samer Aljokhadar. "We couldn't have it all the time." - IAN SELIG
  • "I loved ice cream as a child, but we were from a poor family," says Booza Emessa's Samer Aljokhadar. "We couldn't have it all the time."
  • IAN SELIG

Who he is
Before he spent his days making ice cream, the frozen dessert was a rare treat for Samer Aljokhadar. "I loved ice cream as a child, but we were from a poor family," he says. "We couldn't have it all the time." As a young adult, Aljokhadar worked for an ice cream factory in his home city of Homs, Syria. Around 1999, he opened his own small shop, making ice cream at night and selling it during the day. By 2011, Aljokhadar ran three shops and sold his product wholesale. His life revolved around the treat he admired from afar as a child—he was happy. But then the Arab Spring protests began, war followed, and Homs descended into chaos. Aljokhadar and his family fled to Jordan, where he was forced back to square one. For the next five years, he worked in an ice cream factory, dreaming of the day when he would once again open his own shop. 

When Aljokhadar arrived in Canada, he searched for someone who could help him realize his dream. That someone was Nabil Alzaabi, who offered to become Aljokhadar's business partner. This summer they opened Booza Emessa together, but Alzaabi is quick to give Aljokhadar most of the credit. "He makes everything himself," Alzaabi says. "I have never tasted anything like it. It's delicious."

Mastic is the trick that makes the Syrian ice cream at Booza Emessa so unusually creamy, Aljokhadar.says. - IAN SELIG
  • Mastic is the trick that makes the Syrian ice cream at Booza Emessa so unusually creamy, Aljokhadar.says.
  • IAN SELIG

What he does
When asked to describe his ice cream, Aljokhadar said he couldn't find the words. He was referring to a language barrier, but it's a fitting statement because finding the right words is a struggle. Stretchy? Chewy? Insanely creamy? So thick you can twirl it around your spoon? Perhaps it's best to start with how it's made. 

Syrian ice cream, known in Arabic as "booza," is produced through a strenuous process of pounding and stretching in a freezer drum, instead of churning. The not-so-secret ingredient that provides its famous texture is mastic, dried resin sourced from the mastic tree. Mastic is the root of the English word "masticate," meaning "to chew," so it's not surprising the resin was an early predecessor of chewing gum. Thanks to mastic, booza melts slower than other ice creams, making it perfect for long, hot summer days. Aljokhadar uses whole milk from Fox Hill Cheese House in his booza, which comes in an array of flavours from banana to cheesecake to pomegranate. He also offers a more traditional version, which is pounded into a flat circle, covered in pistachios, hand rolled and sliced. 

Booza Emessa's Syrian decor touches are inspired by Aljokhadar.'s grandfather's house in Homs. - IAN SELIG
  • Booza Emessa's Syrian decor touches are inspired by Aljokhadar.'s grandfather's house in Homs.
  • IAN SELIG

Where he does it
Located at 819 Bedford Highway, Booza Emessa is an homage to Syrian architecture. Faux-stone arches, hand-painted ceiling murals and window shutters are all inspired by Aljokhadar's grandfather's house in Homs, a historic home that has been in the family for generations. "I tried to put some of it here," Aljokhadar says. 

When you enter the shop, there is a replica of Homs' landmark black-and-white clock tower. On a back wall, a water spout is attached with a chain to a metal cup. This is also a popular feature in Homs, where water spouts mark street corners as drinking sources for thirsty passersby. Even the name "Booza Emessa" is a call back to Aljokhadar's home city: "Booza" is Arabic for ice cream and "Emessa" is the ancient name of Homs. 

The booza ("ice cream" in Arabic) at Booza Emessa comes in flavours from banana to cheesecake to pomegranate. - IAN SELIG
  • The booza ("ice cream" in Arabic) at Booza Emessa comes in flavours from banana to cheesecake to pomegranate.
  • IAN SELIG

Why it works
Booza Emessa is a busy spot, often running out of at least one flavour before the day is through. Aljokhadar hopes to offer a large enough variety of flavours that customers can try something new each time, and perhaps later on expand the shop's offerings to include a couple traditional Syrian pastries, such as baklava and kanafeh. "In Canada, people are open to trying everything," he says. "I would like to thank the people who have visited my shop and supported me. When I see customers smile or say good things about the ice cream, I am always very happy."

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Vol 27, No 26
November 21, 2019

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