Lamees Dahbour beamed a smile at me as she gathered my order. The chef and owner of Mama Lamees, she took the time to explain what was inside each container while one of her employees answered the telephone. When she opened the lid on the falafel plate, it was perfectly composed. Each serving of hummus and mutabal—a dip made from eggplant and tahini—glistened with freshly cut onions and parsley.
In a separate container, basmati rice had turned a golden color after simmering in a seasoned broth. Dahbour pointed out that it should be served with the mnazzalet zahra, fried cauliflower stewed in a labaneh—a thick, yogurt-like cheese—and tahini sauce. She assigned slices of pita bread to the falafel plate. And then noted that both pita and rice accompany the chicken kababs.
Since opening her kiosk in 2019, Mama Lamees has received local and national press notices for the recipes Dahbour learned from her mother and grandmother. In Bon Appétit, Amiel Stanek described the mnazzalet zahra as "the most comforting roasted cauliflower lounging in spiced labneh." But to achieve these comforting flavors, the cooking is time-consuming and labor-intensive. When we spoke on the phone a few days after my visit, the chef remembered I'd ordered it. "You can't believe how long it takes to get the real taste of it," she said.
When she began her year-long residency at the Emeryville Public Market, she worked up to 16 hours a day. "The hardest part in opening is finding labor," Dahbour said. But for her, labor means something more than merely finding someone to take orders or to prep food in the kitchen. It means finding loyal employees who not only believe in the product but who will also present the dishes with the chef's careful instructions. For the first six months, that part of the business was stable. But after a two-week closure due to the initial Covid-19 lockdown, many of the employees at Mama Lamees didn't return to work. Dahbour recalled that, "We had to start over again to find people."
After Mama Lamees reached its one-year anniversary at the Public Market in August, Dahbour signed a six-month extension for her kiosk. While she admitted that running a small business isn't easy, the stand remained open during 2020 as a result of her tenacity. "I'm not a person who gives up easily," she said, adding: "I'm a single mother with three kids."
Dahbour described the dishes she makes as authentic Palestinian food. Although she lived in Kuwait before coming to the U.S., the chef said she learned the right way "to cook a Kuwaiti dish and the right way to cook a Palestinian dish. But I never mixed them." La Cocina, the San Francisco restaurant incubator that helped Dahbour secure the Emeryville kiosk, also published two of her recipes in the organization's 2019 cookbook We Are La Cocina: Recipes in Pursuit of the American Dream. Dahbour said that one recipe (maqluba) is from Palestine and the other (samak mashwe bilforn) is Kuwaiti.
She spoke confidently about the subtle distinctions between similar dishes from different Middle Eastern countries. "We make grape leaves in Palestine. We stuff them with meat and rice and parsley," she said. In Lebanon, they make the same dish—but it's vegetarian. "They serve it cold and we serve it as a hot dish," she said.
Her mujaddarah, a lentil, rice and onion dish, has an equivalent in Egypt called koshari. "It's the most flavorful, lovely dish in Egypt," Dahbour said. "They add one other component to it, a small pasta. Otherwise, it's the same."
Earlier this year, Ligaya Mishan wrote a New York Times article titled "The Rise of Palestinian Food." In it she mentioned a number of recent cookbooks that present the following problem, "How to speak of the cuisine, given the political context?" The eloquent answer Mishan articulated for the cookbook authors was, "If cooking is in part an act of preservation, a way to sustain cultural identity across time and distance, it is also an art of resilience, demanding the ability to adapt."
In the context of this troubled and troubling year, Dahbour stayed true to her original vision: to serve the traditional flavors and dishes of her Palestinian heritage. "I want people to have the real taste," she said. "I'm cooking the same way my grandma used to cook."
Mama Lamees, open 11am to 8pm Monday to Sunday, 5959 Shellmound St., Emeryville. 510.350.7391. mamalamees.com.