Childhood Flavors – Raful – São Paulo

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This is the first time that I will spend so much time away from home. I closed many cycles, made several goodbyes, but no tears until then. After a day full of chores and bureaucracies to be solved, my stomach started to rumble and I soon thought “what will be my last lunch in São Paulo?”.
It was a hot day in the city center, I was without a car and when I realized I was already at São Bento subway station taking the exit to Ladeira Porto Geral. I can say with certainty that I hadn’t been there for years because my routine didn’t allow such a walk anymore. And right here, my lack of control has started… As I climbed the escalators, I started to cry, with emotion, for the longing I felt to frequent that region! Going down Ladeira Porto Geral, I crossed the iconic Rua 25 de Março and turned left on the small and crowded Rua Comendador Abdo Schahin. There, among the wholesalers of fabrics, stones and Syrian emporiums is Raful, a Syrian-Lebanese snack bar / restaurant that I have frequented since I was a child. And I went straight.
I was almost at the end of the street when I thought something must be very wrong. I went back a little and finally found the place. It was completely renovated! Incredulous, I went in and noticed the changes, on the white porcelain tile floor, new showcases, impeccable walls, uniformed employees, leather stools, clean bathrooms, all in accordance with the standards of health surveillance. I went back to the door to make sure they hadn’t changed the name too. No, it was there … “Raful – Arab cuisine”. I didn’t like it at all. The renovation left the place looking pretentious, like a fast-food chain (and in fact they opened more branches) but my hunger was so great that, even though I was upset, I sat at the counter to have lunch.
Raful has a variety of Syrian-Lebanese food: in the front, the snack bar, you can order sfihas of the most traditional flavors, small portions of varied snacks, and of course, the wonderful sweets. At the back there is the lounge of the a la carte restaurant, in which you can order from the menu meals with more “substance”. I ordered the usual: closed curd sfiha and open zaatar sfiha. The zaatar sfiha disappointed me. For those who do not know, this is basically a sfiha “filled” with only this spice called “zaatar”, very traditional in Arab cuisine, mixed with a lot of olive oil. Olive oil moistens the dough and zaatar gives it that wonderful, characteristic scent and flavor. But that day, I found the sfiha to be very coarse and massive and I took that sip of water to help lower the food and disappointment. I blamed the massification of the cafeteria. It is common for this type of thing to happen … success goes to the head, the owners become greedy and end up forgetting exactly what brought them so much prestige … Raful had never disappointed me before.
I always leave the curd sfiha closed last. For me this has always been, and always will be, the piéce de resistance of Raful. Meat and cheese sfihas can be found anywhere. But few places make a curd sfiha. It took me a few minutes to get up my courage and send the girl in. I was looking at her like that, a little suspicious. If it was bad, I would be even more insulted. If it was good I would give Raful one more chance, and give the owners an ear tug. I took the knife, looked it in the face and took that bite. And from this point on, a new emotional lack of control.
raful3 The sfiha was perfect. The dough delicate and tasty, curdled with acidity and moisture at the point, a touch of fresh mint and chopped white onion for seasoning, but that’s not all that brought me to tears in the middle of the cafeteria. If I cried every time I ate good food , it would already be looking like a dehydration raisin. The crying was because of the good memories I have, all the other times I had the pleasure of eating this excellent sfiha. Going to Raful meant taking a walk in the city with my mother.
I was not raised in São Paulo. I was born in Moóca, but my parents decided to move to the edge of the Paraíba Valley when I was little, hoping to find a better quality of life. But São Paulo never left me because I always loved the mess that is this city and going for a walk with my mother there was always the best program ever. Going to São Paulo meant going through the delights of the Municipal Market. From there, we would go towards Rua 25 de Março with any excuse to spend time like buying ornaments for Christmas or for our Halloween parties, choosing beads for me to play with making necklaces or colorful fabrics to make patchwork, renewing the box jewelry, find trinkets to make costumes for dance lessons, buy some gifts … And at the end of it all we would always have the mandatory stop at Raful and the meal would always come with my mother’s rich details stories. It was our way of strengthening our ties, of having moments only for girls, only for mother and daughter. That simple.
It was Raful always full of baggies, with broken floors and yellowish tiles, hurried and friendly staff, the showcase crammed with fresh sfihas of the most diverse flavors, the Lebanese gentlemen sitting in the back room playing backgammon, the bathroom always leaking … Raful, the little man with the mustache at the cashier, always very friendly and who opened that smile every time we entered, recognizing us. I never knew his name and he saw me grow.
I ordered the curd and zaatar sfiha and my mother asked for the vegetables and one for the meat. And finally, we ordered the “nutty ataif” for dessert. Ah, Raful’s ataif! The ataif is that light and airy pancake, filled with finely chopped nuts and watered with a delicious syrup of orange blossom essence. Simply sublime! I never found any other place that made such a careful version of this recipe. And yes, the ataif was also divine. I cried copiously, with sobs and a runny nose. I had no one to share my ataif with that day, as I didn’t plan and went there alone.
raful2 The counter clerk looked at me with a mixture of distrust and concern. One hour he couldn’t stand to see me cry like that and asked:
“- Is there a problem with the dessert, lady?
– No, boy… (hic)… it’s excellent as (snif snif snif) always… But please (hic) put the other half to go… ”.
Raful Restaurant – Arabic Cuisine
118 Comendador Abdo Schahim Street
Central, São Paulo, SP
Tel: (11) 3229 – 8406

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