My great-grandaunt Ursula had an immaculate dining room. Its china cabinet was filled to the brim with Hummels and other porcelain things too fragile to be of any use. Its chandelier was a starburst of real crystals that had been dusted Lord knows how many times. The cloth on the table was real Nottingham lace, and shielded against all insults by a thick layer of clear vinyl that would squeak if you glided a finger across it.
In no particular order these are the people Ursula would have bothered to set that table for: Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy, or the Pope.
Reserving the dining room for honored guests is a quirk of the older generation. It would seem the habit transcends culture, because Zainab Abdalla’s own mother had it. The woman worked her fingers to the bone at four jobs so she could keep her five children in a spacious Cairo flat – complete with a dining room fit for a sultan – but only fed them at a low table in the living room. This modest furnishing brought her family closer together.
This is not to suggest that family meals were anything less than paramount in the Abdalla household. On any evening the lovely aromas of traditional dishes in the making emanated from the kitchen. Little Zainab watched wide-eyed at the magic her mother conducted and studied her every trick.
“Egypt is not a wealthy country,” said Zainab, “so meat is not the number one ingredient there. Much of our cuisine is all about getting the most flavor we can into legumes, beans and rice. We use spices like coriander, cumin and paprika to create rich flavor profiles without overpowering the taste buds, and nearly everything we cook begins with sweet caramelized onions. We create nuanced textures with fresh raw onions, turnips, olives, tomatoes and cucumbers. And arugula! No other place’s arugula tastes better than Egypt’s.
Zainab moved to Fargo with her family when she was 10 years old. Snow fell as her plane landed. She thought it was little bits of paper.
“I always helped my mom cook for family gatherings and holidays,” said Zainab. “I don’t have to tell you how important dinner is during the month of Ramadan, when it’s traditional to fast during the daylight hours. For a long time my family told me I should focus solely on cooking. I really did want to, but I just didn’t imagine Fargo would want traditional Egyptian cuisine. I left for Chicago to become a flight attendant instead.
“My mother’s cancer returned three years ago. I moved back home to be with her, and she passed away nine months later.
“At that point I felt like I had nothing to lose. I took the risk and pursued cooking full-time. My family is not wealthy, but they helped me build a little food truck business from scratch. I named it Suna’s Egyptian Eatery. ‘Suna’ was my mother’s nickname.
“To my absolute delight I had been wrong. The Fargo-Moorhead community could not have been more welcoming of my traditional cooking, and wherever I parked I met a crowd eager to try something so different. I think I cried a little bit when I saw the first long line forming outside my truck’s window!
“I don’t mean to boast, but I don’t think it was just Midwestern hospitality that brought diners to Suna’s. My food also just happens to be really, really good. People love my koshari, a traditional street food made with rice, lentils and garbanzo beans tossed in garlic and vinaigrette with crispy fried onions on top. I believe Egyptian falafel is truly the best because it’s made out of pungent fava beans instead of garbanzo. And my arnabeet, which is deep fried cauliflower with fresh dill and parsley served on warm pita bread with arugula and cucumbers, would give any state fair food a run for its money.
“Suna’s is by no means exclusively vegan. I make kufta kebabs, grilled beef and lamb patties with fresh red peppers, cilantro and parsley served with tahini sauce on the side. I marinate the chicken for my chicken kabobs in yogurt, olive oil, lemon juice and other spices overnight so the flavors permeate all the way to the meat’s center. Drizzled in my special tzatziki sauce and served over rice, that makes for a very wholesome meal.
“I sold my food truck in October. I plan to open a small cafe when circumstances allow it. And I hope that will be very soon, because I really miss feeding you all!”
Zainab is making frequent pop-up appearances at Sol Ave. Kitchen in Moorhead until Suna’s finds its permanent location. To see when you can stop by for some real Egyptian food or to order fine catering, please visit facebook.com/sunaseatery.
(I believe I’m owed a big congratulation for resisting the urge to make a “food pyramid” pun in this article.)
By David Scheller