Sourcing Syrian delicacies in a time of crisis and mass-migration is no small feat. But Brooklyn's Middle Eastern food emporium has been negotiating regional food scarcities for generations.
Before noon on a Thursday in Brooklyn, a steady flow of customers is sifting through plastic bulk bins overflowing with richly hued spices, nuts, beans, dried fruits, and myriad other Middle Eastern delicacies at Sahadi’s, the bulk-food emporium that’s done business on Atlantic Avenue since 1948. The selection is dizzying—here, one finds flavors and textures scarcely found elsewhere in New York City—but so are the detailed signs and labels, giving the airy space the aura of organized chaos. It’s the same story upstairs in the store’s private offices, where co-owner Christine Sahadi Whelan’s corner desk is barely visible under order slips, spice samples, and official documents.
Much of Sahadi’s business can’t, however, be traced to pieces of paper. “A lot of the Middle East is about conversations,” explains Whelan, the fast-talking third-generation Sahadi to helm this Brooklyn Heights institution. In keeping with that person-to-person tradition, her father’s first cousin, who coordinates with suppliers on the ground in Lebanon, is steadfastly old-school. “I send an email, and he calls right back,” Whelan says with a laugh. And ties with suppliers run deep. “We try to stick with our farmers, people we know and have relationships with,” she explains. To wit, the store has sourced figs from the same farmer for more than 40 years.
Sahadi’s, which won the James Beard Foundation’s “America’s Classic Award” in 2017, carries more than 2,000 products from 150 suppliers at any given moment, although those numbers dip and swell depending on unforeseeable environmental catastrophes or, more likely of late, political unrest. Keeping Sahadi’s shelves stocked is a carefully choreographed ballet, requiring a perpetual stream of calls and emails between Sahadi’s reps and brokers in Turkey, Lebanon, and until recently, Syria.
Uncertainty is baked into Sahadi’s business model, and Whelan’s job is to be flexible. “You’re never going to know what you’re getting until it gets here,” she says with matter-of-fact resignation. “You have to be open-minded when you bring things from the Middle East, because the situation isn’t going to be easy. . . . When someone wants to have more control of [a] country, the first thing they’ll do is take the ports.”
Sahadi’s is no stranger to the impact of political volatility on a supply chain. Prior to the 1970s, most pistachios sold in the United States were Iranian varieties with longer, more-closed shells. Connoisseurs prefer them, Whelan explains, because of their complex flavor profile and suitability for roasting. But after the Iran hostage crisis, the United States placed an embargo on Iranian pistachios. And in 1986, the U.S. pistachio industry successfully lobbied Congress to put a 300 percent tariff on them, which remains in effect to this day. “[Iranian pistachios] went from being the premier pistachio in the U.S. market to being completely gone in six months,” Whelan says.
The Sahadi family labored to find a suitable replacement, but it took years. “A lot of it was nosing around,” Whelan recalls of events that transpired when she was still a child. “Our brokers in Turkey would send a lot of samples. You try to find the best combination of things [in a single nut]—we’d say, ‘I like this product, but I don’t like the roast.’ And so on.” Sahadi’s eventually settled on a pistachio from a Turkish supplier, which they roast in-house in the Persian style. “A lot of people really felt the loss of this ingredient,” Whelan says. “But like every part of the world, we had to adapt.”
The war in Syria has, unsurprisingly, caused major disruptions to Sahadi’s former supply of Syrian delicacies. The most obvious loss is Aleppo pepper, a mild and fruity variety of Capsicum annuum similar to ancho chile, but saltier and oilier. Farmers in Aleppo famously perfected its cultivation over centuries—hence the name. Prior to the conflict, Whelan coordinated with family living in the region to buy directly from local farmers. But all that changed in an instant. “There wasn’t a lot of warning,” she tells me. “But Assad is not going to stop what he’s doing because I want to run in there and get my pepper.”
To mitigate periods of scarcity, Whelan stocks up on several months’ worth of goods whenever possible. In the case of Aleppo pepper, Whelan was prepared, beginning to stockpile the pepper in early 2014. “I had a stock of Aleppo pepper when things started happening,” she says. “It grows once a year, and you can take it all in the beginning of the year. I store it myself.” That supply from Syria totally dried up around the beginning of 2016.
Many Aleppo farmers who fled the country resettled across the border in Turkey, where the terroir is similar to Syria’s. Sahadi’s started asking around and sending samples of its stockpiled peppers to some of its original suppliers who had resettled in Turkey. “[We] asked, ‘Is this something you can produce where you are now?’ ”
Soon, Whelan’s office closet was bursting with options. “[The farmers] were using Syrian seeds, so they wanted conditions to be as typical as possible to ensure a similar final product,” Whelan explains. “Many of these farmers had been growing Aleppo pepper for generations and they wanted familiar conditions.” The first 10 samples weren’t right—“I thought, too finely ground, not the right color, it doesn’t have the right mouthfeel.” After a few months of back and forth, the pepper got better, and new channels were set up with the displaced farmers. Although the peppers are grown in Turkey, she’s still calling it Aleppo pepper.
Of course, the resettlement of refugee communities is wrought with tension, and Whelan knows this. With the mixing of peoples comes the stirring of anxieties both real and imagined. But that’s never been a bad thing for food. “When you’re in a community that never changes, you’re tied to making a product that’s never varied,” she said. “[But] people will take their own culture and draw from the culture they’re in.”