At Mama Lamees, one of the newest food kiosks to open at Public Market Emeryville, Lamees Dahbour serves a variety of Palestinian halal comfort food. Her mnazzalet zahra, or roasted cauliflower in a labneh tahini sauce with fried garlic, tastes of the best Palestinian home-style cooking, praise that Dahbour takes to heart. “Hamdullah!” (Praise be to God), she said.
Dahbour’s food is neither fussy nor fancy, just deeply satisfying. Mama Lamees’ menu also offers falafel and shawarma wraps, kebab plates, salads like fatoush (cucumber and tomatoes with crispy pita), desserts like qatayef biljouzz (a sweet dumpling made with walnuts) and weekly changing specials. Prices generally range from $5-$15 per item. On my visit, Mama Lamees offered mujaddarah, lentils and rice with caramelized onions, and the above-mentioned mnazzalet zahra. Dahbour rounded out both specials with two pieces of roasted chicken and a side.
Mama Lamees opened earlier this fall. The kiosk is run in partnership with both City Center Realty Partners, which manages and owns the Public Market, and La Cocina, the San Francisco-based food business incubator that provides assistance and mentorship to primarily immigrant women of color and in this particular case, offers subsidized rent to help new entrepreneurs get in the door. Dahbour is the third owner to take up residence in this spot, and if she follows on the heels of her predecessors, she’ll be doing more than all right. (The first was Nite Yun, who began the concept for nationally-recognized Nyum Bai in Fruitvale, and second was Fernay McPherson of Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement, who has now taken up a longer residence in another kiosk across the food hall).
That Dahbour calls herself Mama is no accident. She imbues a motherly love and care in her food and her business. And she calls everyone habibi (“my love”), including her staff and customers. But it was her love for her own kids that led her to start Mama Lamees, and to work her hardest to ensure they not only had the opportunities that she did not, but that they did not endure the hardships she had throughout her life.
The child of Palestinian refugees in Kuwait, Dahbour was a person without a country for most of her life. Her father fled his native village in the Palestinian West Bank with much difficulty to work in Kuwait. But while her father was able to gain employment in Kuwait, the country did not offer citizenship to foreigners or their children who were born there.
Dahbour is the middle child of 10. Her mother’s last pregnancy was difficult, and the matriarch was forced to stay at the hospital for some time. During this time, Dahbour, who has loved to cook since she was 10 years old, saw it as an opportunity to prove herself.
“It was my big chance to be the queen of the kitchen and do the cooking because I had been watching her,” she said. “My whole family and my dad were shocked that I knew how to make such good food.”
Dahbour had other ambitions, too. She was smart and tutored her younger siblings. She started taking college courses, excelling in math and science, and working at the Central Bank of Kuwait. Her more traditionally-minded father was against her going to school and working, which he found “aggressive,” she said. But although he wasn’t thrilled, he went along with it, as he could see it made his daughter happy.
But things changed when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Dahbour described the tanks rolling in as if it were yesterday. Along with her father and brothers, she was arrested and tortured. Kuwaiti soldiers were tortured and killed in the streets by Iraqi forces, and because Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat backed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the Palestinians fared just as badly, at the hands of both the Kuwaitis and the Iraqis. There was a lot of suffering.
A few years later, when Dahbour was in her late 20s, her father arranged for her to marry. She had little choice in the matter. There was no love in her household, but rather disrespect and domestic violence, with each day bringing uncertainty and fear. Dahbour bore three children and the family emigrated to America, but after 15 years, she summoned up the courage to leave her husband.
It wasn’t easy, not for her, or her kids. “I struggled a lot,” she said. They lived off food stamps and in low-income housing in San Francisco. Dahbour got a job working for the Consulate of Yemen, and most of her salary went to pay for therapy for her kids, who struggled to adjust to their new lives.
“I felt like I’m losing my kids,” she said. “We all were under a lot of stress. All of them were failing in school and none of them were doing well in English.” Around this time as well, Dahbour had lost her job.
But things turned around. Her kids started to excel in school, so much so that it was impossible for this reporter to keep straight which one earned a scholarship to college, or was valedictorian, or is doing research at UCSF as a high school student.
Although she still hasn’t fully recovered from those difficult years, Dahbour is grateful for how different things are now. To thank her kids’ teachers and principals for their extra help, she cooked them a traditional Palestinian feast. That’s when the food business idea took root.
“God takes something and gives you something else,” she said, noting, “I just set up everything and left, and when I came back everyone was staring at me like there was something wrong. They said, ‘This food is amazing, why don’t you open your own restaurant?’”
A friend found out about La Cocina and urged her to make an appointment there.
“This is Palestinian home cooking. Every single thing I make is exactly the way we made it at home.” — Lamees Dahbour, chef-owner of Mama Lamees
“My story really started with La Cocina, it’s really an amazing organization,” Dahbour said. Through them, she’s learned that owning a food business is about so much more than just cooking, and she’s challenging herself in ways she never thought possible.
La Cocina got her a farmers market stand (with her three kids helping), connected her with Off The Grid and eventually, got her the kiosk in Emeryville. She has also done a lot of catering along the way.
“This is Palestinian home cooking,” she said. “Every single thing I make is exactly the way we made it at home.” She takes pride in how the unfamiliar names of dishes roll off the tongue easily of her repeat customers, and they return with their families.
While she’s not trying to be overtly political, she said she can’t help but be proud of her food and the culture it represents. It’s also given her a livelihood in her adopted homeland. She admits it’s incredibly hard work at her age — she’s 50-something — and she hopes Emeryville will lead to greater opportunities.
“This menu is letting the Bay Area know that there is a Palestine on the map. No one can erase it, it’s something genetic,” she said. “My mom got these recipes from her mom and passed them down to me, and now my kids know all these recipes and this food story will continue for hundreds of years.”
Mama Lamees is open 11 a.m.-8 p.m., daily.