The Middle Eastern Treats at BigDash Ice Cream Offer a Window into Syrian Culture

BigDash’s owners Asmaa Khattab and Kareen AlRefaai are the faces behind the counter.
BigDash’s owners Asmaa Khattab and Kareen AlRefaai are the faces behind the counter. Matthew Martinez
The picture of Syria that news media paint today is not of the Syria that Asmaa Khattab, owner of Richardson’s BigDash Ice Cream, remembers. Khattab immigrated from Damascus to the United States in 2004, following her husband, Kareen AlRefaai, who arrived in 1995 and became a naturalized citizen in 2001.

Khattab says even the post-9/11 backdrop she arrived against was more navigable and welcoming than what she sees today in the country she has called home since being naturalized in 2008. Though Khattab and AlRefaai are not outwardly political people, Khattab can’t help but lament the measures the Donald Trump administration took last Friday, in the form of an executive order, to temporarily block incoming travelers from her country and indefinitely close the U.S. border to Syrian refugees.

“It just really makes me upset,” Khattab says. “It’s very hard for me to see my family. We live in the United States, and we love it. I still remember the welcome letter I received the second day I was here; it made me so excited to be here. I’ve been here for 13 years, and it’s just getting worse and worse for people in my position.”

But Khattab and AlRefaai did not come to the U.S. as refugees fleeing a civil war; they came for the same reason that hundreds of million of immigrants have throughout the 240-year history of this country: to make a better life for themselves and their family. BigDash, the near-hidden storefront in Richardson, has been their vehicle to that better life — and feels all the more important to them right now.

“We want people to know that this is the Syrian culture that we remember,” Khattab says. “This ice cream, these treats are the things I remember about Syria. This war is not all we are. We are not just a bunch of refugees. This is a taste of Syria that a lot of people in this country have never heard of.”

That taste of their birthplace begins with a unique take on Arabic ice cream, made with a recipe and preparation that have been traditions in Syria since 1895. Khattab and AlRefaai owe their style to Damascus’ world famous Bakdash ice cream parlor, which makes a public display out of beating barrels-full of its frozen product with large wooden mallets to give the ice cream its signature stretchy texture. The sahlab, a natural gum derived from orchid roots, helps too.

click to enlarge Arabic ice cream at BigDash - MATTHEW MARTINEZ
Arabic ice cream at BigDash
Matthew Martinez
The clean simplicity of BigDash’s Arabic ice cream is no small part of its beauty as an affordable dessert option ($2.99 for a small cup topped with pistachios). It’s primarily a mix of milk, cream, rose water and the sahlab gum. Although they don’t call it “vanilla” ice cream, a stretchier and less fatty version of the American standby is a more than apt jumping off point for those who haven’t ventured into the world of Middle Eastern desserts.

The sugar doesn’t smack you in the face the way it does with American ice cream, and it doesn’t melt as quickly either. The first few bites of a cup can be stubborn, as the primary purpose of the hammering during preparation is to get rid of most of the air from the ice cream block. If you’re worried about that, you can always get a cone instead and go face-to-face with the sticky stuff.

If you’ve fallen in love with BigDash’s formulation, you can fill your freezer with a 3.5-pound log of the Arabic ice cream, blanketed in pistachios, for $34.99. Though the ice cream is the initial draw for those within Richardson’s Middle Eastern community who want a taste of home — and a tasty new curiosity for those trying it for the first time — it’s not all that’s on the menu at BigDash.

click to enlarge Behold, the crepe. - MATTHEW MARTINEZ
Behold, the crepe.
Matthew Martinez
Khattab and AlRefaai’s modest joint is still in its infancy, after opening in September 2016, and still offers get-acquainted prices on decadent Italian-style crepes (starting at $5.49), served with milk and white chocolate shavings from a choco-shawarma machine of sorts, fresh fruit like mango and kiwi, and all manner of nuts, Nutella and other sweet sauces.

Then there are Khattab’s baked goods. Some, like the light and airy batefor cookies and layelena cake (both $14.99 per pound) are available to take away by the box from the counter. Don’t leave without trying a bite of the sweet cheese — Khattab and AlRefaai are generous with samples while building word of mouth buzz around their shop. Others, like Khattab’s Turkish baklava ice cream cake ($69) or kanafa ($44.99 per tray) must be ordered two to three days in advance.

click to enlarge BigDash’s sweet cheese - MATTHEW MARTINEZ
BigDash’s sweet cheese
Matthew Martinez
For some, these delicacies are a world away. For others, including BigDash’s quickly expanding roll of regulars from Richardson’s Middle Eastern community, they’re a long overdue taste of home.

For Khattab and AlRefaai, though, they are more. They’re a conduit between their happy memories of Syria and an eager Dallas foodie community who’ve only heard one side of the Syrian story.

“We want to bring this part of our culture here,” AlRefaai says. “Everybody from the Middle East knows about the tradition of Bakdash. Asmaa figured this recipe, and everything she makes, out on her own, so we want to be the bridge of what’s so well-known back home to something new here in the states.”

BigDash Ice Cream & Pastries, 717 Lingco Drive, #210, Richardson
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Matt Martinez is a DFW-lifer who handles the Observer's editorial social media channels when he's not waxing cynical in our news, food and music verticals. Rest assured, he hates your favorite team. Matt studied journalism at the University of Texas and then again, for some reason, at UNT. He has written for the Austin Chronicle, the Denton Record-Chronicle and currently writes sports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Contact: Matthew Martinez