Since she began her night-long baking escapades following the birth of her twins, Lubna Lulu Abura’s za’atar and musakhan flavour crackers have won the Palestinian chef an American fan base.
In a few short years, Lubna, also known by her professional sobriquet ‘Lulu’, founded the first Palestinian snacks on the go, in the form of gourmet crackers infused with traditional Palestinian spices and herbs.
“Us Palestinians, we have a rich culture and love to feed everyone, and what better way to share that than with a bag and crunch to go,” she says.
I was called crazy and pestered to forget about it. I was also told not to use a Palestinian name such as za’atar but a regular name instead or no one’s going to buy it, even by my parents. But they love it now, in fact, they’re my biggest supporters now.
Za’atar is the Arabic name for origanum syriacum, a combination of ground dried oregano, thyme or marjoram, ground sumac and toasted sesame seeds. The blend of spices and herbs is native to the Arab countries of the Middle East that includes Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Jordan.
Before becoming a chef, the idea of spending hours in a kitchen wasn’t exactly the dream for Lubna. In fact, it was quite the opposite.
“I’ll be honest, I was never spotted in the kitchen. Most of my adult life was spent being single and only taking care of myself. But after having my twins, I realised a lot of the snacks available were unhealthy, so I’d make zeit-za’ater sandwiches which is a typical sandwich we ate growing up.”
Carrying a distinctive savoury aroma, the zeit-za’ater sandwich is an astonishingly simple staple, which consists of za’atar stirred with olive oil and then slathered across a flatbread like butter.
“The secret to being smart is in the za’atar,” Lubna’s grandparents would tell her as they’d blend the olive oil with the za’atar.
“It’s delicious, healthy, and quick to make. We ate it daily growing up and I’m also feeding it to my kids instead of the American snacks packed with transfat, [genetically modified organism] GMO and artificial colouring,” says Lubna. “Strolling in the market, I thought about how awesome it would be to have a snack and pantry staple just like the za’atar sandwiches that would represent us and be packed with health benefits. Then the idea of the crackers just clicked and never left.”
The crackers are ultimately an eclectic mix of Lulu’s background: growing up first in Brazil, then America, attending schools in New York, mingling with kids in the Queens area and ending the day around a dinner table at home packed with Palestinian dishes.
Both to parents who hail from different parts of Palestine, Lulu’s father was born in Mizra’ Gharbieh, 15 minutes from Birzeit, and her mother grew up in Lydd. She, however, was raised in Brazil.
“Growing up in Brazil I always felt too Arab amongst Brazilians and too Brazilian amongst Arabs. We barely spoke any Arabic, we’d speak to our parents in Portuguese, and they’d reply in Arabic – they didn’t want anyone around to understand what we were saying,” explains Lubna.
“I was lucky to have a wonderful childhood in Brazil, it was the ultimate childhood spot. We were exposed to great food, great friendships, but unfortunately, in the late 80s inflation was too much so my father sought out New York for a better future and we’ve been here ever since.”
Following the move to the US, she immediately fell victim to the racism and prejudice that plagued the State, which deemed every Arab as a terrorist, violent, a foreigner and, consequently, not American.
When friends assumed she was Italian or Greek, she didn’t always correct them – surrounded by so many negative images of Arabs, she preferred to keep her background quiet.
“You don’t look Arab. Arabs are terrorists!” they’d tell her.
Today, however, she is part of a growing movement of Palestinian cooks and chefs sharing knowledge and history of their native cuisine with the rest of the world.
“The crackers have been a game changer in the market despite the major discouragement before I launched it. But I understand that the older generation, who I greatly respect, will be sceptical because that’s how they preserved our culture – by holding tight onto the traditions. But every now and then, we need a trailblazer who comes up with something incredible that helps share our art and history,” explains Lubna.
As a cancer survivor and a new mother suffering from postpartum depression and a divorce, baking late into the night became a significant part of her healing journey. Having initially started baking as a project to provide her twins with an alternative healthy snack, the crackers became a hit amongst the mothers and toddlers in the park and school, which eventually led to orders being put through for Lulu’s Crackers.
Lulu’s Gourmet crackers also include a collection of musakhan flavoured crackers, one of the most famous Palestinian dishes, mainly cooked during olive harvesting season.
Widely regarded as the most blessed time of the year, Palestinian families wait all year for the olive harvest season.
“During our olive harvesting season, the farmers will bake the bread and cook lots of onions with fresh olive oil, sumac and chicken. It can’t get any more Palestinian than that, it’s second to maqlooba, those are the ultimate Palestinian dishes.”
“So, baking crackers’ version of musakhan was mind blowing for everyone – nobody has seen it before and it tastes great.”
“It all became a lot more purposeful when Rashida Tlaib took a position in Congress, it was unprecedented and the greatest Palestinian representation on the national stage. I actually sent her the crackers and she was equally amazed.”
“Our ancestors could only dream of one day being recognised for their skills. Today we can do what we do and get accolades. I bake thinking of my grandmothers who probably never got a thank you! I bake for my mother to see that within her lifetime it is possible to be acknowledged for an idea or something dreamt not too long ago,” stresses Lubna.
She refers to second generation Palestinians as the “buffers of pain and trauma;” the shield who have shouldered the trauma of their ancestors, so the descendants aren’t as impacted and bruised by the pain of their predecessors.
“While it’s important not to forget our pain, I feel it is just as important to honour it and my creation of these crackers is how I do that,” Lubna concludes. “It’s also resistance. It’s my way of spreading the Palestinian love to the world. We become ambassadors. Palestinian cuisine is so vast and rich; we love to feed; we have been feeding even the people that stole our land and our livelihood. Sharing and feeding is a form of preserving and honouring my ancestors, as well as it being a product of hope for my twins, and they’re so proud of me.”