Middle Eastern adventure in KL

Cooking was never in Ameer Azalek’s scheme of things. Back home in Syria, he had worked a couple of years as an accountant and got a master’s degree in business.

While he did show some interest when his mother cooked, he never expected to be doing it here.

“Both my mum and my sister, who still live in Syria, certainly did not expect me to end up running a restaurant!” says the chef/owner of Leen’s Middle East Kitchen and the newly opened SAJ Bistro by Leen’s.

He was then living in Damascus, which had been spared the bombing. His father had a shop selling nuts, spices and coffee. But in 2015, Ameer made the decision to leave Syria as it was no longer safe for young people, especially the men.

Ameer plating a dish. — AZLINA ABDULLAH/The StarAmeer plating a dish. — AZLINA ABDULLAH/The Star

“My older brother had already left two years earlier for a job in Dubai (in the UAE),” he says.

When Ameer arrived in Kuala Lumpur, he found work with a cousin who owned the café chain Dipndip.

Ameer stayed there for eight months before leaving for Penang. Three months later, he made his way up to Langkawi as kitchen staff at La Pari Pari Hotel.

He shares how he could hardly string a sentence in English when he first arrived, despite learning basic English in school. He picked up speaking English from the streets, not that you could tell in a conversation with him now.

At La Pari Pari Hotel, he observed how everything was cooked from scratch and was piqued by the types of sambal they made – it was a good learning experience as the food was so different for him. However, he found life in Langkawi too quiet.

“Being from Damascus, I was used to the city life,” he says. But then, it was in Langkawi that he met his wife Serena Chin who was working as a barista there. His first restaurant, Leen’s, is named after her Chinese name.

Moving back to Kuala Lumpur in 2019, Ameer took up a job at Ember Modern Bistro in Taman Tun Dr Ismail.

A glance inside SAJ Bistro. — Photo: PATSY KAMA glance inside SAJ Bistro. — Photo: PATSY KAM

He learnt a lot from the bistro’s owner-chef Gary Anwar, especially about making his dishes more refined.

“He opened doors for me and treated me well. But I wanted to explore doing things my own way,” says Ameer.

Soon after, the Covid-19 pandemic hit and affected the business. Ameer left Ember after two years.

During those challenging times, he made jars of hummus and offered a home delivery service. He credits this as the start to Leen’s.

After Ember, he worked part-time as a private chef for chef-collab events with Andy Choy, owner of Chateau Dionne, and picked up from him the finer points of plating dishes.

They have since become fast friends and still communicate with each other regularly.

A pop-up at Tiffin’s in Sentul showcasing Ameer’s modern take on Syrian cuisine proved to be a defining moment for him as his customers saw something different in his food and supported him.

His smoked charred chilli hummus with coriander oil, a product of his time cooking with Choy, became a big hit.

“I also did a new version of taco and as I love fried chicken, I even churned out my own version − AFC which stands for Ameer’s Fried Chicken!”

Leen’s was opened in October 2022 and by the end of 2023, Ameer felt that the restaurant had grown beyond his expectations. And that’s how SAJ opened its doors in December last year.

“When we started Leen’s, my partner Mahmud said we couldn’t bring people upstairs. But we overcame that hurdle and Leen’s grew very fast.

From the last Ramadan till now, the restaurant is always full.

“That made us very excited to expand and we opened SAJ which stands for Syrian Authentic Jar. Well, everything did start from a jar of hummus!” he quips.

“At SAJ, we try to use more local ingredients, and together with Syrian ones, come up with new dishes.

“Now, the chances of having walk-in diners is 100% and they can take their time to enjoy their meal here.”

Ameer’s food embodies Syrian flavours that have been given his own interpretation with local accents.

“No one has smoked hummus or charred chilli hummus in Syria as they are my own creations. Coming soon are two new dishes with hummus, including hummus ice-cream!

“Authentic Syrian food carries much stronger flavours as we use a lot of spices like cumin, black pepper, cinnamon and cardamom.”

When asked about his favourite Syrian dish, Ameer confesses to be partial to lamb shank cooked with yoghurt, with a side of rice and vegetables.

At home, his wife cooks Chinese food which he loves, and when eating out, he enjoys a good plate of nasi lemak, especially the sambal!

Ameer is grateful to his core staff who have stayed and grown with him, and mentioned in particular one Bangladeshi employee who started out as a dish washer and now assists him in the hot kitchen.

With the way things are going, Ameer is beginning to cast his nets again and looking to expand to a third outlet.

“I love a challenge and the only way to go is forward! I’m very happy to be here in Malaysia.

This is the place for me as it has opened doors for me,” he concludes.

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