All her life people have been telling Mahroussie "Maha" Jabba that she is a natural born cook. It certainly seems it. Just as the Food Network has its stars, farmers markets have their stars. And at Cape Ann Farmers Market, where for six years she and her Lebanese saj-grilled Markouk flat bread were a fixture, Jabba — who often danced, Lebanese style, while she cooked — was a star.
Well, the farmers market's loss is Main Street's gain. Welcome to Markouk Bread, a small storefront take-out that in just six weeks since opening on May 31, already has a following. They were streaming through the door Wednesday when Jabba took what looked like a well-deserved break to sit outside in the sun, and — over steaming cups of thick, hot black Lebanese coffee — talk.
First of all, farmers market fans, if you miss Jabba, let it be known, she misses you, too. "Tomorrow is Thursday," she says, "and I always feel emotional on Thursdays because that's when the farmers market is." Jabba credits farmers market director Nicole Bogin with encouraging her right from the start to be a star. The two women developed a close relationship over the years, and Bogin's 16-year-old daughter Lila helps out in the Markouk kitchen a couple of days a week.
Also in the gleaming newly equipped chef's kitchen — the heart and soul of which is the big rounded saj grill — is Jabba's own 16-year-old son, Richard (another son, fifth grader Rafael, is too young to pitch in) and two staffers, both Lebanese, and both, says Jabba, "great cooks."
Saj-grilled flatbread is to traditional Lebanese cuisine what naan is to Indian cuisine, the tortilla is to Latin American cuisine, crepes are to French cuisine, pita is to Greek and pizza is to Italian cuisine. In fact, to see Jabba twirl a round of Markouk dough in the air is to recall the days when that was standard practice — and great theater— in many pizza parlors.
Like pizza, fresh, hot Lebanese flatbread tastes great with just about anything you can pile on it. But unlike pizza, cheese is not the main attraction. Lebanese flatbread traditionally comes heaped with traditional Lebanese produce: chopped parsley, mint, virgin olive oil, olives, lemon, cucumbers, sesame, chick peas, tahini, walnuts, spinach, sumac, onions and garlic. Minced beef, lamb, chicken, hummus, and just about anything else you can think of —including, on the dessert menu, chocolate fudge and strawberries — are also on tap at Markouk.
Coming to America
"At the farmers market, we learned to Americanize things a bit, the way people like them," says Jabba, who after almost 20 years in this country is herself an American. For Jabba, coming to America — for a wedding, it so happened — ended in her own wedding. At that first wedding she met her husband Richard, a second-generation Lebanese-American and Gloucester native, and it was love at first sight. Within three months, they were engaged.
Coming to America was for Jabba "the first time to experience living in peace." Back in Lebanon, she'd lost 15 relatives to the civil war that raged in that country from 1975 to 1990. Here, in Gloucester's big, deep-rooted Lebanese community, she found a home away from home. "My husband's grandparents had eight children (including her husband) and those eight children had 32 grandchildren."
Before pitching her first tent at Cape Ann Farmers Market, Jabba's cooking had been for that big, extended family. Back in Lebanon, despite the war, life revolved around the kitchen, and — like all born cooks _ she took to it like a duck to water. In rural Lebanon, farm to table was a way of life. Here, there were also American-style barbecues. But says, Jabba, "the food kept them Lebanese."
At Markouk, too, the grilled kebabs — steak, lamb, chicken — are, by way of a marinade spiced with cinnamon, paprika, cayenne, distinctly Lebanese, served with hot Markouk bread, hummus, rice, baba ghanooj, tabouli, Lebanese salad. The kebabs come sizzling off the grills, and it's all on view.
"It makes a big difference when you cook in front of people, the reaction is different," says Jabba. "When they saw me cook in the farmers market, they had never seen anything like it, and they had the option of trying things, of customizing their orders. The menu I have here I developed by the taste of the people at the farmers market."
Nowadays, Jabba is often cooking by 6:30 a.m. She's learning to adjust to the demands of a bigger business, and yes, she says: she does feel the pressure. It may look like overnight success, but it "took me eight years to get here," she says. And though the building is owned by her husband, that ambitiously equipped new kitchen was a big investment.
But, she says, "Lebanese are hard workers." Sundays, however, Markouk is closed. Sundays, says Jabba, are for family. Although maybe she won't spend them cooking for it.
Joann MacKenzie may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or email@example.com.
IF YOU GO
What: Markouk Bread, authentic Lebanese cuisine, take-out.
When: Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m, to 7 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday.
Where: 338 Main Street, Gloucester
Phone orders: 978-283-3500