‘SWonderful! ‘S Marvelous!
Samira’s Authentic Egyptian & Lebanese Food
by Rachel Travers
Samira and Ragab Hamdoun from Belmont are the proud owners of a small family business called Samira's Homemade, producing authentic Egyptian and Lebanese foods. Most of their line consists of products that we've become familiar with over time: hummus, baba gannough and tabouli salad (all seen with many variations in their spelling).
In fact, these foreign dishes have become basics in many American kitchens. They're healthy, kid- and adult-friendly, inexpensive and delicious. Wrapped in an envelope of pita bread, they've become staples in our diet.
But the products we Americans are familiar with, easily purchased at most supermarkets, do not begin to compare with Samira's Homemade. Made fresh in small batches with family recipes and love, they are more than one step up from the more mundane varieties. Hummus is made with baby chickpeas from Lebanon, then slow-cooked overnight, and offered in four renditions: garlic, kalamata olive, roasted red pepper and jalapeño. Their tabouli is more fresh mint and parsley than cracked wheat, light rather than heavy, and a great complement to a hummus sandwich. Samira's baba gannough is a smoky eggplant wonder, their method of roasting the purple vegetable definitely raising the flavor bar for a dish that for some is an acquired taste. But their most unique product is the ful madammas, which is the national dish of Egypt. Made with fava beans that have been simmered for 12 hours and carefully mixed with tahini, green garlic, lemon juice, chives and olive oil, it is eaten with a wide variety of garnishes and found throughout Egypt on the street at stands.
An old Arabic saying is that ful madammas is "the rich man's breakfast, the shopkeeper's lunch and the poor man's supper." And it's been around since the time of the pharaohs. Ragab explains that it is "very filling, high in protein and cheap." Served with pita bread, there is huge versatility in its presentation: radishes, fried or hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, garlic sauce, green onions, hot sauce, olive oil, tahini, even hummus, butter and sumac are added, depending on where in Egypt you come from or are visiting. Interestingly, it is never salted, so salt is usually a required addition. Purists will eat ful madammes on pita with only a touch of butter and salt.
The story about how Samira (who is from Lebanon) and Ragab (who is from Egypt) met is an intercultural but extremely local story (as is their business). They met at the Café Algiers in Harvard Square when Samira was a student and Ragab was working as a social worker for the Department of Developmental Services. Six months after meeting they got married. They have two children: son Amir, 19, and daughter Yasmeen, 16, live in Belmont, and work out of a commercial catering kitchen in Danvers. Samira still works full time as a faculty assistant at the Harvard Law School, and is getting a second master's degree, in marketing, through Harvard Extension. Ragab retired in November 2009 to devote himself entirely to Samira's Homemade, but that is jumping ahead of the story.
Both Samira and Ragab have always loved cooking, and even today "fight" each other for domain of the kitchen and preparation of daily meals. But the seeds of Samira's Homemade were sown at Harvard, where Samira would always bring her hummus to gatherings and events. "Friends and attendees would beg her to make the hummus so they could get some," recalls Ragab, but neither of them had the time or money to start a small business.
Serendipitously, around this same time, in 2007, Samira began working at Formaggio Kitchen part-time on weekends in addition to her job as a faculty assistant at Harvard, in order to financially help her family in Lebanon. It wasn't long before Samira approached owner Ishan Gurdal about possibly making her much-loved hummus to sell there. His reply was, "Sure, I don't have hummus in my store, let's do it." And it was his suggestion to call it Samira's.
Using the Formaggio kitchen to produce the first product, Samira began with just the regular hummus, then emailed all her friends that it would be available that weekend for sale. "The first day it was available, I sold all 75 containers in one hour," recalls Samira, who adds that two weeks later her husband was helping her. In a month they had added the tabouli to the Formaggio selection.
By 2008 Ragab and Samira were wholesaling their product, having found a second customer in the Evergood Market in Cambridge, owned by Diane Cerretani Carr. Ragab then retired from being a social worker to turn full-time to his "new baby." The husband-and-wife team still make the product themselves, but now in a commercial catering kitchen, with the help of a few employees to assist with packaging and labeling.
Ragab began selling directly to the public at the Belmont Farmers' Market, where he would go through 200 containers a day, is doing the Wayland Winter Farmers 'Market at Russell's Garden Center, and will most likely be found at many more markets come this spring. "The next step is to find our own commercial kitchen," says Ragab, "The demand is there; in fact, Trader Joe's is interested in our ful medammes."
He now energetically does the shopping, the wholesaling, as well as the hands-on production work with Samira. "Social work was very rewarding, but this is much happier work," says Ragab. "It's a lot of hard work, but I don't mind it-I love it."
As a little footnote, it's interesting to note that Ragab comes from a family of seven in Alexandria, where he was the only one to go to college. All the rest of the family has food stands in Southern Egypt-
Hamdoun's Ful Medammes. They still cannot believe that their educated brother in the United States is now making and selling ful for an American market.
But it's the same family recipe they've all been using for generations. And though a good ful is hard to find, it is now a part of our local edible landscape.
Rachel Travers is a freelance food, travel and lifestyle writer who contributes regularly to the Boston Globe and Edible Boston, as well as many other regional, national and online venues. She can be reached at alphasoup2@ aol.com.