Born and raised in Baghdad, DarSalam’s co-founder Ghaith Sahib left Iraq in 2006 before making his way to Syria, India and the Netherlands. Working as a custodian for a hostel in Amsterdam, it wasn’t long before he met Tiffany – a travelling American from Portland. A year of courtship saw its ups-and-downs and trials of separation, but the two were determined to stay together. It’s a love story that envelopes cultural differences and language barriers – sealed by a mutual appreciation of good food.
‘My wife and friends in Amsterdam really liked my cooking. So when Tiffany and I moved to Portland, we decided to open a food cart,’ says Ghaith of the couple’s move to the US in 2009. ‘In Portland, most food carts stay put for months, or years. Ours was the first Iraqi food cart in Portland out of 400 other carts in the city.’
The food cart, Aladdin’s Castle Café, attracted a wide network of loyal customers. Four-star ratings and gleaming reviews fill up online reference portals like Yelp. ‘This is my favourite food cart,’ reads one review. ‘You won’t be able to find anything like it anywhere else in Portland.’ Other posts praise Ghaith’s hummus, baba ghannoush and falafel plates.
Despite its seeming popularity, Iraqi cuisine is still relatively uncommon in Portland. The Sahibs’ cart and subsequent restaurant were the first to offer an Iraqi menu not only in the city, but also in Oregon.
‘After a year, we opened our first restaurant location and we ran both the food cart and the restaurant for the next year. We were received very well by our community, and DarSalam found success,’ says Ghaith regarding the restaurant’s 2012 opening. ‘Then we sold the food cart so that we could focus on building our restaurant business. This year in August, we opened our second restaurant location, DarSalam Lazurdi.’
The first DarSalam sits in Portland’s quaint Alberta Arts District. Located in an old carriage house, the one-room building boasts a banana yellow exterior framed by two flags on opposing sides – one Iraqi and the other American. Inside, nearly 400 framed images dedicated to historical figures, statues and old Baghdad cover the walls. Images, too, of Iraq’s southern marshes, snow-covered mountains and festivities are assorted among a range of old family photos. Warm reds and golden yellows are complemented by beaded lamps and hanging evil eyes.
‘Our goal was not only in the quality and authenticity of the food, but also to give people a cultural experience when they come to eat at DarSalam,’ says Tiffany. ‘Through photos, textiles, music and dance performances, we share the culture of Iraq. Our work is helping people see the humanity – and breaking down stereotypes that have permeated the media for so many years.’
DarSalam’s menu is filled with traditional Arab dishes, like shawarma and tabbouleh. Iraqi dishes are slowly introduced the further down the menu you read – starting with dolma mahshi, or rice-stuffed onions, and ending with marag, a slow-cooked stew served best with a mound of steamed Basmati rice.
Also on the menu are dishes flavoured with the Iraqi favourite amba, or pickled mango. ‘We make sauce from it, which we put in our falafel flatbread sandwich – people love the tangy taste, and it’s something they are pleasantly surprised by,’ Ghaith beams.
‘When we first started practising our recipes for the menu, I had to ask my husband and his mum to use less salt, sugar and oil,’ says Tiffany. ‘I also insisted that we create a well-rounded menu with many options for people with different dietary restrictions. We offer many vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free items, giving our traditional Middle Eastern dishes a healthy twist, which people here are very thankful for.’
DarSalam’s menu is almost entirely gluten-free, aside from the flatbreads and baklawa. And while the menu caters to different taste buds, it also offers informative descriptions to ease the unfamiliar eye through the Iraqi names. One of the restaurant’s most popular dishes, says Ghaith, is the pickled mango salad, made traditionally with fresh tomatoes and chickpeas.
The success of the first DarSalam has led to the restaurant’s second location in Downtown Portland, opened this past summer. DarSalam Lazurdi offers a similar experience to the original Alberta branch. With high ceilings covered by vibrant blue murals depicting the Ishtar Gate and Babylonian history, the second location gives way to its name – inspired by the Arabic word for lapis lazuli, a stone used in the gate’s original construction.
The Sahibs have future plans to open a small market next to the Alberta location, where various spices used in many of DarSalam’s dishes will be on offer. ‘There will be some textiles and Iraqi adornments for sale, too,’ says Ghaith. The spice market will be a welcomed addition to Alberta’s small-businesses-only ethos. ‘It’s a tight-knit community,’ he adds.
While there isn’t a significantly large Iraqi community in Portland, Ghaith notes there are small pockets here and there. In general, though, DarSalam attracts a mix of ethnicities. From the more obvious American and Iraqi diners to an Asian, Indian and Latino crowd, those who feast at DarSalam always leave with a full stomach.
‘When we’ve had parties, our Iraqi customers loved their good times with us and they have felt nostalgic for home,’ says Tiffany, before Ghaith chimes in, ‘They’re proud of what we have done.’
This article was originally published in the January/February 2016 issue of Brownbook magazine. Photo credit: Peter Schweitzer.