Abadir’s brings Egyptian flavors to Alabama across the Black Belt – Low Calorie Diets Tips

A nutty scent fills the sun-drenched back room of an old schoolhouse just outside of downtown Greensboro. It is Abadir’s canteen kitchen and all is still and still; The only movement is Sarah Cole rolling out her toasted tahini cookie dough. (The warming tahini from a batch already in the oven provides the roasted nut perfume.)

Since she founded Abadir’s in October 2020, these cookies, along with a variety of breads, cakes, and other sweet (and sometimes savory) pastries, have been available most weekends in her pop-up stores at farmers’ markets, boutiques, and restaurants in Selma, Tuscaloosa or Birmingham. Some weekends she stays in Greensboro. She also takes orders through her website and handles the catering as well. You won’t find the usual sugar-laden, bleached-flour-based southern bakery suspects among the selection, however. Instead, using honey, dates, anise, coriander, rosewater and other Middle Eastern flavors, Cole creates confections that share her Egyptian heritage. And Abadir-affiliated non-profit Black Belt Food Project (BBFP) is working to share the recipe for a brighter future in the region.

Sarah Cole holds a pan of cookies in the Abadir kitchen in Greensboro. The treats that come out of the kitchen are nutritious and delicious. (Jennifer Kornegay/Alabama NewsCenter)

homecoming

When Cole’s mother was 28, she left Egypt and moved to the Black Belt city of Demopolis, fleeing religious persecution. It was 1983, Hosni Mubarak was in power, and her Christian mother (and others who shared her faith) were in danger under his rule. The plan was to head north to Canada after a brief stop in Alabama, where a cousin and her brother had previously settled. Smiles exchanged over a bag of potatoes in the small rural town grocery store changed everything. “She met my father, who worked in the produce department,” says Cole. They eventually married and raised Cole and her older sister in Demopolis.

But Cole says she never seemed to fit in Alabama. “I felt different, and not just my legacy, which certainly stood out here; it was more than that,” says Cole. “I liked other music; I liked dressing differently. I was looking for a place to belong.” She thought she found it when she moved to Pittsburgh in 2017.

The job she took failed, and she ended up managing and turning a struggling farmers’ market. “I’ve added some educational programs and community events that have attracted more farmers and vendors and increased attendance,” she says. When the pandemic struck, she was working for a local bakery, where her longtime love of cooking was revived and expanded. “I’ve always loved food and cooking, but I didn’t really bake much until I got this job,” she says.

Those two roles in Pennsylvania put the ingredients for Abadirs and BBFP in her brain. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but I didn’t want to do it in Pittsburgh. As much as I wanted to leave Alabama, it felt right to come back to do so,” she says.

Steady support proved that the black belt wanted Abadirs and Cole quickly realized the area needed BBFP; She founded it in 2021 to help create a better and stronger future for the region by providing nutrition education, increasing access to fresh food, tackling food insecurity, creating job opportunities in the food and restaurant industries and empowering who uses food to promote connections.

Built-in benefits

Cole started Abadir’s as a bakery for two reasons: “My business plan was to start with pop-ups, and baked goods are easier to transport,” she says. “Bakes are also great vehicles for introducing people to other culinary cultures. Fusing Middle Eastern ingredients with more familiar Southern produce helps people try new things. The combination also tastes great, by the way.”

Based on the eponymous sesame paste and sprinkled with honey to balance the orange zest, Cole’s toasted tahini cookies have been a bestseller from day one. “I took a recipe that was extremely buttery and sugary, lightened it up, and added a few Arabic touches,” she says.

Cole was surprised by the popularity of other items. “Sfouf is an Arabic cake with coconut and turmeric,” she says. “It’s not super sweet, and the turmeric makes it an intense yellow. This color freaked some people out at first. Now people ask for it all the time.” She was also shocked at how quickly maamoul, an Egyptian version of shortbread lightly sweetened with rosewater and filled with dates, became a favorite. “I didn’t expect a lot of people to like her, but now I can’t go to a pop-up without her. It was fun to see people enjoying the heavily Arabic items.”

Her recipes are her own twist on classics, and her Egyptian treats aren’t strictly traditional; Her Southern upbringing and current approach to Southern ingredients, particularly produce, are often in the mix, as exemplified in her cornmeal poundcake with finely ground coriander seeds and almonds.

eat well

While Cole’s focus is on pleasing the taste buds, she’s equally interested in preparing simple foods that truly nourish the body. “Apart from the taste, I pay attention to the nutritional aspects of the ingredients,” she says. She goes without yeast and uses a sourdough base to give a boost to every bread she bakes, even pita. She uses flours made from wholesome grains and less refined sugar, and relies on fruits and honey for sweetness.

This emphasis on good food feeds into her BBFP work, which now takes center stage thanks to Abadir’s new location in a cottage across downtown. The place is mainly for BBFP; Now Abadir’s entire business will be focused on supporting BBFP.

Sarah Cole chops up turnip greens for sandwiches she’ll be selling in a pop-up. In addition to the Greensboro area, their weekend food can be found in places like Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. (Jennifer Kornegay/Alabama NewsCenter)

Cole believes this for-profit, non-profit collaboration is the best way for BBFP to achieve its goals. “Part of the mission is to help people eat in ways that lead to improved health outcomes. We have poor health outcomes here now and a good part of that has to do with the foods people have access to and what they eat.” The space means BBFP will be able to host the Black Belt Kitchen to open, in which workshops and courses are held that expand nutritional knowledge and teach basic cooking skills and simple recipes.

Many of BBFP’s efforts are aimed at children, with both in-school and after-school programs. Other plans include researching the area’s culinary heritage and history, and in the future developing it into an incubator for aspiring chefs and cooks. “Eventually we’ll also have store hours, with Abadir baked goods for sale and probably some other grab-and-go items, like take-out meals,” says Cole. “The space will also allow us to have pop-up dinners and one day a restaurant that is delicious but also healthy and accessible. This community needs that.”

And community is the focus. “I want it to be a real gathering place, a place that welcomes and cheers everyone up,” says Cole. To bring this vision to life, Cole works with local farmers, Opportunity Alabama, Auburn University’s Rural Studio and Greensboro-based Project Horseshoe Farm, a nonprofit organization focused on health care for vulnerable populations, and others. “We formed a coalition to discuss the future of the BBFP and are working to secure funding and make it sustainable,” she says.

Abadir acts as the “face” of BBFP, and Cole explains the meaning of the name. “It’s my mother’s maiden name, but she and her family changed it to Anton when they moved to the United States so they wouldn’t come across as ‘foreign.’ But I always thought it was beautiful. And I love that it’s unusual.”

She hopes this aspect sends a message. “I decided to return to Alabama and create a space for myself to be myself and for others who feel like they don’t have opportunities here, so I named the company Abadir’s; I want the name to communicate to others that they have a place here.”

As she roughly chops beet greens to stuff into pitas for sandwiches sold in her next pop-up, Cole emphasizes that while inclusive hospitality is a tool to elevate the area, food remains the foundation of Abadir’s and BBFP. “I want people to see this community and see themselves in a different and better light, by giving them the resources and opportunities to take more control of their future and that of their family,” she says. “I think a natural way, the best way to do that is with food.”

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