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Abukhodair family brings Palestinian cuisine to Duluth

Well-known as a musician, Lyla Abukhodair is joining with her mother, Ann, and other family members to sell their locally made Palestinian food at pop-ups. Next: a downtown deli called Falastin.

Palestinian foods offered by local family
Lyla Abukhodair, right, listens as her mother, Ann, explains the Palestinian food on the table at the family home in Canosia Township on Jan. 4.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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CANOSIA TOWNSHIP — At the Abukhodair family home last Wednesday afternoon, the vibe was what a Scandinavian might describe as extremely hygge. Festoon lighting hung over a driveway that wound through a winter wonderland, with snowfall adding to a thick coat of white over a cozy house and its surrounding woodland. Inside, a sumptuous spread of freshly made food covered the communal dining table.

Palestinian foods offered by local family
Kalamata olives garnish a plate of fresh hummus.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

There was no lefse, though. No lingonberries, and certainly no lutefisk. Instead, there was a platter of taboon bread, a plate of hummus, a dish of za'atar spice, and first-press olive (zaytoun) oil from Jordan. Glasses for maramiya (sage tea). There was baba ganoush eggplant dip. Plates were heaped with tabouli salad, ful mudammas fava bean stew, halawa candy and sugar-covered maamoul cookies.

The table was so full, there was hardly room for individual dining plates. Even so, said Ann Abukhodair, "I was thinking there's not enough on this table."

She explained, "Arabic hospitality is just laden (with) so much food. They pull out all the stops, kind of like a Swedish smorgasbord ... which is more my background, but this is their food."

Palestinian foods offered by local family
Fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and seasoned with sumac.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"The cool thing about it is, everything on this table is vegetarian. A lot of it is vegan," said Lyla Abukhodair, Ann's daughter. "A lot of it is gluten-free."

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The table was a demonstration of what Duluth has in store as the Abukhodairs' new family business, selling "authentic Palestinian cuisine and goods," expands. It's now a pop-up called Falastinia, with plans to open a downtown deli called Falastin (the Arabic word for Palestine).

"There's not really many places around the Northland to buy any of the ingredients to make any of this," said Lyla. "We have to drive to the Cities, usually, to buy it."

Palestinian foods offered by local family
A cookbook used by the Abukhodair family.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The Abukhodair name is already familiar to many Duluthians, if not necessarily in a cuisine context. In recent years Lyla, has emerged as one of the most exciting rising singer-songwriters in the region, seen frequently around the Twin Ports and recently headlining a bill at 7th St Entry in Minneapolis.

"This year we're going to put out a whole album," Lyla said about her rock band, which has to date been accompanying her on shows under her own name. "This band has been co-creating and co-writing songs. ... This is going to be way more of a collaborative project. We're working on a band name too."

Palestinian foods offered by local family
Lyla Abukhodair, right, speaks about growing up in a home with Palestinian food as her mother, Ann, listens.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The Abukhodair family, which includes Lyla's three older brothers, has also been active in sports. Lyla was soccer team captain and an All-State nominee for the Hermantown Hawks, then played soccer for the UMD Bulldogs.

The Abukhodair siblings' teammates came to appreciate the family's flavorful food. "It was our fuel for soccer," said Lyla.

"Some people like to just open up the bread and shove everything in there," said Ann about the round, puffy pieces of taboon. "That's what all the kids would do."

Ann, who grew up in Fergus Falls, met her husband, Bassam Abukhodair, at the University of Minnesota, where she was studying nursing and he was an engineering student. After the two wed, Ann said, "Bassam was working for LHB engineers and architects. He was working in the Cities for them, but they wanted him to come up here. We thought that would be a great move."

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Palestinian foods offered by local family
Pistachio halawa.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

The couple raised their children in Duluth, where they still live — in a neighborhood Ann describes as "the woods north of the airport." Ann, a lifelong foodie, became fascinated with the cuisine of her husband's people.

"He's part of the Palestinian diaspora. He was born in '63, and his family fled during the (Six-Day) war in '67," Ann explained. Bassam's family moved first to Jordan, then to the United Arab Emirates.

Palestinian foods offered by local family
Glasses to serve maramiya, a Palestinian tea made by steeping black tea leaves with dried sage.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"It was very small, but his dream was bigger, and he didn't want to stay there," Ann continued. "He ended up with a scholarship to the U of M, and he became a civil engineer."

In college, Lyla said, "I studied social work, because I just have a passion for working with people. Then when I went to grad school, I focused a lot on immigrant identity and a lot on Arab immigrant identity crisis in the U.S. ... (I) just kind of fell in love with finding the purpose of everyone's individual identity and how important that is to them, and, especially in the Northland, having an Arab voice."

Local Muslim community gatherings the family has attended have centered on food, said Ann. "That was the fun part, because there are people from Indonesia, people from Pakistan, all over the world ... Syria, Lebanon, North Africa."

Palestinian foods offered by local family
A platter of fresh taboon bread at the Abukhodair family home.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"A lot of our food is traditional Palestinian recipes passed down," said Lyla, "but the Levantine region, which is comprised of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine, it's important to note that Levantine food also represents Palestinian food, too, because there are so many Palestinian refugees in that region. The food's so important because there's dwindling space for Palestinians to be in Palestine. Our food is often spread."

Alongside the importance of tradition, there's ample room for variety in Palestinian cuisine. "With the recipes," Lyla continued, "it's how your grandma did it. But you can play with the spices and the acidity and the amount of olive oil. It's up to your taste, so that's kind of cool, too."

Recent experiences feeding large groups, including at Lyla's August 2022 wedding to coffee industry professional and fellow musician Samuel Miller, sparked the idea that the family's shared passion for Palestinian food could become a business. (The newlyweds recently bought a house "just north of town," said Miller.)

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Palestinian foods offered by local family
Baba ganoush at the Abukhodair family home.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"My mom taught me how to make everything on this table," said Lyla, indicating the sumptuous spread. "We definitely bond through that, and started doing pop-ups."

Rapid sales at the first three Falastinia pop-ups have indicated Duluth has a ready appetite for the Abukhodairs' food. "Two of them sold out in about 45 minutes," said Lyla.

Miller pitches in as well. "I have made Sam the baklava boy," Lyla said. "He's a great cook, so we just co-partner in making a lot of the food, and once we get our deli, we'll be co-owners of it."

The family has already identified a potential location for the deli, though details remain under wraps. Downtown Duluth is "kind of a food desert," said Lyla. "We want to have fresh groceries accessible, not super expensive food." The owners are expecting to offer to-go food, with seating for customers who can't wait to dig in, as well as full-service coffee.

Palestinian foods offered by local family
Lyla Abukhodair talks about the traditional pattern on her shawl representing a fish net.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Meanwhile, the family is planning a trip to Palestine. "It's hard for Palestinians to share what's happening to us," said Lyla about the politically charged conflict in the region. "That's why it's really important to do your research as a non-Palestinian, because we don't have a voice in really talking about it."

That makes the family's new business all the more meaningful. "I like exploring identity, and food's a huge bridge to connect with people on that," said Lyla. "Especially when it's hard to connect my story in the harder ways with people who aren't Palestinian."

Ann said she's long considered getting into food service, but the schedule seemed challenging. With Falastin, she said, she's looking forward to "having the young people provide the energy, and then I'm just going to be in the background. I'm really excited about it. It's fun, and it'll be great for the community."

For updates, see instagram.com/falastiniaduluth.

Palestinian foods offered by local family
Lyla Abukhodair, right, reacts while eating taboon with olive oil and za’atar.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Palestinian foods offered by local family
Tabouli.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Palestinian foods offered by local family
Maamoul, cookies filled with dates or nuts.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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