In 2003, Adam Davidson and Jen Banbury were living in Baghdad, working as reporters covering the Iraq War. And they were falling in love.
They went on vacation to Aleppo. This was before the city became the symbol of the devastation of the Syrian civil war, back when you might actually go there on vacation.
A friend put them in touch with a local photographer named Issa Touma. And Issa said, "While you're here, you have to go to this sandwich shop."
"People are walking in and they see us and they're like, 'Ah, you're here for the sandwich!' " Adam recalls. "There's an excitement. This was a pilgrimage spot."
Meats and vegetables were displayed in a case. Jen remembers the sheep brains, cleaned and stacked behind the glass as if in a jewelry store. They ordered chicken and tongue. Jen was blown away by the tenderness of the meat and the quality of the sandwich baguette.
"I remember us both just staring at the guy who made it in shock," says Adam.
"Now I just wish we had somehow documented it," Jen says, "because clearly that place is long gone. Who knows whether the owners are alive or dead?"
But what if the place is still there? Well, as I learned, when you're talking about a shop in a city that's largely cut off from the rest of the world, that's a hard question to answer.
So this week on The Sporkful podcast, we're going on a quest. What made this sandwich shop special? What exactly was in those sandwiches? Is the place long gone, as Jen assumes? Are the owners alive or dead? And what can the fate of this shop tell us about the fate of Aleppo?
It's a show that's been two years in the making. We take you from Aleppo to Austria, from Detroit to New York to Istanbul — all in search of a sandwich.
Adam put me in touch with Issa, the artist who took him and Jen to the sandwich shop years ago. Issa is still in Aleppo much of the time, but he also lives for stretches in Europe, giving talks about Syria. He's managed to raise awareness without angering the government.
During the worst of the Syrian civil war, when Aleppo was under siege and the government wouldn't allow food or medicine in, Issa and his family survived by learning how to cook moldy bread into a dish they could eat.
Issa hadn't been to the sandwich shop in years. He said at its peak there were three locations. He'd heard two were destroyed, but he wasn't sure about the original location, by the public garden.
Beyond that he couldn't tell us much. He did share one crucial piece of information — the shop's name, which is also the name of the family that owns it: Syrjeia.
We looked online, but all we could find was a Facebook page for an Afghani restaurant in Turkey. We had a Syrian-American friend who speaks Arabic look online, too — nothing.
Even if we were able to get a phone number for Syrjeia, the Syrian government monitors peoples' calls. The folks in Syrjeia would be understandably wary of a call from a stranger asking a bunch of questions, even if it was from an Arabic speaker. That kind of call, coming from outside the country, could get them in trouble.
We needed some kind of back channel connection.
So we cast a wide net in the U.S. We reached out to organizations that work with Syrian refugees, friends in immigrant food communities, friends of friends whose parents came to the U.S. from Syria decades ago. We put out the call: We're looking for people from Aleppo who know the sandwich shop Syrjeia.
And that's how we found Shadi Martini.
"I remember every sandwich," he jokes, "not only at Syrjeia. Because I love these sandwiches."
Shadi (rhymes with "Paddy") was born and raised in Aleppo. After going to college in Lebanon, he ran businesses in Europe. Then in 2009, when he was 38, he came back to Aleppo to run the hospital his family owned.
"Growing up in Aleppo, I was confined to a community that was upscale, a community that was exclusive," Shadi recalls. "But when I started running the hospital, I met all segments of society. I went out of my comfort zone and went to meet my employees at their homes. I participated in weddings and funerals, I met their families. Somehow I saw the real Syria."
And often Shadi bonded with his employees over a meal at Syrjeia. He says even though Aleppo was a big city, it felt more like a small town. Everyone knew everyone, and the guys at Syrjeia often knew his order before he walked in the door.
"Food is an essential thing in the life of Aleppians," Shadi says. "It's very sophisticated; when we're having a bite, we want it to be perfect."
The sheep brain sandwich at Syrjeia was one of Shadi's favorites. "It's a magnificent sandwich. They cut [the brain] like you cut a tomato, put it in the bun and toast it. Then they put tomatoes, Syrian pickles and lemon juice with garlic."
The rich, fatty brain contrasts with the crunch and zing of the pickles, lemon and garlic.
"It just melts," Shadi says. "When you eat it, it's over very quick."
Shadi also added baharat, sometimes known as seven spices. It's a mix found across the Middle East, and while it varies a bit by region, it usually has cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, cumin, cloves, paprika and black pepper. (Aleppo was once a hub of the global spice trade. Its market was built during the Ottoman Empire, in the 1400s and 1500s, and stood for centuries. In 2012, in the midst of the war, the market was destroyed.)
So the sandwiches at Syrjeia included many classic Middle Eastern touches. Then there were the aspects that were uniquely Syrian.
"Syria is a crossroads country, so throughout history you had a lot of religions, a lot of cultures mixing together," Shadi explains. "So that's part of the uniqueness of the food."
Remember the amazing sandwich baguette at Syrjeia that Jen described? Well, France occupied Syria for decades after World War I. Hence, French bread.
Shadi says some of Syrjeia's sandwiches use spicy red pepper, which comes from a strong Armenian influence. During the Armenian genocide, refugees poured into Syria. In fact, many Armenian recipes call for Aleppo pepper.
To be clear, Syrjeia wasn't the only place in Aleppo that made these kinds of sandwiches. They just did it better, like the best barbecue place in Houston or the best burrito place in San Francisco.
But while the sandwiches weren't unique to Syrjeia, Syrjeia was unique to Aleppo. And that's why it's so important to Shadi.
Then there's another reason, maybe even a bigger reason. Because Shadi's experiences at Syrjeia weren't just about the food, or the atmosphere. As he said, he grew up privileged, in an exclusive community. Sharing meals with his hospital employees at Syrjeia helped him connect with what he called "the real Syria."
"I didn't know the suffering of other Syrians," he says. "I just thought that everyone lived like me. If someone complained, [I'd say,] 'Why is he complaining? It's a good life.' Well, it's a good life for me, not for him."
Shadi's awakening led him to make a decision that would change his life forever.
In the early days of the Syrian conflict, the secret police would beat protesters in the streets, and those protesters would come to Shadi's hospital for help.
The police ordered Shadi to turn over any demonstrators for questioning, which he knew meant they'd likely be tortured, possibly killed. Instead, Shadi disobeyed the order. He began treating protestors and sneaking them out the back of the hospital.
Then, even as he became concerned he'd be arrested, he went a step further, forming a network to smuggle medical supplies to cities under siege.
Eventually though, in 2012, he was discovered. He made it out of Syria, but he can never go back.
Today, Shadi lives in the Detroit area with his family. (They essentially won the green card lottery.) Food is one of the few ways he can connect with the home he left behind. But often, something's missing. The ingredients aren't quite right. The atmosphere's different.
Which brings us back to our hunt. Shadi gave us a deep sense of what made Syrjeia special. Like Issa, he had heard the original Syrjeia by the public garden was still there, but he couldn't tell us for sure. And he can't reach out to people in Aleppo to ask, because he's a wanted man. Talking with him could get them in trouble.
Every photo I've seen from Aleppo over the past five years has been a picture of crumbled buildings and rubble as far as the eye could see. The idea that Syrjeia was still there just seemed impossible. But if we were ever going to find out for sure, we needed someone in Aleppo.
So once again, we put out the call to Syrian contacts around the U.S. And we found a woman named Fadia. She was born and raised in Aleppo and came to the U.S. more than 30 years ago. She and her husband raised their children here. She asked that we not use her last name because she still has family in Aleppo and doesn't want them to get in trouble if the wrong person hears of her participation in this story.
But her family — they were our in.
So that's how it happened that one of Fadia's relatives walked in to Syrjeia by the public garden and said, "There's a radio show in New York that wants to talk to you."
A few weeks later, I was in Fadia's living room in the New York suburbs calling Imad Syrjeia on an app called Viber that the Syrian government can't track. Imad's father opened the restaurant in the 1970s and has since passed away.
At first, Imad was wary. Fadia explained her family's connection to his and reminded him of the person who had come into his store talking about a radio show in New York. She said it's just a show about food — nothing political. He said OK.
When I asked how he and the restaurant were doing, Imad insisted everything was great. But Fadia said he would never dare say otherwise, in case the wrong person is listening.
"He doesn't know you," she explains. "He can't even say it to me. I'm Syrian but he won't."
I don't speak Arabic. (Later on I had the recording of this conversation translated.) But just hearing Imad's voice coming out of the speaker in that moment was deeply moving. Knowing his voice was coming from a place that the news had told me was destroyed.
When the topic turned to food, Imad became less wary. You could hear his passion. He sounded like a chef, excited to talk shop.
The mayo is homemade, and it has garlic in it. The pickles vary depending on the season, sometimes cucumbers, sometimes peppers. If you ask for it, they'll put a salad on your sandwich that's made from olives, thyme, oregano and lemon juice. The brain is boiled with bay leaves, rosemary. If you boil it too long it turns to mush. It has to be just right, and you have to chill it to be able to slice it.
Imad says, "We love our craft. We were raised doing it."
After that I had to ask another crucial question. We had heard from some contacts that an outpost of Syrjeia had opened up in Istanbul. A lot of Syrian families famous for a restaurant or bakery have migrated to Istanbul, Egypt, Dubai and other areas where there are a lot of Syrian refugees. But there are also people opening up shops in those places and just ripping off the famous names, even though they have no connection to the original.
Imad confirmed that the Syrjeia in Istanbul had been opened by one of his former employees, with Imad's blessing. It's the real deal.
Imad himself is trying to get to Toronto or New York. He has offers to open up a restaurant. He just needs a visa.
As Fadia and I said goodbye to him, he invited me to Syria.
"He will welcome you," said Fadia enthusiastically. "They're very generous. They welcome everybody!"
From there, I reported back to Shadi. These days he works with the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, which means he travels regularly to Istanbul, where many refugees have settled. I told Shadi next time he's in Istanbul, I wanted him to go to Syrjeia. The sandwich would be my treat.
"That's it? Just a sandwich?" he responded with mock incredulity. "When I come to New York, take me to dinner in New York. I'll pay for the sandwich!"
Shadi really is a good businessman. We had a deal.
At first, Shadi was skeptical. The place looked different, and there were some unfamiliar menu items. But the sheep brain sandwich was there. Pretty soon, it was time to eat.
"Perfect," Shadi said with a mouth full of food. "Same taste. Takes you back home. It just hits you."
But now, after everything he's been through, being transported to Aleppo is bittersweet.
"We try to remember the good stuff. Then when you get something like this, you get everything back. You recognize that you're not going back anymore. That's it. That's how you're going to remember where you lived."