Where Did Hummus Really Originate?

~ For Chowhound. April 2018.

The brownish paste has become a staple appetizer on most menus, often served as a dip with a side of pita and veggies. It can now be found at American, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern restaurants, but do you know where hummus really comes from?

The Invention of Hummus

Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptian Arabs, Greeks, and other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries all claim hummus as “their” dish. Some historians say hummus can be dated to 13th century Egypt, others identify it as hometz from the Hebrew Bible written 3,500 years ago. The truth is, chickpeas have been growing in Turkey and surrounding areas for 10,000 years, which most likely gave way to some form of this dip.

Hummus Wars

Naturally, ownership of the popular chickpea dip started a war between Lebanon and Israel in 2008. Lebanese Industrialists and the government petitioned to recognize Lebanon, not Israel, as the appropriator of hummus, and waged an unconventional war of lawsuits, cook-offs, and competitions. According to CNN, in 2010, Lebanon set the record for the largest plate of hummus at 11.5 tons!

Chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author, Yotam Ottolenghi, writes about the hummus wars in his book “Jerusalem: A Cookbook.” “The arguments never cease. And even if the question of authorship is somehow set aside, you are still left with who makes the best hummus?…It is like the English fish-and-chips shop, a savored local treasure.”

What’s the Difference?

Most recipes for hummus contain the same basic ingredients: chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), lemon juice, garlic, and salt. Yet a hummus aficionado has preferences of consistency—smooth and fluffy vs. chunky and spicy; temperature—warm, cold, or room temperature; and which condiments to serve alongside—cooked whole chickpeas, rehydrated dried fava beans, spice paste, chilisauce, or just plain. “It’s sort of like Minestrone soup,” says Paul Nirens, founder of GalilEat that runs culinary tours in Galilee. “Every cook has his/ her own recipe. I personally like it not too heavy, with a good amount of tehina, no garlic, and with very little lemon,” following a family recipe of a Christian-Arab grandma of 17 kids in the village of Dir Hanna in Israel.

Turkish, Greek, Israeli, or Lebanese—each culture has their own twist on the recipe. The Turkish chef and owner of Sivas Turkish Restaurants in Atlanta, Georgia adds ice cold water while blending the chickpeas and a little white pepper to flavor his hummus. Sometimes small amounts of Greek yogurt, cumin, and hot peppers can be added, and toppings range from foul (fava beans), to eggs and minced lamb. Hummus has even surfaced to dessert menus. New York-based franchise The Hummus & Pita Co. serves chocolate hummus, cookie dough humus, and cake batter hummus with cinnamon toast pita chips, while Delighted by Hummus’ Snickerdoodle hummus has become all the rave after appearing on the hit TV show Shark Tank.

Cake batter hummus, The Hummus & Pita Co.

The Best Way to Eat Hummus

At the famous Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, you will find a row of hummusias, dedicated hummus cafes open for breakfast until late afternoon, typically run by Mizrahi Jews and Arab-Israelis. These are packed with locals starting at breakfast and crowded out by tourists. Masabacha (or hot hummus) is a full hummus-based meal eaten for breakfast or lunch. A huge portion of hummus is served individually, topped with shakshouka, chickpeas, cumin, paprika, chopped fresh parsley, and a whole brownish looking egg which is boiled in black tea. Custom dictates using raw onion scales to scoop the hummus and biting into long green peppers that are served on the side.

One thing to note is that hummus is traditionally served in a red clay bowl with raised edges, allowing for convenience of scooping. Also, for proper eating etiquette, twist your wrist in a clockwise motion instead of dipping right in.

Make it at Home

No matter where hummus comes from, the important part is using good quality ingredients and making it from scratch. Soak dried chickpeas or garbanzo beans with baking soda overnight to soften them instead of using canned preserved ones. Squeeze fresh lemon juice, mince whole garlic cloves, blend in tahini paste, extra virgin olive oil, and kosher salt. Balance the measure of each of the ingredients based on your personal preference. The result will be wholesome hummus that is rich in protein, iron, vitamin C, vitamin B6, fiber, and potassium.

~ Written for Chowhound. April 2018.

An Official Guide to the Unofficial Starbucks Secret Menu

For Chowhound. March 2018. 

Tired of ordering the same few drinks each time you visit Starbucks? What if you could invent your own pick-me-up at your favorite coffee shop? What if all your favorite desserts were made into beverages?

No need for a magic wand to grant this wish! Starbucks has a secret menu, unofficially created by consumers, that gives you a choice of ordering thousands of drinks you probably never even heard of. The next time you enter a Starbucks coffee shop, order your own secret recipe and sip away.

According to Starbucks’ Media Relations, “Starbucks does not have an official ‘secret menu.’ However, in addition to the beverage options listed on our menu boards, there are more than 170,000 ways baristas can customize beverages at Starbucks, including selecting from a variety of milks, syrups, coffee/espresso options, and toppings. If customers would like to order a beverage that is not listed on our menu boards, we recommend they know the recipe so that their barista can handcraft the beverage perfectly for them.”

Many secret recipes have become popular through Instagram feeds and Starbucks has even incorporated them into their “official menus” for limited times. For example, the Christmas Tree Frappuccino spread holiday cheer for a few days in December, while the Zombie Frappuccino played a tribute to the goriness of Halloween.

Check out some of the under-the-radar creations from Starbucks’ Secret Menu.

Colored for Spring

Pink Drink, via Starbucks

Referred to simply as the Pink Drink or Purple Drink, these strawberry acai refreshers with coconut milk and scoops of berries will get you in the mood for spring.

If you have seen people walking out with drinks that have pink and blue swirls or topped with glitter, that is a Unicorn Frappuccino, a jazzier version of the Dragon Frappuccino made with green tea Frappuccino, vanilla bean powder, and berry swirls.

The baby pink Raspberry Caramel Macchiato tastes as good as it looks. Have it with raspberry syrup, ice, milk, espresso, and caramel.

Drink Your Candy Bar

Twix Frappuccino, via Starbucks Secret Menu

The possibilities are endless when it comes to having your favorite candy created into a blended beverage. The candy bar-inspired Twix Frappuccino is a scrumptious mix of caramel Frappuccino, caramel syrup, hazelnut syrup, java chips, and a drizzle of mocha.

Chocolate connoisseurs will love the Ferrero Rocher Frappuccinowith double chocolate chip Frappuccino, mocha syrup, hazelnut syrup, and hazelnut drizzle.

Even if you can’t eat the real thing, this lactose-free Caramel Snickerdoodle Macchiato will surely perk you up. Ask for an iced soy caramel macchiato and add vanilla syrup and cinnamon dolce syrup.

Pick up an after-dinner indulgence in a Thin Mint Frappuccino, made with chocolate syrup, mint syrup, java chips, and honey mixed into a Tazo Green Tea Frappuccino.

Character Rich

Butterbeer Latte, via Starbucks Secret Menu

The Pokemon-Go inspired Pokeball Frappuccino was so popular that some Starbucks locations put it on the specials board. Made with vanilla Frappuccino, strawberries and crème Frappuccino, and topped with strawberry whipped cream, this pink-white and creamy drink is made to look like the ball’s opening.

Harry Potter fans invented the Butter Beer Latte, a milk steamer with caramel syrup, toffee nut syrup, cinnamon dolce syrup, whipped cream, and salted caramel bits. There’s also an iced version of it.

Sweeten the Deal

Banana Cream Pie Frappuccino, via The Odyssey

No need to bake your favorite dessert recipes. Just ask your barista to add sweet ingredients of your choice to a cup and drink away. Order a Vanilla Bean Frappuccino with a pump or two of vanilla and hazelnut syrups, plus a whole banana to make a Banana Cream Pie Frappuccino.

Skip breakfast for a Nutella Frappuccino, a coffee Frappuccino with mocha syrup, hazelnut syrup, and blended whipped cream, topped with caramel drizzle.

Winter may be almost over, but you can still enjoy a Starbucks S’mores Hot Chocolate with chestnut praline syrup, whipped cream, and mocha drizzle added to a regular hot chocolate.

Add one to three pumps of raspberry syrup to a White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino to make it a Raspberry Cheesecake Mocha Frappuccino, or ask your barista to blend a biscotti into any Frappuccino for an impromptu Biscotti Frappuccino.

Drink to Your Health

Iced tea, via Starbucks

If sugary drinks are not your thing, order an Iced Matcha Latte that boasts antioxidants and has a lot less calories. Just mix matcha powder, vanilla, cinnamon, and ice.

Detox with a healthier option of blended drinks with a Superfruit Tea. The green tea with limes and strawberries packs flavor and is good for you too.

Feeling under the weather? Get the Passion Coldbuster Tea with passion tango tea, emperor cloud and mist, half steamed lemonade, half boiling water, and a bit of honey. It helps reduce inflammation, suppresses cough, boosts immunity, and relieves stress and insomnia.

There is an unofficial website dedicated to drink recipes (which is not Starbucks affiliated) where fans can post recipes and pictures of their own creations.  They recommend noting down the recipes as not all baristas will be familiar with the creative drink names.

Also, a ‘Secret Menu for Starbucks’ app available from iTunes provides a database of recipes on your fingertips. Search hot, cold, blended, and tea-based drinks, learn how to order, and rate your drinks.

~ Written for Chowhound. March 2018. 

Breakfast Casseroles from Around the World

For Chowhound. March 2018. 

You don’t need a plane ticket to enjoy food from different countries. Brighten your morning routine with these internationally inspired casserole dishes that can be made ahead. From Mexico to Nigeria, expand your breakfast culture knowledge one egg at a time.

Mexico: Huevos Rancheros

Meaning “rancher’s eggs” in Spanish, these are sunny-side up fried eggs served on lightly fried corn tortillas smothered in tomato-chilisauce, accompanied by refried beans and rice. Top with diced avocados, fresh cilantro, sour cream and salsa to make this hearty breakfast dish that will transport you to a hacienda in Mexico. Get our Huevos Rancheros recipe.

Israel: Shakshuka

Shakshuka is a staple found in the Middle East and North Africa. The name aptly means “all mixed up” as it is a blend of poached eggs, onions, bell peppers, minced meat (optional), and spicy tomato sauce flavored with smoked paprika and oregano. Melt feta cheese on top and serve the casserole with a hearty baguette or fresh warm pita bread. Get our Shakshuka recipe.

Spain: Tortilla Espanola

Fine Cooking

Found at cafes and bars across Spain and in many countries in South America, tortilla espanola can be eaten for breakfast, snack, or as tapas with a glass of wine. The vegetarian and gluten-free baked omelet is made by layering sliced potatoes with eggs, onions, and garlic. To serve, slice into pie size pieces at room temperature. Get the recipe.

Germany: Hoppel Poppel


What better way to use leftovers than to toss them into a breakfast casserole? Hoppel poppel is a traditional breakfast/ supper casserole from Berlin which includes meat, potatoes, onions, and cheese, flavored with heavy cream, dill, salt, and pepper. Feel free to use whatever you have in the fridge—cooked meat, bacon, salami, or even hamburgers. Get the recipe.

Portugal: Bacalhau a Bras


Travel to the Iberian Peninsula through Portuguese comfort food. Salted cod is the national dish of Portugal and it shows up at breakfast time too. Soak dried cod in cold water overnight and layer the casserole with fried shredded potatoes, onions, black olives, garlic, and beaten eggs. Get the recipe.

France: Oeufs au Plat Bressanne

Coley Cooks

Maybe you haven’t made it to the Alpine region of France yet, but you can still brag about your talents when it comes to French cooking. The countryside version of eggs benedict baked with runny eggs makes for great presentation. Fry pieces of toast in butter, add heavy cream seasoned with garlic, tarragon or chives, carefully top the eggs, and bake until the egg whites are firm. Get the recipe.

Pakistan: Khagina

Spice Spoon

Known as egg bhurji in India, tukhum-bonjam in Afghanistan, and khagina in Pakistan, the stovetop scrambled eggs are delightful if you like your breakfast spicy. Cook beaten eggs with onions, tomatoes, chilies, lentils, and turmeric. Serve with chapatti (flatbread) and cardamom-spiced chai. Get the recipe.

Italy: Frittata

Frittata meaning “fried” in Italian is a crustless quiche that is cooked in a cast iron skillet. You can use leftover ingredients, any combination of vegetables, cheese and meats—the possibilities are endless. The key to making a good frittata is beating the eggs vigorously to allow for air to incorporate, and cooking them very slowly on stove top and in the oven. Get our Kale and Roasted Red Pepper Frittata recipe.

Iraq: Makhlama Lahm

This one-pot dish will satisfy the meateater in you. Saute ground lamb with onions, tomatoes, parsley, yellow curry powder, and red chili flakes, then top with soft-baked eggs. The Iraqi breakfast dish dates to the 10th century! Get the recipe.

Nigeria: Egg Stew

Nigerian Food TV

Nigerian egg stew is a staple breakfast at every home in Nigeria, especially on the weekends. Blend red bell peppers and tomatoes to make a sauce, and season with garlic and scotch bonnet for heat. For proteins, add eggs, corned beef, and fish. Serve with boiled yam, potatoes, or chunky plantains. Get the recipe.

Eat Like a Local at Atlanta Airport

For Chowhound. February 2018. 

Airport food doesn’t always have to be greasy fast food, pre-packed sandwiches, and run-of-the-mill chain restaurants. Over 100 million passengers fly through the world’s busiest Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport each year, and they have several options where they can taste local flavors. While most travelers don’t have enough time to step outside the airport and enjoy Atlanta’s eclectic food scene, they can get a pretty good glimpse of it inside the seven terminals.

Check out these local restaurants inside Atlanta airport.

Paschal’s (Atrium, A, C)

Step back in time and visit one of Atlanta’s classic restaurants since 1947. This soul food establishment is known for award-winning fried chicken, and the city location was a meeting place for key civil rights leaders and strategists including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his lieutenants.

Papi’s Caribbean Café (T)

Established by a Cuban refugee, the Cuban grill has a takeout counter to grab a quick ropa vieja sandwich with black beans and yucca fries. Sip on a mojito at the bar, enjoy Latin music, and pick up a fedora at the adjacent shop.

Verasano’s Pizzeria (A)

Jeff Varasano traveled the world for 10 years perfecting the art of making pizza, eventually moving from the Bronx to Atlanta and taking the local gourmet pizza niche by storm. The restaurant is consistently ranked as a top pizzeria in the nation.

Grindhouse Killer Burgers (D, T)

The local chain is rated one of Atlanta’s best for burgers and brisket chili. Build your own burger with a wide selection of toppings, or order a Hillbilly Style with pimento cheese and jalapeños, along with distinctive Georgia sides—Vidalia onion rings, fried green tomatoes, and sweet potato fries.

Goldberg’s Bagel Company (T)

This family-run deli started serving New York style bagels in Atlanta in 1972 and has several locations around the city. Serving 32 varieties of bagels and homestyle Po’Boys, along with deli salads, stuffed cabbage, and steamed corned-beef pastrami, this is one of your classic neighborhood Jewish delis.

The Original El Taco (C, Mezzanine)

Who doesn’t like unpretentious good Mexican food while on the go? Atlanta’s neighborhood taco stand is always a big hit with travelers, offering simple and fresh Oaxaca-style tacos, big boss burritos, and spicy quesadillas for lunch and dinner.

Fresh to Order (B)

This Atlanta restaurant chain serves gourmet salads, sandwiches, and entrees at casual prices. Co-owner and South African immigrant Pierre Panos is behind the concept of healthy fast food at affordable prices, which is why F2O is one of the most popular lunch spots in the city.

The Varsity (C)

If you can’t go check out the biggest drive-in restaurant in the world in downtown Atlanta, you can still get a taste of its legendary burgers and chili dogs. Celebrating its 90th year, the family-owned chain still uses the same recipes for almost a century that even President Obama and President George H.W Bush can’t resist.

One Flew South Restaurant & Sushi Bar (E)

One Flew South is one of the few upscale dining establishments at Atlanta Airport. The cuisine is defined as “southernational,” inspired by world travels and using fresh, local ingredients. Find everything from chicken noodle soup and Korean style burgers to good quality sushi here.

Jekyll Island Seafood Company (F)

The Jekyll Island-inspired restaurant offers a taste of Georgia’s Atlantic coast with fried crawfish, buffalo shrimp, grits, fresh oysters, and seafood gumbo served with southern hospitality. The only thing missing is an ocean breeze!

Atlanta Chophouse & Brewery (Atrium)

A classic steakhouse with hearty sandwiches and salads in a casual setting. This is where you can get a fantastic prime rib served quickly. Also, have a business meeting over craft beer in one of their private rooms.

Atlanta Stillhouse (T)

Experience a bourbon flight (32 to choose from), cocktails, and whiskey at the Jim Beam (one of the best-selling bourbon brands in the world) co-owned restaurant. Pair it with Southern-style deviled eggs topped with crispy bacon, or a side of brisket.

TAP Airport (A)

Owned by local Concentrics Restaurants group, the gastropub showcases a taste of Atlanta with dishes such as buttermilk fried chicken, hot boiled peanuts, and shrimp and Logan Turnpike grits. Try local beers on tap, or relax with a porch swing peach punch.

Lotta Frutta (B)

Who says you can’t eat healthy on the road? What began as a website about fruit facts evolved into a Pan-Latin fruiteria serving Mexican-style fresh-cut fruit cups, South American-style smoothies, Cuban-inspired sandwiches, Mexican paletas (fruit popsicles), and Ecuadorian ice creams.

Piece of Cake (A)

If you are craving something sweet, head over to one of Atlanta’s legendary bakeries, Piece of Cake, for rich slices of coconut, banana, and pound cake. They also have cupcakes, brownies, cheese straw,s and cookies baked daily.

~ Written for Chowhound. February 2018. 

How the World’s Largest Drive-In Restaurant Has Operated for Nearly a Century

For Chowhound. February 2018. 

You know you are in the South when you hear men and women screaming “what’ll ya have, what’ll ya have?” as they move you down quickly through the line. If you don’t respond quickly, you’ll be sent back to the line. Sounds like a high school cafeteria? This fast food restaurant is close to it!

With James Beard-nominated chefs, award-winning restaurants, and a myriad of international eateries, the dining scene in Atlanta has changed dramatically over the last few years. But one thing has remained constant for nearly a century—The Varsity.

The legendary hot dog stand was founded by a Georgia Tech student, Frank Gordy, in 1928. Gordy opened the first location across from Tech’s campus in downtown Atlanta and called it “The Yellow Jacket” after the men’s college basketball team. As demand for his messy beef chili dogs, greasy onion rings, fried fruit pies, and frosted orange milkshakes (aka F.O.s) grew, he took the concept to Athens, Ga. and renamed it “The Varsity.”

The Varsity in downtown Atlanta is the biggest drive-in restaurant in the world, covering two city blocks. The multi-level car park can accommodate 600 cars. No one can miss the V-shaped red neon signs with a ‘50s college tailgate feel and barhops dressed in red jackets while driving past Atlanta on I-75. Inside this huge space, it is always loud and busy, as you would expect during recess. The seating downstairs is made to look like classrooms where you can enjoy your tray of burgers, fries, and drink seated at your desk.

In the 1950s and ‘60s when drive-in culture was trending, The Varsity parking lot was not just one of the best fast-food restaurants; it was a place to socialize with friends and go out on a date. “Where else would one eat in Atlanta? It is an experience, an institution!” says Robert Howarth, a semi-retired real estate professional who was a regular at The Varsity when attending Georgia Tech during the ‘70s.

The fast food chain now has seven store locations (including two at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport) and four food trucks in Georgia, and it remains family-owned and operated.

Ashley Weiser, marketing director and granddaughter of Frank Gordy, attributes their success to having great food at a great price consistently over the past 90 years. “Not much has changed over the years and that is one of the things that makes us special. We still serve the same menu items, using the same secret family recipes,” she says, referring to a plain hot dog costing $1.59 and a hamburger at $1.89. Though the menu has gone through very little changes, recent additions include triple stack bacon cheeseburgers and two salads.

While gourmet farm-to-table hamburger restaurants are popping up around the country and fried food is getting less trendy, The Varsity is serving original recipe chili-dog combos, pimento cheese sandwiches, and sweet peach iced teas. “Food trends always come and go but we remain the same and that is what people love about The Varsity. Our business remains steady no matter what new trends in food service appear because we offer delicious quality products and that will never go out of style,” says Weiser.

Even President Obama and President George H.W Bush have stopped by to eat chili dogs at The Varsity in Atlanta.

You clearly don’t come here when you’re on a diet. The biggest draw to The Varsity is nostalgia. People who grew up in metro Atlanta have been eating at The Varsity for generations. They have celebrated birthdays, shared family meals, or had their first kiss at the drive-in. Many of them come back year after year because they want to walk down memory lane and feel like a kid again. Of course, the food is good too.

Weiser recalls, “The Varsity has been part of my life as long as I can remember. I had my birthday parties there as a child, worked there in high school and have great memories of visiting my dad and grandmother at our Atlanta location while they were working. I’ve always loved The Varsity and its long history in Atlanta and how much it means to people.”

Header image courtesy of The Varsity.

~ Written for Chowhound. February 2018. 

A Tuscan-American Love Story: How Cooking and Dancing Brought This Atlanta Couple Together

For Chowhound. February 2018. 

An American girl travels to Italy, meets a charming Italian man, gets married, and together they live happily ever after. It sounds like a cliché love story, right?

Well, it happened in January 2009 when Meredith Hall, a resident of Atlanta, met Luigi D’Arienzo (who goes by Gigi) during a milonga in the medieval city of Siena. Gigi and his friends hosted and attended a tango social each month held in different towns around Italy. They would often cook for 80-100 people and enjoy evenings filled with drinking local wines, dancing, and meeting new people. “The first moment I saw Meredith was emotional. I wanted to dance with her. I didn’t think of anything, I just wanted to be with her. And then it was the best dance I had ever had!” Gigi recalls.

Since then, the couple has been dancing and teaching others around them how to savor the good life with their family-run Italian café in Atlanta and curated culinary trips to Italy.

Gigi D’Arienzo, Tuscany at Your Table; photo by Alessio Medda

Tuscany at Your Table commenced as a home-based cooking school offering small groups a chance to experience regional dishes from around Italy, honing on Gigi’s background of running an agro-tourism farmhouse in Tuscany. “Each week we would tour a different region of Italy through our palates,” Gigi says, teaching Italian food lovers how to cook carbonara from Rome, chickpea soup from Tuscany, and migliaccio (ricotta cake) from Naples. Those who wanted to dive deeper into the country’s rich culture embarked on trips to Sicily and the Amalfi Coast with the young couple.

After over 100 cooking classes, the city demanded more of Gigi’s original recipes demonstrated in a southern Italian accent with his sweet wife baking crostadas by his side. They rented a storefront in the trendy Virginia-Highlands neighborhood, known for funky boutiques and notable restaurants.

More Romantic Italian

Gigi now spends his days making homemade pastas, simple sauces, and delicately layered paninis, while Meredith specializes in desserts. The menu changes daily and is based on seasonal ingredients. Soups, salads, and pastas can be bought by servings or weight to take home for dinner. There is also a storefront selling Italian imports such as olives, chocolates, wine, cheese, prosciutto, and ceramics. While there’s not much room to dine-in, Tuscany at Your Table becomes a neighborhood hangout in the evenings.

Cooking classes, wine tastings, and tango nights are what draw singles and couples into the shop. Regular customers come in each week and meet new people from the community. They bring friends and celebrate birthdays over Italian food and wine. Often, Gigi and Meredith offer an impromptu tango lesson and everyone starts dancing. Perhaps someone else will also find their lover at one of these events.

Gigi & Meredith, photo by Rosemary Calli

Food is an integral part of Gigi and Meredith’s life. Though they work together and have a newborn baby, they take time to have a romantic meal at home from time to time. Gigi prepares orange and fennel salad, champagne and strawberry risotto, and molten chocolate cake, paired with a bottle of Lamùri (meaning love) a fine ruby red wine from Sicily. “We work well together dividing our responsibilities and are compatible at home and work. Even though we are busy, we are happy!” Gigi claims and offers to share his romantic secrets at a Valentine’s day cooking class.

Keeping with Italian tradition, on Feb. 15, Tuscany at Your Table will celebrate San Faustino, or “Singles Day” as it is known in Italy, with a cooking class only for singles. Typically, unattached men and women go out for drinks, dinners, and dances in Italy as a retort to San Valentino.

When recounting her time in Italy and what led to start her business, Meredith says, “What do I not love about Italy? I love the countryside, the people, and the language. I went with the excuse of learning the language, but discovered beautiful architecture in quaint historic cities, and warm, fun-loving people. I love that the food varies from region to region and there’s so much variety. That’s ultimately what we want to share through Tuscany at Your Table here in Atlanta.”

Header image courtesy of Rosemary Calli.

~ Written for Chowhound. February 2018. 

‘Refugee Cookies’: How a Syrian Woman and Her Family Turned Hardship Into a ‘Sweet, Sweet’ Business

For Chowhound. January 2018. 

Khaled and Ruwaida had a deep-rooted life back in Damascus, Syria. They owned two apartments and a few electronic shops. Khaled worked, while Ruwaida took care of their two kids. But political unrest forced them to leave their home country and walk across to Jordan, where they lived as refugees for four years. They lost their assets, sold most of their possessions for survival, and arrived in the United States with almost nothing. One of the few things they could carry with them—a wooden cookie mold from Syria that belonged to Ruwaida’s mother and grandmother—became the foundation of their future.

Once the family arrived in Georgia in 2016, refugee resettlement organization New American Pathways and Holy Trinity Parish helped them settle in. Initially, they relied on the help of the community for food and shelter. Amanda Avutu, one of the volunteers who has now become a close friend of the family, says, “I wanted to help stock their kitchen for them when they arrived at their new apartment but was totally lost! I went with an arbitrary shopping list to an Indian grocery store not really knowing what Syrians eat,” referring to how little knowledge she had of the country’s cuisine.

Not knowing English and having no transferable working skills, Khaled turned to minimum wage work, while Ruwaida baked cookies for her neighbors, the only way she could say “thank you” for their generosity. Little did she realize; her small sweet tokens would lead her to start her very own business and support her family.

Photo by David Naugle

The idea of “Sweet, Sweet Syria” was birthed during a neighborhood music festival where Ruwaida sold 45 dozen cookies in three hours from a friend’s porch. “Refugee cookies! Refugee cookies!” her 10-year old son yelled from the porch. It was the first time Ruwaida (now 29) had received money for her work and it took some getting used to the idea of being the first Arabic businesswoman in her family. “I was so excited and my kids seemed so proud of me” she says, smiling shyly.

“We Syrians think about food since the time we wake up,” Ruwaida says, and recalls fond food memories of her home country. She has been baking traditional Mamool cookies since she was 12 years old. Her mother taught her how to make the shortbread dough, season it with orange and rose water, and stuff it with dates, pistachios, chocolates, and coconut. The recipe has passed on through generations. It’s a 10-step labor intensive process and good quality ingredients are crucial. The cookies are delicate, flavorful, yet not too sweet.

Photo by David Naugle

“Do you want to work?” Ruwaida’s new American friends asked, and sought permission from her husband to be sensitive to her conservative cultural background. He immediately said, “Yes, but only in the house.” With much help from a Google translator, her advisors helped set up her website, took her for English language lessons, and enrolled her in a business accelerator program.

Since they did not have an outlet to sell, Avutu would sit at a neighborhood coffee shop to meet with customers and deliver the cookies they ordered through word of mouth. “I felt like a smuggler of cookies!” she laughs. The owner noticed this and signed up for a weekly order and gave Avutu a corner at the shop to meet with customers.

Next, they bought a tent, table, and sandwich board and headed to the farmers markets. The entire family was positively motivated when they saw people from all walks of life enjoying their homemade delights. They started receiving messages from people across the country who were eager to try the cookies, and they shipped the cookies via UPS.

Photo by David Naugle

Ruwaida’s friends also started a crowdfunding campaign to help her rent a commercial kitchen. She now supplies cookies to local coffee shops and farmers markets in Atlanta, and takes online orders ($10 per dozen). Her husband/sous chef assists in running private Syrian dinners at friends’ homes that serve as a place for cross cultural exchanges. The kids get a chance to see other American homes and share their own backgrounds.

In less than two years since their move to the US, Khaled and Ruwaida are loving their new entrepreneurial lives and eventually want to open a small brick and mortar Syrian restaurant.

“The cookies are not sweet themselves,” Ruwaida explains. The sweetness she is referring to is the recollections she has of Syria. She wants people who taste her cookies to have a positive experience, and not associate the country with only death and destruction. So, she named her business “Sweet, Sweet Syria.”

Header image courtesy of Sweet, Sweet Syria.

Written for Chowhound. January 2018.