Why people drive from afar to get a taste of this Etobicoke bakery's samoon

·5 min read
Wail Yacko is the owner of Elsa's Bakery. (Suresh Doss/CBC - image credit)
Wail Yacko is the owner of Elsa's Bakery. (Suresh Doss/CBC - image credit)

Ismaila: Samoon is a bit unique here in the GTA. Why is that?

Suresh: The origins of this Arab-world bread is quite contested. It is a very fluffy loaf of bread that is [shaped] like a fish or a canoe, if you wish. It's kind of bulbous in the middle, with these sort of rounded and tapered ends.

There is a Georgian version of this bread. There's one that dates back to the Ottoman Empire. There's even samoon in the Balkans.

But today, we are here to talk about the Iraqi version of this. The one that owner, Wail Yacko of Elsa's Bakery, is trying to perfect.

A simple composition of salt, water, flour and a good amount of yeast. So you get this fish- shaped bread that's cooked in a stone oven and it gets really nice and fluffy, supremely soft.

Suresh Doss/CBC
Suresh Doss/CBC

Ismaila: That sounds like it could be a great canvas for some wonderful meals.

Suresh: This bread is pretty new to me, I'll be honest. I only had some at Wail's place not too long ago, so he's been educating me on the various uses of it.

He says you can have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It can be accompanied with a spread of jams and date syrup, or you can serve it stuffed with kabob because you can easily slice it and open it up, or even with grilled fish.

Or, stuff it with falafel for a great lunch sandwich. Even when I spoke to the people of Iraq that frequent Elsa's, they would say that even though there is a growing population in Etobicoke and Mississauga, this bread is quite hard to come by.

Suresh Doss/CBC
Suresh Doss/CBC

Ismaila: And that is why we're here at Elsa's.

Suresh: This is a three year old bakery run by an Iraqi family that moved from Baghdad in the late '90s. It's in a weird part of Etobicoke that is surrounded by banquet halls and religious centres and not really a place you go to find food.

Here in this small, unassuming bakery, they make upwards of 1,500 loaves of samoon per day by hand. And during the weekend, there could be 2,500 loaves.

Ismaila: Now I love carbs, and that's a lot of bread there.

Suresh: That is a lot of bread, and it draws a lot of attention.

I have met families that have driven in from London, Ontario, to buy 25 loaves of bread. And with this traffic, Wail has also added some lunch options to the menu.

He's got a very simple menu of these flatbreads called Lahmajoon. They're very, very thin flatbread that is cooked in the stone oven and it's usually topped with cheese and butter and spices. Sometimes ground meat, sometimes eggs. So it's a very very thin pizza, if you will,

There's also shawarma on the menu. You'll see two vertical spits as soon as you walk in that are slow roasting chicken or beef and you can have them on rice or in a sandwich.

It's part of the shawarma. Here is something you don't want to miss. It's very good.

Suresh Doss/CBC
Suresh Doss/CBC

Ismaila: You have me hooked. Take me to the shawarma counter.

Suresh: Shawarma ranges drastically from place to place, in the way meat is spiced and cooked as you travel throughout the Arab world.

Every country, every region will have a different way of the cuts of meat they use, they way they spice the meat and how they dress it.

So don't tell me about your favourite shawarma place, tell me what your favourite style of shawarma is. I'll say, Wail's Iraqi-style shawarma is one that you won't forget once you've had it.

Ismaila: What makes it so special?

Suresh: A few things. First, he uses sirloin cuts instead of the inside round, so the meat is already quite tender and juicy.

He uses yoghurt, which is an excellent tenderizer that slowly breaks down protein. He also uses curry powder in his spice blend, which is a signature Iraqi ingredient for shawarma.

So regardless of whether you have the meat on rice or in the pita, it really stands out because that spicing is quite prominent.

And then finally, the sauces. Wail has this triple combo of tahini sauce, a spicy garlic sauce that he makes in house, and the piece de resistance, the amba.

Suresh Doss/CBC
Suresh Doss/CBC

Ismaila: Mango sauce, right?

Suresh: Oh my goodness. We need to have an amba renaissance in the city because it goes well with everything

This is that salty, sour, spicy condiment that is very popular throughout parts of the Arab world, especially in Iraq. It's a dried spice blend of mustard, turmeric, fenugreek and mango powder that you build into a sauce.

It's something you can find somewhat easily now in stores, but the freshly made version is better. Wail makes it, and it's his secret weapon on the menu.

Ismaila: OK, I'm definitely feeling all of what you described there, but what if I'm not really feeling so much like a meaty dish. Are there vegetarian dishes that they offer?

Suresh Doss/CBC
Suresh Doss/CBC

Suresh: Wail makes falafel to order, Iraqi style, which means they are entirely chickpea-based. There are no beans in it.

They make it in house, and it is seasoned overnight. Then when you order it, they cook it up.

You get these beautiful pucks that have a thick, crunchy exterior and subtle spicing as you dig into the rich and grainy centre.

Wail says there are two ways to get the falafel. You can get the classic sandwich, which is with salad and a generous amount of amba sauce.

Or you get the mixed falafel, which is in a sandwich served with fried eggplant and fries. A substantial lunch but a very good way to try both the bread, the falafel, and the Amba sauce all in one bite.

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