Food & dining

What She’s Having

Zaaki Food Truck celebrates Egypt’s popular koshari, rice and lentils with tangy tomato sauce

The Zaaki food truck in front of the Boston Public Library.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
The Zaaki Food Truck in front of the Boston Public Library.

Samar Abdalelah, born and raised in Saudi Arabia, came here five years ago and when three of her four children were in college, she went to cooking school. Instructors encouraged her to look beyond the obvious in the food she was preparing. She listened intently, even recording every lecture because she felt unsure of her English skills and wanted to be able to hear certain things again later.

“The chef told us, ‘Take it to the next level,’ ” says Abdalelah, who was the valedictorian of her 2017 class at Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. After the program, she knew she didn’t want to go into the restaurant business and came up with the idea of a food truck.

Zaaki Food Truck rolled out in Boston a year ago. “Zaaki in Arabic means delicious,” says Abdalelah. She also likes the name because “it’s not hard to pronounce.” To get the truck out, she and a business partner learned about permits and other rules of the road, like the fact that their truck schedule changes every two to three months, determined by the City of Boston. They expect to be in Cambridge in the fall.

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Zaaki’s main dish, with variations that would make Abdalelah’s culinary instructors proud, is koshari (pronounced KO-shar-ee), Egyptian comfort food that begins with a bowl of rice simmered with lentils, is topped with a tangy tomato sauce, and garnished with crispy onions, chickpeas, and macaroni. There are restaurants in London that serve only koshari (spelled variously koshary, kushary, kushari) because it’s so popular. It’s similar to the Middle Eastern dish mujadara, which combines rice, lentils, and caramelized onions. Abdalelah knows koshari from the large Egyptian population in Saudia Arabia.

A plate of original koshari
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
A plate of original koshari
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At the food truck, you can get the original koshari, or one with a jalapeno-vinegar sauce, another with a yogurt-mint sauce something like Indian raita, one topped with the Middle Eastern classic salad, fattoush, one with pesto fish, and one with butter chicken (an Indian curry). You can buy the fattoush salad by itself or topped with chicken shawarma, and finally a single Middle Eastern dessert called basboosa, a golden square of semolina and coconut cake.

In spite of the fact that koshari is made with four starchy ingredients, it isn’t the least bit heavy. Filling, yes, but the rice has been rinsed several times before simmering, and the lentils are soaked overnight, which somehow makes them lighter.

In her commissary kitchen in Brookline, Abdalelah shows me how to make koshari, first simmering short-grain white rice with lentils and water that comes a half-inch above the level of the grains (she measures nothing). They boil rapidly with her own mix of spices until holes appear on the surface, at which point she covers the pan and continues cooking until the liquid evaporates. Then it sits covered and undisturbed without heat.

When it came time to figure out what to serve on the truck, she settled on koshari because “when people invite us and I bring this dish,” she says, “everyone is crazy about it.” And there are no restaurants specializing in it. She makes a lighter version than some that are loaded with chickpeas and pasta (they’re cheaper to produce). Hers are scattered sparingly on top and have plenty of crispy onions. She also sells a version with bulgur, but most of her food truck population is just learning to appreciate that grain.

Sheryl Julian for The Boston Globe
Samar Abdalelah
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Abdalelah, who is Muslim and fasting for the month of Ramadan, doesn’t mind cooking all day; she has a catering business too. She finishes breakfast before daybreak and sits down to dinner at sundown; this time of year, the Ramadan fast is long. At night, she goes home and makes something special for her family for Iftar, the break-fast meal. A few days ago, after the traditional dates, juice, and soup, she served Sichuan beef. She ordered it at a Chinese restaurant recently and went into her kitchen to reproduce it.

She decided on a food truck business, she says, “because it’s less work than a restaurant.” This from a cook who fasts from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. and is in the kitchen all the hours in between. “I have this diploma,” she says, “and I have my passion.”

Check daily updates for Zaaki Food Truck locations on www.facebook.com/ZaakiFoodTruck. The May-June schedule is Monday 4-8 p.m. at Prudential Center; Tuesday 4-8 p.m. at Boston Medical Center (Harrison Avenue); Wednesday 4-8 p.m. at Northeastern University (Opera Place, next to 337 Huntington Ave.); Thursday 4-8 p.m. at Boston Public Library (Boylston Street); Friday 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at City Hall Plaza in Government Center. The schedule will change in July.

Sheryl Julian can be reached at sheryl.julian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.