None of the cooking equipment was familiar. None of the ingredients were the same.
Ahmad Aissa’s kitchen was starting to mirror the last year of his life, when he was forced to flee his war-torn homeland of Syria and relocate to unfamiliar surroundings, where unfamiliar faces spoke an unfamiliar language.
Aissa was determined to find a taste of home, though, and more than a year of tinkering later he’s found comfort – in the kitchen and out – with Aissa Sweets, a Concord baked-goods business producing traditional Syrian sweets for sale at several New Hampshire outlets.
“I thought it would be really great to present something nice about my culture,” Aissa said. “Making this reminds me a lot of my country. I always like to have people try something we eat in my country, and it makes me happy to see people’s expressions when they sample it.”
It wasn’t an easy process. Aissa, 28, discovered quickly that nothing was the same – not the ovens, not the flour, not the sugar. He spent more than 12 months tweaking recipes and finding the right ingredients before he decided he’d found the sweet spot in producing traditional Syrian flavors.
“Everything had to be adapted,” Aissa said.
The result is Aissa Sweets, which produces items like baklava, pistachio rolls, cashew sticks and other traditional Syrian desserts that are available in bakeries and other shops in Portsmouth, Exeter, Dover and Manchester, as well as South Berwick and Kittery, Maine. Aissa is hoping to find places to sell the products in Concord but has thus far not been able to strike a deal with anybody.
The long-term goal is to build the business until it can sustain a storefront in Concord.
“That’s part of the future plan,” Aissa said. “We are trying to get in stores, as many as possible, and later have a storefront to be able to interact with customers. People feel more confident and more connected to the business if they know me. And it makes me feel more connected to the customers.”
Aissa’s bakery background is a humble one – he was not a baker by trade in Syria but rather an importer of clothes. What he learned about the baking business he picked up from Bashar Sanousy, a famous Syrian chef who was willing to take Aissa under his wing in an unofficial capacity and share the secrets of the trade – something Aissa said is very rare in a country where most tips remain kept as family or chef property.
Reproducing Syrian tastes in New Hampshire was very important to Aissa, but he’s not done innovating. His goal is to continue to augment old family recipes with tastes New Englanders have already grown to love. He has included cranberries in some recipes already and has plans to incorporate pumpkin into items in the near future. He is also focused on using as many local ingredients as possible and is particular about finding the highest-quality elements he can when creating the sweets.
“Some stuff is very traditional, but I try also to go in the direction of making something unique,” Aissa said.
His journey to New Hampshire has certainly been unique. He and his wife, Evelyn, were leading a comfortable and happy life in Syria – where they met and were married – when civil war erupted, prompting them to relocate. Evelyn’s family was from New Hampshire, and though Aissa had never been to the country or even met his in-laws – they had opted not to attend the Syrian wedding because the danger was growing – he agreed to make the move to the United States, where he would know two people – his wife and a friend who lived in New York City.
The first year was extremely difficult, Aissa said, and was often depressing, though he enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes and has since become a Southern New Hampshire University student, seeking a degree in justice with a minor in business.
He’s also grown to love Evelyn’s family and has been embraced by her friends, all of which has eased the transition.
But nothing eased it as much as the business, which is being run essentially as a “one-man show” so far, though Evelyn does help respond to emails and runs the company Facebook page and website. It wasn’t until his tongue tasted those traditional flavors that he began to feel truly settled, and it is the business that gives him the opportunity to share a piece of his country while building a life in Concord.
“It makes me always connected to my country and traditions,” Aissa said. “I want to make it better and better, work to develop the recipes and evolve the equipment. I think I will keep it, always.”
To learn more, visit aissasweets.com or facebook.com/aissasweets.llc.