Sanaa Abourezk’s fondest memories include watching her grandmother cook in a village outside Damascus.
Her grandmother got up at 4 a.m. to stoke up the tanoor, a clay oven. When the inside was blazing hot, she tossed in pillows of dough which cooked in less than a minute. Add a little olive oil and za’atar – a mixture of thyme, oregano, basil, sesame seed, dried sumac, salt – and breakfast was served. “It’s fantastic, especially when it’s hot,” Sanaa remembers all these years later.
Now Sanaa runs her own Middle Eastern restaurant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s a long way from her home in Damascus.
And a long story. Wanting to see their daughter in a profession, Sanaa’s parents discouraged her interest in cooking. In fact, Sanaa claims during her childhood, her mother forbade her from entering the kitchen except to eat. But despite coming to the U.S. to get a Ph.D. in agricultural engineering, cooking was Sanaa’s destiny.
She met her husband while doing a stint working at an embassy in Washington, D.C. Jim Abourezk, the first Arab-American Senator, hailed from South Dakota, a place Sanaa had never heard of. Once they married, he told her he wanted to go home.
At first, Sanaa was terribly lonely in Rapid City, the first place they lived in South Dakota. Her husband bought them a house in the hills. “There was nobody around me,” she said. “I mean nobody but coyotes.”
Her husband had his law practice to keep him busy. Sensing his new wife’s unhappiness, he suggested she study cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She went to Paris, then studied in Italy under Master Chef Masha Innocenti.
But she still wasn’t happy to come home to Rapids City. She and her husband decided to move to the southeastern end of the state. “People in Sioux Falls are more open to foreigners,” she said. “Basically I stood out in Rapids City.”
The Abourezk family felt welcome in Sioux Falls. Sanaa was inspired to open a restaurant that would provide a gourmet, healthful and inexpensive alternative to fast food. She opened Sanaa’s in 2003.
Vegetarian Food in South Dakota?
Since her husband and daughter are both vegetarian, plant-based dishes feature heavily on the menu. Her initial menu was about half vegetarian and half meat dishes. “People said, ‘you’re crazy, this is South Dakota, no way you’re going to make it if you don’t have burgers and French fries,’” Sanaa recalled.
But people turned up and loved her food. Not only does she draw in all the vegetarians in Sioux Falls, but many omnivores eat her vegetarian dishes. Her menu keeps creeping in the direction of a plant-based diet and she’s also added many gluten-free options. “If you give people something tasty and rich, it’s easy to convert them,” she said.
Sanaa’s is an informal place where the lunch crowd forms a line to order at the counter, helping themselves to drinks out of a fridge or a cup of hot coffee. They find tables amongst colorful paintings and textiles and eat Sanaa’s thick, puffy pita, still warm from the oven. She makes a variety of fatayer sandwiches rolled up in pita dough, such as falafel, eggplant or spinach and walnuts. Standout dips include the muhammara, chopped coarse enough that you feel the texture of the walnuts, and sweet from pomegranate molasses and a little spicy from red pepper. The green olive tapenade is especially delicious.
Sanaa’s has the distinction of being Sioux Falls’ first green restaurant. They use only energy-efficient bulbs and recycle everything possible. Sanaa makes her food from scratch, thus avoiding much of the packaging other restaurants use. Her takeout containers are made of corn husks which degrade within three days.
In addition to running her restaurant, Sanaa is currently working on her fourth cookbook. “My best trick is that you can give me any recipe you like and I can make it into a very tasty, healthy recipe,” she said, “With nothing artificial.”
She’s especially proud of her vegan crème caramel and vegan mac and cheese recipes, which, along with many others, are available free on her website “That’s my strength and my passion. I want people so much to not be afraid to experiment and cook healthy. I truly believe in the role of diet. I wish America would go back to cooking. Cooking means fresh ingredients. It doesn’t mean a can opener.” — by Teresa Bergen, RFT Contributor