Whether you’re putting out a holiday spread, looking for some different tastes, or trying to find healthier snacks, San Luis Obispo’s Baba Foods can serve up a wide range of fresh Mediterranean flavors.
Owner Moez Bensalem came to the United States from his native Tunisia 16 years ago to attend school and then begin a career in computer networking. However, he found himself gravitating toward his family’s venerable food traditions and recipes. He originally launched Baba Foods in the Los Angeles area, but soon moved up to the Central Coast, where he began selling a few flavors of hummus, salads and pita chips at local farmers markets.
Seven years and several big retail accounts later, you can still find Baba Foods at those markets, and all the products are still handmade in fresh, small batches. Almost all of the ingredients for the products are locally grown, such as the cucumber for the tzatziki (a cucumber yogurt dip) and even the vast majority of the chickpeas for the hummus.
High in protein and fiber, hummus is a common component of Northern African and Middle Eastern cuisines. It’s made by mixing cooked chickpeas (garbanzos), tahini (a sesame seed paste), olive oil, lemon juice and spices into a creamy mixture akin to a very thick smoothie, a process that takes about 30 minutes to achieve the authentic consistency.
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At Baba Foods, Bensalem has considerably expanded upon that basic palate of hummus to include more than 20 flavors ranging from cilantro to chipotle, from spicy black bean to spicy pepper, from Kalamata olive to sun-dried tomato. Seasonal flavors such as pumpkin and zesty lemon are often available at farmers markets, and a new wasabi/ginger hummus — sparked by a glimpse of wasabi in a supermarket aisle — has recently hit retail shelves as well.
Another popular aspect of Mediterranean cuisine is pita bread, a round, slightly leavened wheat bread that’s often used for sandwiches since it can be opened up and stuffed like a pocket. At Baba Foods, it’s used to make crunchy chips for dipping in the hummus, or just eating them straight out of the bag. The chips are all made by hand by cutting each white or whole-wheat pita bread into quarters and either baking or frying them.
Of course, you can always dip fresh veggies such as carrots and cucumber slices into your hummus, and Bensalem noted that the versatile product can be used as a sandwich spread in place of mayonnaise, or even thinned out to use as a salad dressing. In addition, parents looking for ways to get children to eat a bit better will be glad to know that “kids love our beet hummus because it’s pink and looks like ice cream.”
For additional healthy options from Baba Foods, look to their salads, which also showcase fresh Mediterranean flavors. Familiar tastes include cucumber, carrot and artichoke. Or try the pasha salad with sun-dried tomatoes, the tabouli with parsley and bulghur wheat, or the dolmas with grape leaves and brown rice.
Currently, all the Baba Foods production takes place at a commercial kitchen in San Luis Obispo, but the goal is “to get some farmland here and build my own facility — to make something to pass on to the next generation,” Bensalem said. However, he always wants Baba Foods to remain a “small-batch product line. I have pride in what I do and I don’t want to lose that quality and flavor.”
San Luis Obispo
The fresh, handmade hummus, pita chips and salads can be found at several local farmers markets and select groceries; locations are listed on the website.