From left, Abdul, 8, Nadeen 16, Ziad, Tareq, 14, Khaled, 11, and Masjdolene, 18, are behind Heyam Khweis as she holds a Makloubeh. Photo by Tina Larkin.
Originally published in The Taos News
Heyam Khweis, a native of Palestine, is the operator and owner of Arabian Nights Foods, a successful line that sells locally and elsewhere in the state.
Her hummus dip — a good source of protein — and her tabouli salad are best-selling items.
However, Khweis didn’t grow up cooking.
“I was the youngest of nine siblings and studied all day long,” she said. “I didn’t have the time to learn how to cook.”
But her favorite place to study was at the kitchen table. Someone was often cooking while she pored over her books.
“I smelled the aroma of freshly ground spices added to the dishes that were prepared nearby,” she said. “That’s how my love for food started.”
Her love affair with cooking was a slow one, however. It took several years and crossing the Atlantic Ocean to flourish. In Palestine, Khweis was a teacher and one of her students, upon hearing that she didn’t know how to cook, gave her an Arabic food cookbook.
“But I didn’t touch it for years,” Khweis said. “Only when my husband and I decided to come to the United States, I took the cookbook with me. I wanted to make sure I would have something interesting to read in my language. I started reading it on the plane and was shocked to discover that the book had been written by an American, Kathy Kitten.”
But the recipes, she found out later, were accurate.
“The dishes tasted just like the ones from home,” she said.
Ten years ago, Khweis visited for the first time the Taos Food Center and, after a threemonth instructional period, she started selling ethnic products that, under the name Arabian Night Foods, became popular quickly.
“They helped me a lot,” she said of the Taos Food Center team, “from teaching me how to do packaging, labeling and business development to offering day-care services while I was in training, when my children were little.”
All cooks have favorite kitchen gadgets. Khweis’ is a mixer.
“I use it all the time,” she said. “One day I will get a KitchenAid Professional Big Mixer. It is expensive but extremely useful. It comes with a lot of attachments and does so many things.”
Other darlings are her Middle Eastern pans and pots, particularly the pot she uses to make a traditional dish called Makloubeh — literally meaning upside down.
The pot is narrow at the bottom and becomes bigger in the upper part. Inside, layers of chicken, eggplant, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, rice and fine noodles are arranged in a tantalizing blend and cooked together. Once it is ready, she uses a big stainless steel platter to pot and the platter shipped from Palestine. Khweis favors “Home Cookbook” for American food.
“But I have bought every cookbook I could find in garage sales as well as bookstores,” she said. “I love to read them so as to be inspired. That’s my fun time: I take my cookbooks and food magazines to the porch with a cup of tea and go through them.”
Khweis takes care of her food business during the weekends, when she works in space she rents at the Taos Food Center. Arabian Nights Foods can be found locally at Cid’s and Albertson’s, as well as at Whole Foods and La Montañita in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and at different stores in Dixon and El Dorado.
“We are really lucky to have her products here in Taos,” said Cid’s Assistant Store Manager Kevin McCourt. “Her hummus is delicious.”
During the weekdays, Khweis is a long-term substitute teacher at the special education department at Taos High School. Besides, she is a housewife and the mother of six children, five of whom live at home. How does she manage to accomplish so much?
“As long as I have food ready, I feel that things are fine,” Khweis said. “Before I go to work I cook, so when the kids come home, they can eat right away if they want to. I also try to rest every day, at least for an hour, when I come home from school. Above all, it is good to have a routine. Once an activity becomes a routine, you find time and space for it.” But doesn’t she get tired?
“Cooking gives me energy,” she said. “I put music, turn on the stove and I immediately feel in a good mood.”
Living in New Mexico has influenced Khweis’ cooking style. She now incorporates chile in some of her traditional recipes. She adds it to chicken soup, falafel sandwiches and stuffed pita bread.
“I love my roasted chile sandwich,” she said.
But living above sea level means that recipes also need to be adjusted.
Khweis shares a few tips for high-altitude baking:
– Increase oven temperature by 25 degrees.
– Decrease sugar by 2 to 4 tablespoons.
– Decrease baking powder by one-third to one-half of total at 5,000 feet.
– Increase the amount of liquid by 2 to 4 tablespoons.
– Increase the amount of flour by 2 to 4 tablespoons.
“The time needed for dough to rise in yeast breads is shorter here due to the reduction of the air pressure in high altitudes,” she said. All of Khweis’ products can be frozen successfully.
“Just thaw them overnight and … eat them,” she said.
Khweis is thrilled with her career and her enthusiasm shows when she talks about food and family. She has also shared easy, tasty and family-friendly recipes. Try and enjoy.
Chicken with Lemon in the Oven
1 chicken, cut up (3 pounds)
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon salt
1⁄2 tablespoon allspice
1⁄2 tablespoon black pepper
1⁄2 cup butter 1 large head of garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to broil. Clean chicken pieces with water and spread out in a 4- quart rectangular baking dish. Rub each piece of chicken with lemon juice to coat all sides and pour the rest in the baking dish. In a small bowl, mix the salt, allspice and black pepper.
Spread the mix on each of the chicken pieces on both sides. Put the half cup of butter on the chicken, placing a small amount on each piece of chicken. Put the baking dish in the oven on the bottom rack.
Turn the chicken over after half an hour. After another half hour, sprinkle minced garlic and a teaspoon of salt on top of the chicken. Broil for another 10 minutes. Optional: Surround the pieces of chicken with baked potatoes and/or vegetables. Serves 4-6.