When getting to know someone, we often ask the same questions: What do you do? Where do you live? Do you have any hobbies? A question we seldom ask, however, is “What is your favorite spice?” But if you were getting to know Zainab Hassen BS’08, MS’12, the answer would tell you quite a bit about her. Hassen is co-owner of MENASpice, a Middle Eastern and North African spice shop in Stoughton, Wisconsin. Spices are a part of her everyday life, and they have been since she was a small child.
Hassen has lived in Madison for the past 24 years, but her parents are immigrants from Libya. She was homeschooled through high school, and she spent much of that time with her mother, Fatma, watching her cook Libyan recipes — and tasting her food.
“Food became one of the main things we shared together,” says Hassen. “I never actually made a meal myself at that time, but when I got older, I was able to try things and taste it and know if it was right. If it doesn’t taste like Mama’s, I know there’s something wrong.”
Hassen’s love of food and cooking spilled over into college at UW. While she first considered entering the medical field, a suggestion from an aunt steered her toward nutrition. She looked into nutritional sciences, saw she could utilize her love of food, and her undergraduate major fell into place. Hassen stayed at CALS to get a master’s degree in nutritional sciences and followed that with a master’s degree in public health from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“I enjoyed the nutritional sciences program [at CALS] very much, and I loved many of my professors,” says Hassen. “I use the skills I learned at UW all the time — communication, being able to write, managing projects, and being proactive.”
Taking initiative is important for someone as busy as Hassen. During the week, she works as a project manager at a pharmaceutical company. She spends her free time and weekends at MENASpice with her brothers, Abdurrahman (Abdu) and Ibrahim Hassen, where they focus on spices from the North African countries of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.
“North African spices aren’t readily available in the market,” explains Hassen. “Nobody really knows what North African flavors and cuisines are. Because there’s this gap in the market, I wanted to jump into that niche.”
The store currently offers a variety of spices and six custom blends. The Libyan blend, hararat, is Hassen’s mother’s recipe. The rest of the blends are Hassen’s interpretation of other North African spice mixes. Tabil, b’zaar, and Tunisian black pepper are Tunisian blends; ras el hanout is usually associated with Morocco; and shawerma is a more general blend. Hassen works with her mom to create all of her mixes.
“If I make something, she has to approve it,” Hassen says with a smile. “She tells me if it’s not up to par, and then I will not be putting it on the market. It’s a great process.”
Working with her family is a huge perk for Hassen and a main driver of the business. Abdu helps maintain the store and manage the operations. He also loves to cook and helps create new flavors. Ibrahim co-owns the business, and, although he’s not a cook, he is a great taste tester, Hassen says with a laugh.
“It’s a team effort between the three of us, which is really great,” Hassen says. “This business is something that all of us can have for our kids in the future. It’s amazing to be able to create something for the family.”
Hassen’s efforts in establishing and running MENASpice are consistent with her nature and hard work in graduate school, according to Tom Crenshaw, a professor of animal and dairy sciences. Hassen worked with Crenshaw on pig nutrition research while she completed her master’s degree at CALS. “She was willing to learn new areas in her research, and, at the same time, she maintained a strong commitment to her core beliefs,” he says. “She was and still is open to new adventures.”
Hassen is excited to see where this spice store adventure leads. Her immediate goal is to offer new products and blends. She also aims to provide cooking classes and maybe even a food cart going forward. Her ultimate dream is to develop a community program that would bring in kids and adults who want to learn to cook and understand the basics of nutrition. In any way she can, Hassen looks forward to sharing her enthusiasm for food and her love of spices with the community.
Oh, and her favorite spice? She’s happy to share that too. “While I love our Libyan blend because it reminds me of home, outside of that, my favorite would be tabil. The garlic base comes through with the sweetness and the garlicy flavor, and it also has mint in it. It’s warm and earthy and sweet,” says Hassen, her passion for the topic shining through. “I truly enjoy making the spices and feeding people. It is one of my love languages.”This article was posted in Fall 2022, Food Systems, Offshoots and tagged Middle East, North Africa, nutritional sciences, spices, Tom Crenshaw, Zainab Hassen.