This is A Million Plates, The Chronicle’s regular column about immigrant food in the Bay Area, centered around the theory that there are a million different plates of food eaten every day in this region.
On a drizzly Saturday in a San Francisco storage-facility parking lot, Mounir Bahloul and his wife, Wafa, are doing a test run in their soon-to-be-launched food trailer, Kayma, which is hitched to their family car.
The lilliputian space is surprisingly chockablock with a galley kitchen that fits a prep station, a gas range and oven, a flat-top and a deep fryer, but more than two people inside turns it into a game of Tetris. The magenta hijab Wafa wears is a vibrant burst of life against a gloomy Bay Area winter sky as they work on two Algerian halal dishes for their menu, chatting with each other in a melodic mix of Arabic and French.
There’s tli tli bdjedj, a chicken tomato stew seasoned with the ubiquitous North African spice blend of ras el hanout, served over steamed orzo, and there’s a special version of couscous served with a stew of lamb neck, chickpeas and carrots in a sauce made from water, onion, black pepper and, of course, ras el hanout, that Wafa‘s family in Algeria made for holidays and celebrations.
They do this in between running in the rain to check on their daughters, 4-year-old Mayssem and 4-month-old Baylassen, who are in the car because the trailer space is so small. Occasionally, their oldest gets out of the car to splash in puddles next to the trailer, while one of them holds the little one who’s wearing a fluffy pink jacket and watching the other parent cook. When you run a food business with kids in a new country, it’s just what you do.
Kayma is a catering company that got its start at La Cocina in April 2018. The Bahlouls’ 2020 plans include launching the food trailer and a kiosk in the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, which is opening in the Tenderloin in the spring. The name Kayma refers to nomadic tents used by the Amazigh (formerly known as Berber, considered a derogatory term) population of North Africa. Specifically, their family is a part of the Chaoui in northeast Algeria, and the two hail from the city of Batna. “Our people are nomads, so we traveled from Batna to the Bay Area with our kayma to share our food and hospitality,” Mounir says.
Algerian food has a mix of Mediterranean and African influences, including French and Arab/Islamic cooking. Couscous is king. “Every house has at least 10 to 20 kilos of couscous ready to cook,” Mounir says. He grew up eating it for lunch every week after Jumu’ah, a Friday prayer service for Muslims, with his extended family at his grandparents’ home.
They’d all eat from the same big dish of steamed couscous topped with a tomato stew made from lamb or chicken, vegetables and potatoes. He laughs remembering racing against his family members, digging to unearth the meat buried underneath the couscous. “We Algerians love meat,” Wafa explains. “If we eat a meal without meat, it’s just a snack.”
Mounir started cooking when he moved to the Bay Area in 2008, and couscous was the first of many dishes he asked his mom to teach him over the phone. It’s more complicated than the American method of boiling. It’s soaked, dried, mixed with oil and separated by hand, steamed in a couscousiere (a pot with a steamer insert), and separated again while sprayed with water; depending on the quality, the steaming/separating may be repeated another one to two times until everything is fluffy and tender.
The trailer and kiosk are small, so each will serve a limited rotating menu. Wafa started cooking with her mother’s pastry and catering company in Algeria, and studied French pastry in Algeria. She turns out a variety of savory and sweet pastries for Kayma, like boorek, fried phyllo pouches filled with potatoes, cream cheese, olives and a perfectly runny egg.
There is also baklava and coca tomate, a beautifully bronzed puff pastry hand pie filled with a spicy mix of tomatoes, onions and garlic. Mounir remembers going to Algerian bakeries as a kid at specific times of the day to get coca straight from the oven, hot and crispy, and they hope to have a similar schedule for their marketplace pastries and breads.
“Bread is served with everything, because we are French!” Wafa jokes. That means breads like kesra, a semolina-based flatbread, and m’hajeb, a semolina crepe-like flatbread filled with tomato ras el hanout sauce. Both are traditionally cooked on a flat clay griddle called a tagine (different from a Moroccan tagine), which is difficult to source locally, so she makes due with a stainless steel griddle.
Other menu highlights include grilled meats, plus a variety of meat and vegetable stews and soups (also called tagines), many with harissa, a spicy chile paste mostly used in eastern Algeria. Chorba is one of their specialties, a lamb tomato soup with freekah that Wafa grew up eating the entire month of Ramadan, and doubara, a spicy chickpea soup that the couple say is common for breakfast because it’s high in protein and a good source of energy. To cap it all off is a sweet Algerian mint tea with pine nuts, which adds a hit of nutty savoriness to the drink.
There are times when they feel the strain of trying to launch a food business as immigrants. They’ve had to get used to how fast Americans speak and how to cook for bigger groups with American kitchen equipment.
Having kids without family nearby hasn’t been easy. The couple were prepping for a catering event at La Cocina’s incubator kitchen last year even as Wafa was overdue by a few days for the birth of their youngest. At the end of the day, while cleaning chicken, her water broke. She went from La Cocina to the hospital, gave birth the next day, and the following day sent her husband to the catering event while she recovered. “I told him to go. It was organized and everything would be good. I always try to be positive,” she says.
Adjusting to American ingredients has been another challenge. “A lot of the ingredients don’t taste the same as in Algeria,” Wafa explains. It makes trying to re-create flavors from home a constant struggle.
For example, olive oil in Algeria is made with black olives, while American olive oil comes from green olives. The first time she made baklava, Wafa was shocked at how sweet the honey was and how the butter was greasy and strong-tasting. It required testing many different honeys and butters until she found something that sort of resembled what she knew, which can be expensive for a fledgling food business. “You will never make it taste exactly like home, but we do our best,” she says.
Yet they say it’s been worth the effort to share a taste of Algeria with the Bay Area, and to build their own business. As Mounir Bahloul says, “We came here for the American dream.”
Leena Trivedi-Grenier is a freelance writer living in the Bay Area. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Leena_Eats