Two Arab-American women build online cooking ventures

Many Arab-American women hold reputations among family and friends as great chefs of Middle Eastern food.

Building on their domestic culinary success, for decades, Arab-American women for have opened Middle Eastern restaurants that enhanced America’s gastronomic landscape.

Spicy Honey-Brushed Chicken on Couscous

By M Scott Bortot, US Department of State

Online cooking: A whole new way of sharing food

Today, Arab-American women are taking their culinary knowledge to a new level. Using recipes passed down through generations, these women are influencing American kitchens through the internet.

Exemplifying this trend are two Arab-American women with roots at opposite ends of the Mediterranean — Lebanon and Morocco. Denise Hazime of DedeMed and Alia Al-Kasimi of Cooking with Alia are using cyberspace savvy to promote businesses that highlight the Middle East’s rich food heritage.

While both women say much of their web traffic is from Arab Americans, it also comes from those married to them, and from other Americans who admire Middle Eastern food and culture.

Whatever the reason for an interest in Middle Eastern cuisine, both women agree it is a thriving online market. Especially for Denise Hazime, who aspires to be known as the “Queen of Hummus.”

The Queen of Hummus

Co-founder of DedeMed, Hazime has a formidable internet presence. With the help of co-founder Crisantos Hajibrahim, videos from her website are posted on YouTube, and her efforts are highlighted on Facebook, among other sites.

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Denise Hazime is an online cooking powerhouseBeyond the internet flair is a straightforward approach that is the key ingredient to the online success of Hazime and Hajibrahim.

“We want to bring good food to people who are interested in eating healthy,” Hazime says.

Hazime’s fondest and earliest memories come from cooking alongside her mom and aunts. Born in Michigan, the first generation Arab American lives in California, where she works in finance by day, and by night pursues her culinary passions.

“I’ve always loved cooking, and after I moved to California, I began cooking for a lot of my friends,” Hazime says, contrasting the dearth of Middle Eastern restaurants in California compared with where she grew up in Michigan.

Hazime’s friends were so impressed by her cooking that they constantly requested recipes. That’s when the fluent Arabic speaker of Lebanese descent got an idea.

Inspired by Time magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year, “You,” she took her mastery of Middle Eastern cuisine to cyberspace.

Hazime and Hajibrahim uploaded her first three cooking videos to YouTube in March 2007. Following a positive reaction, more videos soon followed and about nine months later, she and Hajibrahim co-founded DedeMed.At first, the entrepreneurial duo was happy with the first 100 visitors to watch the videos. But interest in the videos and subsequent website soon grew markedly. More than two years later, the site and its YouTube videos see about 7,000 visitors daily — and that number is rising.

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Most recipes on DedeMed reflect Hazime’s eastern Mediterranean heritage. Online visitors are treated to video recipes for everything from atayef to zaatar manaeesh. And Hazime’s video hummus recipe dominates YouTube. Research provided by the site shows it is viewed 99 percent more than comparable recipes on YouTube.

DedeMe is still in a growth stage, with goals that reach beyond cyberspace, Hazime says. While an online store already exists on the site, Hazime plans further business ventures, including restaurants and an online cooking show. Her book, Idiot’s Guides: The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, was published in 2014.

The flavors of Morocco

Cooking with Alia founder Al-Kasimi has similar aspirations, but with a distinctly Moroccan flavor.

Alia Al-Kasimi specializes in Moroccan cuisineLiving in New Jersey, Moroccan-born Al-Kasimi is a couscous cooking master. This was not always the case for the online chef, who also works in insurance.

“When I first came here, I basically didn’t know how to cook anything,” Al-Kasimi told about first arriving to the United States. “After about a year, I really began missing my Moroccan food.”

When Al-Kasimi’s grandmother visited in 2007, she was thrilled to enjoy again the home cooking. During her visit, Al-Kasimi shared a video on YouTube of the two of them cooking for her friends. Within days, YouTube surfers wanted to see more Moroccan cooking.

Like Hazime, Al-Kasimi interacts continuously with online visitors via email, and she has a blog and a Facebook page.

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Al-Kasimi also stays in touch with her American audience through recipes that match the spirit of the seasons. Cooking with Alia featured Moroccan pumpkin salad during Thanksgiving, and throughout autumn, highlighted Moroccan recipes that use apples and sweet potatoes.

Al-Kasimi is taking her culinary skills from the virtual kitchen into the real kitchen. She holds Moroccan cooking classes at nearby Whole Foods supermarkets, and in December 2009, she auctioned cooking services to raise funds for a local food bank.

Encouraged by her site’s success, Al-Kasimi is embarking on other projects. She launched the Flavors of Morocco instant food line as well as authored Moroccan Cooking the Easy Way.

While the business side is important in her online efforts, Al-Kasimi sees a deeper value to what she is doing. “Food is something that is universal and loved by everyone, so it is a chance for them to learn about another culture,” she says.

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