May 28, 2008:
Their Hummus, Tabbouleh, and Other Dishes Taste Like Home
By Luke Pyenson, Globe Correspondent
These days, hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ganoush, which are Arabic words, are as much a part of the American lexicon as ketchup, mustard, and relish. That may be because once these Middle Eastern dishes were discovered, so was their versatility. They act as sides, condiments for sandwiches, something to dip pita into, and they're easy to find at most supermarkets. That's why most of us have been settling for only vaguely authentic-tasting versions of these flavorful, nutritious staples. Samira and Ragab Hamdoun decided to change that with a line of products called Samira's Homemade.

Many things distinguish their small enterprise from their commercial competition. Most apparent is the name - all of their products are indeed homemade, fresh every week. With them, you get an elevated taste and consistency.

But perhaps the most interesting distinction about these entrepreneurs is that this isn't their main work. By day, Samira is a faculty assistant at Harvard Law School and Ragab is a social worker at the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation. On Saturdays, in the kitchen at South End Formaggio, he makes ful madammas, an Egyptian fava bean spread. It's sold with Samira's hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ganoush, which she makes earlier in the week at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge.

Starting the little company seemed like a logical step. "I used to share my lunch with my co-workers," explains Samira. "When I came to Harvard, they said the [commercial] hummus was weird and didn't taste fresh and homemade like mine." So, at the insistence of her colleagues, she got the idea to start making and marketing her recipes.

She was working at Formaggio Kitchen and brought the spreads to co-owner Ihsan Gurdal. He and the staff liked them a lot, as did Gurdal's wife, Valerie, so Samira started making them at Formaggio for the two stores. "It's an old recipe and it still tastes homemade," says Gurdal. "They'll eventually form a company and get a professional kitchen. I think that's the direction they'll probably go in. I hope it won't change when they become commercial. I don't think it will."

Samira's hummus comes four ways - with roasted red pepper, kalamata olive, jalapeno, and garlic. "I grew up making [hummus] with my mom and we always had it in the fridge," says Samira. At home, she added her own touches to the basic recipe, which pleased her family. "My brothers asked me to cook instead 'cause they liked my cooking better." Here, she uses baby chick peas imported from Lebanon, as well as Lebanese tahini. "This [is] healthy food [with the] ingredients that we need [to] keep us healthy and happy." The couple met in 1988 at Cafe Algiers in Cambridge, when Samira was a waitress and Ragab a customer. She is a native of Beirut and he was born in Alexandria, Egypt. They live in Belmont with their son Amir, 18, and daughter Yasmeen, 14, both of whom also work at Formaggio.

The baba ganoush is fabulously smoky, but the most unique product is ful madammas, Ragab's specialty. This national dish of Egypt is made with fava beans that have been roasted for 12 hours, then blended with olive oil, green garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and chives. The name alludes to the original cooking method, from around the fourth century, which involved burying the fava beans under hot coals with water - ful is Arabic for fava beans and madammas is a Coptic word meaning buried.

"It's normally eaten with pita bread," says Ragab. "Some Egyptians add boiled or fried eggs. In Egypt a lot of places sell it like a fast food." Ragab came to America to pursue a degree in human resources; his brothers are at home, where they own restaurants specializing in ful.

"I'm the only one who was never really interested in pursuing [ful] because I went to college and came here, but that's what we did for a living; I'm [going] back to my roots."

Samira's Homemade spreads are available at Formaggio Kitchen, 244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750; and South End Formaggio, 268 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-350-6996.

Credit: Luke Pyenson Globe Correspondent.

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