Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Chinatown, Little Syria & Its Restaurants

Boston's Chinatown was never a homogenous neighborhood, and other peoples both worked and resided in this area. For example, the Boston Globe, May 5, 1903, mentioned that besides the Chinese, there were also Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Syrians, Egyptians, and Hungarians in Chinatown. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the largest groups that shared parts of Chinatown were the Syrians

The Syrians, fleeing Turkish rule, started arriving in Boston around 1888-1890, and generally all settled together in a neighborhood which would eventually be known as "Little Syria." There was plenty of overlap with Chinatown, as Syrians worked and resided on Hudson Street, Harrison Avenue, Beach Street, Oxford Street and more. During these early years, it was claimed that the Syrian population in Boston was the second largest settlement of Syrians in the U.S., with New York City being the first. 

Oliver Place, off of Essex Street, was sometimes said to be the heart of Little Syria, yet this was also the street where some of the first Chinese settled in Boston. In 1980, Oliver Place was renamed Ping On Alley, the "Alley of Peace and Security," indicative of Boston's early Chinese immigrants who first lived there. Unlike Chinatown though, Little Syria, during its first forty years, didn't become a tourist attraction. That might have partially been by design, that the Syrian community didn't actively seek visitors to their neighborhood. 

During this time, there would only be a handful of Syrian restaurants in Boston, and they received little attention from local newspapers. The names of these restaurants were generally not mentioned, and sometimes even their addresses weren't even provided. Unlike the Chinese, Syrians didn't need to rely on restaurants for employment which is probably a reason why so few Syrian restaurants existed during this time period. 


The first newspaper reference to Little Syria that I located was in the Boston Herald, August 11, 1896. The article stated, “Little Syria, which is the name which Oliver place, off Essex street, is now familiarly called, was probably one of the dirtiest, hottest, noisiest spots to be found in the city during the afternoon and evening.” Not a flattering picture by any means, and much may be due to the poverty of the neighborhood at that time. The article also noted that the "king" of the Syrian colony in Boston was Hannibal, whose first name is John in English. I wasn't able to find any more information about Hannibal, and he might not have remained in Boston too long. 
Three years later, there was a rather lengthy article in the Boston Herald, July 18, 1899, titled As Cooked in Syria. This was the first reference to a Syrian restaurant in Boston, and its exact address and name weren't provided. If you wanted to dine there, you would have had to visit Little Syria and asked around for directions. The article was part restaurant review and part cooking class, and it generally very complimentary as to Syrian cuisine. The reporter was also adventurous, apparently tasting everything that was offered, albeit after an initial refusal on one dish to which he later relented. 

While dining at this Syrian restaurant, the reported was accompanied by "Rev. Archimandrite Raphael, the missionary of the holy Russian synod, sent to American by the Czar to minister to the faithful.” Why they ate together isn't explained in the article. The reported mentioned that only about half a dozen people, aside from the Syrians, knew of this restaurant. “It is in a basement on a thoroughfare which runs parallel to Oxford street, on the east side of Chinatown,..” He also noted,  “There is no sign above the door, and no slumming parties, nor anybody else, have been there yet.” One of Boston's true hidden restaurants. 

He then positively noted that “The hospitality of the Syrians is of the open-handed sort, and they relax at table with the abandon of the Latin races.” At the restaurant, “..the table groaned in regular ‘old homestead’ style with a variety of Syrian dishes, most uncouth in appearance, entirely unrecognizable even to eyes that had looked upon Chinese and Italian concoctions, but found to be most delicious.”  Not only did the chef prepare each dish, but he also “... gave a detailed account of the manner of its cooking, so that feminine readers of The Herald who are looking for something new for their tables may experiment successfully.” 
Initially, the reporter was offered a bowl of cucumbers & milk, which he initially declined as the idea didn't sound appealing to him. The Rev. then described the dish in more detail, noting that the milk was already sour and had been boiled, becoming somewhat like Dutch cheese. The cucumbers were sliced lengthwise and swam in the boiled milk, which was sprinkled with salt. The reporter was persuaded to sample them and actually found them appetizing.

The article then touched on a variety of other dishes experienced by the reporter, or related to him by the chef. Koosa, which is very common in Syrian households, uses an ordinary Syrian squash, which resembles a cucumber though it's a little larger in diameter. The restaurant imported their squashes from Syria. To prepare this dish, “First remove the inside pulp of the squash, then mix equal quantities of rice and chopped meat, flavored to suit. Stuff the squash with this mixture and bake for an hour in an open pan, the squash being half covered with water.” It's then served on a flat platter, and each person can take a whole squash on their plate. It should be soft and juicy.
Though the reporter compared Yabrak to a croquette, its essentially stuffed grape leaves, using a mixture of rice and chopped meat, a foundation of many Syrian dishes. The meat could be beef or lamb, or any solid, clear meat, free from gristle. The rice and meat should be stiff and shaped into cigar-shaped portions, and then the grape leaves rightly wrapped around the mixture. Then,“Take an open pan, like that used to bake cake, and cover the bottom with half an inch of water, into which a tomato, or something sour, like a lemon, has been cut. A slice or two of onion may be added. Place the prepared grape leaf covered portions in the pan, cover over the top of the pan and and bake in the oven for an hour.” Syrians eat this dish with their fingers, and the reporter described it as “One gets something between a lettuce salad and a rice pudding.”
Baked Kingfish is a favorite way to begin a Syrian dinner, and the head and tail remain though the outer skin is removed. It will be stuffed with the usual rice and chopped meat, or anything else that the chef might decide. “The fish should be placed in a baking tin with a dressing of olive oil, and baked until it is cooked through, or it may be broiled on top of the stove and before serving basted with olive oil and seasoned to taste.” The reported noted that “The meat is beautifully white and tender.” He also mentioned that Syrians typically pick the meat off the bones with their fingers from the large serving platter.
There was a dish of Roast lamb & tomato sauce, where the lamb was sliced and the sauce was prepared in the usual way, though it would be garnished with sliced cucumbers or lettuce. There was also a dish of Lentils, which were fried with onions in oil. Some chopped meat was also roasted with some onions and garlic, whole some rice was prepared too. Then, an equal mix of lentils, meat and rice were baked. It was said to be "... a healthful and strengthening dish, which may be eaten with satisfaction by men doing the hardest kind of manual work.”

Next up was Kubbe, which was noted as, “This is a substantial dish, having an appearance, when served, like scorched brown bread marked off into inch cubes.” To prepared this dish, “First take a piece of roast beef, clear of fat and gristle, and chop it fine with parsley and onions, adding a tomato, also to be chopped, if desired. Mix with an equal amount of cracked wheat and add a handful of nuts. Spread the mixture out into a flat pan 1 ½ inches deep, and mark off into squares. It should be baked until the top crust is very brown and hard for a depth of about an eighth of an inch.” This is a very common dish found at Syrian dinners.

Syrian bread was mentioned to be entirely different in form from the common kind Americans are used too, although it is mixed, raised and baked in the same way, using the same common wheat flour. Before baking, it's rolled into round cakes, no thicker than flapjacks, and from 8-20 inches in diameter. It is then baked long enough to have little burned spots on it. Each round sheet of bread is porous but damper and tougher than the common loaf bread. “The Syrian uses one of the cakes for a napkin at table until he has stripped it and eaten it, when he reaches for another.” Eating your "napkin" certainly cuts down on the amount of paper waste.

Curiously, the reporter asked the chef if they had anything like New England donuts in Syria. The chef stated that they did, however they were rare, and generally only eaten for a few days after Christmas, during the time when Jesus was baptized. Though the dough for their donuts is basically the same as for American donuts, Syrians twist the dough into fantastic shapes and add pine nuts. “You will find these pine nuts in a great many Syrian fancy dishes. We are great lovers of nuts and sweet things.” 

Continuing on a sweet vein, they have a version of Ice Cream, though it doesn't actually contain any cream. They mix milk and cornstarch to give it proper consistency, flavoring it with an imported extract, known as salub, which gives it flavors of almond and vanilla, without being sweet. Watermelon slices are a common fruit dessert. Though pies are largely unknown in Syria, they do make a common pudding from cornstarch with the addition of plenty of sugar and nuts.

As for beverages, some Syrian coffee was served, and mentioned to have a flavor all its own, which was due to manner of cooking and not the type of coffee. They used any type of coffee but then turned it into a powder, preparing the powder with boiling water in the usual manner. Plus, they added a few drops of a liquid something like rosewater except the taste was a trifle bitter. Allegedly, there wasn't an English translation for the Arabic term for this ingredient. In addition, sugar was usually added into the pot, no there was no need to put it into your cup.
Another beverage was Matzoon, "..a prized drink somewhat like koumyss,.." It's creation seems to be partially an enigma as “The source of matzoon seemed to be a mystery to all at the table.” To make matzoon, you always need some to make more. You take ordinary milk and heat it almost to boiling on the stove. You then add a cupful of matzoon to the milk, cover the dish and set it away in a warm place for 5-6 hours, when the whole liquid will be matzoon. “It is healthful and invigorating and extremely appetizing when served cold. Some of the drug stores serve it from soda fountains.” 

The article also added some general comments about the Syrian community in Boston, such as noting there were about 500 Syrians in the community.  They import a great deal of lace from Syria and although they must pay a duty of 65%, they still are able to sell it from 15-60 cents a yard. The Syrian men “..are singularly placid and peaceful in disposition. They are industrious and frugal, and their women are handsome and vivacious.” Although the men enjoying imbibing plenty of wine and beer, there is little or no drunkenness among them. 

This was certainly a very positive look at Little Syria, though the lack of identifying information for the restaurant did reduce some of its value. However, maybe the Syrians weren't looking for outsiders to visit their restaurant, especially if they didn't even have a sign outside. 

The Twentieth Annual Report of the Associated Charities of Boston (November 1899) provided more details on the Syrians in Boston, noting that Syrians began coming to this country about 12 years ago. Most of the Syrians who first came to Boston were peddlers, who sell in nearly all of the Boston suburbs, and they were often successful, sending money back home to Syria. Currently, there were about 500 Syrians in Boston, almost all in Little Syria.

The report stated, “It is the poor and ignorant who come here. Few speak English, still fewer read or write it.” It continued, “These persons are said to have very little idea of truth, to consider lying a legitimate method of doing business.” Many Syrians live on Oliver Place, and on August 4, 1898, the district inspector of the Board of Health made a report stating, “Oliver Place is frequently in a filthy and offensive condition, and receives no care except that a tenant may sweep up occasionally. It should be paved with granite blocks and cleaned regularly.” 

The next reference to a Syrian eatery in Boston was in December 1900. The Boston Globe, December 15, 1900, the Boston Herald, December 16, 1900, and the Springfield Republican, December 18, 1900, also mentioned the existence of a Syrian café at 73 ½ Beach Street, which would be within Chinatown. The café was owned by a husband and wife, Kallian and Nahamie Naszar, and it was said to be somewhat of a headquarters for the local Syrians. As a café, it was probably a more casual spot, possibly for a coffee and maybe some sweets. Unfortunately, few details of this were provided.

There was another lengthy article in the Boston Herald, May 1, 1901, titled Syrians Settled in Boston Have Brought With Them Some of the Strange Customs and Ceremonies Prevailing About Mt. Lebanon. The article noted, “In a very narrow alleyway, directly in the rear of that part of Boston known as Chinatown, there lives a colony of swarthy people who have brought all their traditional customs with them from their fatherland, and who live there in their own way, unconscious and unconcerned regarding the manners of the Americans, and who, in their peculiar style, live happily and naturally, without interference and without interruptions from the Americans, who do not understand their mannerisms and peculiar ideas of comfort.

In only two years, the population of Syrians in Boston, in Little Syria, had tripled, to about 1500 people, nearly all who can speak English. However, the reported mentioned having some difficulty gaining information for his article, as the people are suspicious of reporters, and “For the Syrians do not enjoy having inquisitive people in their midst.” The reporter stated that “In Edgerly place, where the most of these people live, is one of the most picturesque places in Boston.

The "mayor" of Little Syria was Mallham Kadra, who came to the U.S. about 10 years ago, settling in Boston, and he was one of the first Syrians to reside here. He worked as a court interpreter for a number of years and also once owned a notion store, controlling the business in that neighborhood. 

It was also mentioned that many Syrian women made a living as peddlers, selling smallwares from house to house. They would travel with a huge bag or basket, carrying combs, small mirrors and other fancy goods. If they couldn't sell you something, they would then offer to tell your fortune for a quarter.

Sundays were major social occasions for the Syrians, and some of their people who lived outside of Boston would come into the city for the day. Some of the local Syrians lived on Oxford Street, which is within Chinatown. It was noted that the relaxing Syrian men drank Arak (also spelled Arrack) together. Finally, there were some details of a typical Syrian wedding.

The Boston Herald, April 28, 1902, provided a brief description of the Syrian quarter, noting it included “... Beach, Hudson and Kneeland street and Oliver place.” There was also a little Greek church on Oxford street, in the Chinatown region.  

The primary problem involving the Syrians seemed to fighting, and several incidents were reported during the next few years. For example, the Boston Post, August 11, 1902, in an article titled “Greeks and Syrians Fight in Chinatown,” reported on a armed battle between Greeks met Syrians, motivated over a woman, a “modern Helen of Troy." The woman in question, Sadie Brusse, left Dedham to visit her friend Mollie Marceda at 7 ½ Olive Place. The Greeks first tried to court Sadie and then the Syrians tried to steal away her attentions. 

Eventually, this led to a group of armed Greeks to go to the Oliver address, where they found Syrians “holding high carnival.” The Syrians attempted to barricade the door against the Greeks, but they forced their way inside. A policeman was called, and with the use of his club, was able to quell the fighting although none of the people involved claimed to speak English.  

A year later, there was another large battle, this time between the Syrians and Chinese. On May 18, 1903, three newspapers, including the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and Boston Journal, reported on this matter, and there were some differences in their versions. The Boston Journal mentioned that Little Syria and Chinatown have a common ground in Oxford Street, and there are frequently clashes on Sundays when some Syrians poke fun at the Chinese. On the day in question, this type of clash occurred once again. 

A group of Syrians made fun of some Chinese, alternatively reported as Chin Hoy of Oxford Street or members of the Yee family. Whoever the target, one of the insulted Chinese then slapped one of the Syrians. The versions then vary as to what happened next. The Boston Globe stated that after being slapped, the Syrian went to get more of his friends. However, when they returned to the Chinese home, the victim was brandishing a long knife and chased the Syrians away.  

The Boston Herald, stated that after the slap, the Syrians went after the Chinese man, who ran inside and came out with a long knife. The Syrians fled, and the armed Chinese chased the Syrian he had slapped, although he never caught him. And the Boston Journal mentioned that after a member of the Yee family slapped a Syrian, he was struck back. So, another Mr. Yee, seeing his cousin struck, ran inside, grabbed a knife and then chased the Syrians away.

The Syrians also fought among each other. The Boston Globe, August 30, 1903, briefly reported that two Syrians fought each other, and one cut the other with a knife. The knife wielder was subsequently arrested.

The Boston Herald, August 30, 1903, published an article entitled, Among the Boston Syrians. Peculiar Customs of the Race. There was an initial mention of a Syrian grocery store, where salted watermelon seeds, salted peas and nuts were available. Then, there was mention of a Syrian restaurant, in the rear room of a basement, which might be the same restaurant as mentioned earlier in the Boston Herald, July 18, 1899. It was also noted the restaurant looked out into a small yard, where Syrians gathered, to smoke their pipes, drink coffee and play an intricate game with checkers. Their coffee was very strong, and served in tiny cups resembling a giant thimble. 

At the restaurant, some visitors enjoyed Koobeh, a strange compound of chopped lamb, many spicy ingredients and some grainlike substance. It was all made into a cake and then fried. They also enjoyed some Syrian bread. They were a bit shocked at first when they didn't receive forks or knives, and had to eat with they hands. For a second course, they were served soft figs, boiled in molasses, and pistachio nuts.

The article also mentioned that “Syrians are noticeably hospitable, and even when a casual strange calls upon one of them sweetmeats are offered, and always accepted, as it would be an unpardonable act of rudeness to refuse then.” In addition, it was stated that it had only been within a few years that the Syrians, whose population in Boston was now about 3,000, had their own neighborhood. Once again, the Syrian population had doubled in two years. It was said that the Syrians came to the U.S. to escape Turkish rule and earn a living. 

There was also a few comments about arrack, their universal drink, which is stronger than brandy. They often drink it with their meals, though it is much diluted by water and made excessively sweet. It was also noted that intoxication among Syrians is is almost unknown, a comment which was echoed in a previous newspaper article. 

A gamboling raid! Both the Boston Herald, August 22, 1904, and Boston Post, August 22, 1904 reported on a gambling raid at a Harrison Avenue address, arresting about seven people. However, their versions are somewhat different. The Herald stated they arrested seven Syrians and Armenians while the Post stated there were 7 Syrians, Armenians, Greeks and Turks. The Herald also stated the raid took place in the rear of a candy store at 11 Harrison Avenue while the Post reported the raid occurred at a Syrian restaurant at 122 Harrison Avenue. If there was a Syrian restaurant at that address, it might have been the third such place in Little Syria. 

Another battle in Little Syria! The Boston Journal, April 24, 1911, reported that on Sunday, Syrian Easter, there was a free for all fight, with knives, brass knuckles and chair legs, on Oxford Street. When the police arrived, found one man stabbed twice, another unconscious from brass knuckles, and a third man with two black eyes. Joseph Scahobany, of 7 Hudson Street, was arrested for stabbing of Thomas George, of 26 Oxford Street. Mohammed Slimon, of 36 Oxford Street, was charged with assault and battery on Moren George, of 18 Albany St.

The Boston Globe, April 24, 1911, had a slightly different version, stated that the fight occurred at a Syrian restaurant located on the second floor of 36 Oxford Street. The restaurant was owned by Mohammed Sliman, age 27. This might have been the fourth Syrian restaurant in this neighborhood. 

The Syrian population in Boston. The Boston Journal, May 6, 1913, reported that there were now about 200,000 Syrians in the U.S., with about 5000 residing in Greater Boston, and 2000 of them living within Little Syria. They now live on Hudson, Albany, Kneeland, Tyler, Edinburgh, Oxford and Beech Streets, even starting to displace the Chinese from Harrison Avenue and Oxford Streets. Most of the new Syrian immigrants were peddlers, and the majority of Syrians in Boston belonged to the Greek Orthodox faith. Finally, it was mentioned that there was a small school on Hudson Street where Syrian reading and writing was taught to children. 

There was a fire in Little Syria. The Boston Herald, February 12, 1917, stated that there was a fire, of unknown origin, at 4 Hudson Street, an address tased by Richard Maloof who ran a grocery store in the basement. A couple hundred Chinese came out to watch the fire. Only a few hundred dollars of damage were done to the property. 

The New England Business Directory (1920) briefly mentioned there was a Syrian Restaurant at 81 Beach Street. This appears to be another new Syrian restaurant. 

As the Chinese were known for opium, it seems the Syrians were becoming known for hasheesh. The Boston Herald, May 9, 1922, reported that the police had recently learned that large quantities of cannabis indica, commonly known as hasheesh, were being sold in Boston. It was alleged that hasheesh parties, drug orgies, were being held by Syrians on Hudson Street. The police eventually made an undercover buy and arrested Abdullah Dikmak, of 133 Hudson Street. The drug was inside small canvas bags and lead-sealed with Syrian insignia. The sellers were getting $60-$200 a pound for the drug, although the "pound" packages actually only held 7 ounces.  

There was a brief mention of a Syrian restaurant on Beach Street in the Boston Herald, May 9, 1924. This might refer to the Syrian cafe previously mentioned or the place at 81 Beach Street. 

In another brief mention, the Boston Globe, June 6, 1925, noted there were three Syrian storekeepers in Chinatown, and there were also about 2000 children in the district. 

Tong War fears! The Boston Globe, September 14, 1925 stated that Chinatown and Little Syria were worried about recent Tong violence, with some families moving away due to fear.  The next day, the Boston Globe, September 15, 1925, described a protest by 9 Syrian women, large property owners in Little Syria. The recent Tong shootings had hurt their business, and their children were afraid to go to school as they had to walk through Chinatown. There were also worries that the Syrian men might try to take action into their own hands. 

This has been a glimpse into the origins of Little Syria and the several Syrian restaurants which opened during the first forty years of its existence. Please note also that this is a work in progress, that additional research is warranted, hoping to find more details about these early restaurants. 


Adam Gaffin said...

Great, fascinating stuff! Little Syria was basically demolished as part of the construction of a ramp off the Expressway (and, of course, the state took too much land, so some of the buildings were destroyed for nothing and the land they were on stood vacant for decades). Many of the residents moved to West Roxbury, which is where you'll find a Syrian Orthodox church (also an Arabic Baptist church) and Bay Sweets Market (there's also a halal butcher in Roslindale).

April B said...

I don't know when my Syrian grandparents arrived in Boston but it must have been around 1914 or 1915 or 1916 or so. My father was born here in the US in 1918. They came from Damascus hence their church is called St John of Damascus. When I was a child this church was located on museum road right across from the museum of fine arts but nowadays it is in Dedham. I do know that the older women of the family worked as seamstresses on Hudson Street. Syrian food is delicious! Syrian bread is pita bread. There used to be a Syrian bread shop/factory at the fore river bridge in Quincy. I would take sandwiches to school in Syrian bread and be laughed at. Then the world called it pita bread and pita bread became fashionable!

April B said...

I don't know when my Syrian grandparents arrived in Boston but it must have been around 1914 or 1915 or 1916 or so. My father was born here in the US in 1918. They came from Damascus hence their church is called St John of Damascus. When I was a child this church was located on museum road right across from the museum of fine arts but nowadays it is in Dedham. I do know that the older women of the family worked as seamstresses on Hudson Street. Syrian food is delicious! Syrian bread is pita bread. There used to be a Syrian bread shop/factory at the fore river bridge in Quincy. I would take sandwiches to school in Syrian bread and be laughed at. Then the world called it pita bread and pita bread became fashionable!

Unknown said...

Both my maternal and paternal came from Lebanon and a place in the mountains named Hamaty. They lived on Hudson st. My paternal grandfather, Elias Hamaty was An Archmondritr the Orthodox Church, st George found on Tyler street. My mom her 3 sister and a brother moved to West Roxbury where I was born. All my grandmother children helped her buy the house in WestRoxbury. Her husband died from the flu pandemic in 1917. And now we’re in another pandemic I 2020. Sta safe everyone

Unknown said...

Kibbe Nai the original dish is raw ground lamb. All the fat is stripped before grinding, then mixed with a soaked bulgar wheat which is dried before mixing, with mint and served in a loaf with a well shaped in the form of a cross and lightly filled with olive oil and served with onion and syrian bread. The bread is used as the utensil for eating with syrian dishes. Not a fork or spoon or knife. It is mistakenly called by some as eating with hands, which it is not.