Chef Spotlight: Sahar Ahmed, Koshari Mama
Sahar (pictured right) and her daughter, Dina (pictured left), are the co-owners and chefs at Koshari Mama, a vegan Egyptian street food restaurant based in Somerville, MA. Jenn, from the High Time Foods team, had the honor of speaking with Sahar Ahmed, co-owner and chef at Koshari Mama. They spoke about the power in sharing food traditions, what to look for in plant-based meat alternatives, and her advice for chefs looking to add more vegan options to their menu.
HTF: Can you tell us a little bit more about the history behind Koshari Mama?
Sahar: The concept of Koshari Mama is deeply rooted in the experience of my parents as immigrants. My family came here from Egypt in 1969 because my dad, who was a doctor, was offered a job opportunity. Coming to a new country is not easy for anyone, but the transition was particularly hard for my mom. She was caring for 3 small children and could only speak French and Arabic when she arrived in the US. To overcome her homesickness, however, she decided that the best way to connect with people and share her culture with others was to invite them into her home to eat. So that’s exactly what she did. Her favorite dish to make was Koshari, a very traditional and common Egyptian street food, and the one she missed the most in her new home. My mom passed away 23 years ago, but her memory and legacy still live on in so many ways – particularly through the way she taught me to cook. I felt one of the best ways I could honor her was by showing other people what can be done with food. Sharing food is about sharing our stories and our cultures, and in a country of immigrants, I think it’s important that we honor different cultures and learn from one another. The USA is unique in that way.
HTF: So, when did you actually decide to open Koshari Mama and what was the process like?
Sahar: We actually started selling our food in 2017 at farmers markets, which was where we stayed for 3 years. In 2019, we had the opportunity to become a pop-up in Bow Market in Somerville. Then the pandemic hit, which was extremely difficult, but we were lucky as the management at Bow Market extended our lease by a year for us. While we were there, we got an opportunity to open a place down the street. We took it, and here we are today!
HTF: Did you always plan on making it a vegan restaurant?
Sahar: When I started the restaurant, I did it with my daughter, Dina, who is actually a classically trained chef from BU and co-owner of the restaurant. Because I care deeply about the ethical treatment of animals and protecting our earth, my one condition from the start has always been that I wanted to offer traditional street food, but it has to be vegan.
HTF: I know there must be many amazing Egyptian recipes you make that are just vegetarian by nature, where you don’t even need a version of plant-based meat, but what made you want to explore plant-based meat? Are there specific recipes that you felt you couldn’t replicate without it?
Sahar: There are recipes, like Moussaka, that are traditionally made with meat. I can definitely make it plant-based, for example, by substituting the meat with walnuts. However, I really wanted to explore plant-based meat alternatives, because I think it really helps open the door for meat-eaters. Becoming vegan or adopting a more plant-based diet takes time when you are used to eating a certain way. I wanted to make other options available. The closer a dish can taste to the original, we help more people to realize, “I tasted that dish, and it actually wasn’t that bad.” We want to offer people variety. I don’t like pushing being vegan, but I like to offer a really great-tasting alternative and have people make up their own mind.
HTF: Are there specific qualities that you look for in a plant-based meat alternative?
Sahar: Me, being a chef, I research a lot. I sit on the computer and read a lot about new products on the market. The things that really bother me are when meat alternatives include lots of preservatives, artificial food colorings and additives, and nuts actually, because a lot of people have nut allergies these days. Whenever possible, I try to avoid GMOS. Shelf-stable products are also very important. The refrigeration space we have is very limited, so if a product is shelf-stable, it not only helps me save space, but it also helps me buy a large quantity.
HTF: Do you have any customer favorite dishes using HTF plant-based chicken?
Sahar:Right now, we are serving a popular appetizer that resembles “chicken fritters,” which are served with a special dip that’s made in-house and seasoned with Moroccan spices.
I have lots of ideas in my head though, and I am excited to try some new recipes soon with High Time Foods plant-based chicken. We are currently testing out a vegan chicken burger with lots of mediterranean flavors and toppings on a vegan bun. We like to incorporate the best of both worlds – American and Egyptian cuisines – and versatile ingredients help us to do just that.
HTF: Any advice you want to give to other chefs out there who are trying to add more vegan or vegetarian options to their menu?
Sahar: My advice is: “It has to taste good!” If it doesn’t taste good, people aren’t going to want it. It is also so important to use clean ingredients. Cook clean whenever possible. If you cook with good ingredients, your food will taste good. Half of the people who come into Koshari Mama are actually not vegans, but once they try something and it tastes good, then they are willing to try something else. Koshari, our signature dish, for example, is naturally vegan, and customers love it!
If you are in the Somerville area, be sure to stop by Koshari Mama at 585 Somerville Ave for wonderful vegan Egyptian street food!