For Charlotte’s first Arabic bakery, Ramadan is a learning experience
Cheese, spinach, and chicken fatayer
At Charlotte’s new Arabic bakery on North Sharon Amity Road, Khaled Mahrousa says this is an easy day.
It’s 3:30 p.m. on a roasting-hot late July day during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and the thermostat in the Golden Bakery reads 85 degrees. It’s so hot, you sweat standing still, and Mahrousa hasn’t had anything to eat or drink since dawn. Sundown, when he can break the day’s fast, is 5 hours away.
Still, he’s using only the brick oven and the stove today. He’s not heating up the Indian tandoor and the convection ovens.
“When all these ovens are on, it puts out some heat,” he says, smiling. “You’re lucky today.”
Although the dates of Ramadan shift a little every year, based on the Muslim calendar, this year is particularly tough. The 30 days of penitence and fasting from dawn until dusk will go on until Aug. 18, through the hottest and longest days of summer.
“Punishment,” says Ahmed Azazi, smiling and shrugging. Azazi helps run Golden Bakery for the owners, his brother Moustafa and their sister Mayada. The Azazis have owned the Halal meat market next door for four years and opened the bakery in April.
It’s been a hit from the start, with people coming from all over, Greensboro to Gaffney, to stock up on pitas and pastries made from handmade phyllo.
Pita bread starts to bubble moments after being placed in a 400 degree oven
U.S. Census surveys between 2006 and 2010 showed 5,521 Arabs in Mecklenburg County, while North Carolina’s population has grown from 19,400 in 2000 to nearly 29,000 in 2010.
Azazi came to America at 18 and moved to Charlotte in 1981, when there was nothing here for Arabic people. That’s certainly changed, he says.
While the Golden, perhaps Charlotte’s first Arab bakery, is Syrian-owned, people from that part of the world all share similar foods. Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, Iraq – people have always crossed each other’s borders.
Baker Kahled Mahrousa tosses phyllo dough while making baklava at Golden Bakery on North Sharon Amity Rd
Since the shop is so new, this first Ramadan has been a learning experience.
Last week, they experimented with staying open until 2 a.m., since so many people don’t eat until late. Azazi isn’t sure it was worth it, but afternoons have brought a steady stream of customers, as people pick out things to have in the evening, when many Muslims gather with family and friends to break the fast.
Khaled Mahrousa was raised in a family of pastry makers in Aleppo, Syria. He quit school and started training at 13, although he went back to school and got a culinary degree when he lived in California for seven years.
Now he specializes in things like phyllo made from scratch and pastries scented with a syrup he makes using both rose and orange waters, giving them a haunting floral aroma.
Wearing a black rubber bracelet that says “Free Syria” and checking his smartphone for news on Aleppo, where rebels faced hard fighting last week, he rolled out 20 layers of phyllo dough so thin, each layer looked like white silk.
It took two years to learn to do it, he says. He starts with small circles of dough, tossing and patting them, then he layers each circle with a thick coating of cornstarch. He stacks 20 circles, then rolls them out quickly using a 4-foot wooden dowel.
“You have to work quickly or you get into trouble,” he says. “There’s a machine to roll it – it’s big, it would take up this whole place.” And yes, you can buy frozen phyllo. But customers wouldn’t go for that.
“When you say ‘handmade,’ they like it more than when you say ‘frozen,’ ” he says, grinning.
He makes from three to eight pans of baklava a day, with fillings of pistachios, walnuts, cashews or almonds. For parties, people will sometimes buy the whole pan, cut into 140 tiny diamonds.
Pastries and ‘pizza’
The glass case at the front of the shop is filled with Mahrousa’s pastries – baklavas, syrup-soaked fried dough called awamah, orange and green kenafah, soft cream-filled keshta.
Pita is made fresh every day or so, the circles of dough run through a conveyor to press them thin, then tossed on the floor of the brick oven. They fill with air and come out inflated, like paper balloons, before they flatten again, leaving a pocket in the middle.
The best-seller is called pizza, although it isn’t really. It’s made from puffy, browned flat breads. They might be topped with a cheese mixture called keshk or the herb mixture za’atar. Some, called fatayer, are folded in half and reheated for breakfast. Lahme bi ajeen are flat and topped with mixtures like pomegranate molasses, yogurt and onion (more Arabic) or mint, parsley, tomato, onion, chiles and allspice (more Turkish).
“It’s Armenian or Turkish,” Azazi says. “I’m not sure. They both fight over it.”
Azazi says Americans still don’t know all that Arabic cuisine can be.