Hummus is where the heart is

My Rouses Everyday, September & October 2018

For Debbie Hasan, cooking is a nothing short of a family affair. Hasan is the co-owner of Athenos, a Greek and Lebanese café with locations in Thibodaux and Houma, where there’s a spirit of tradition and togetherness that enlivens every meal, both at the restaurant and at home.

“My mother-in-law taught me how to cook the dishes we serve in the restaurant,” Hasan explained to me as the two discussed a unique bread — taboon — the family eats during celebratory meals. “My kids, who were born overseas, grew up on our chicken shawarma! It’s our own special marinade.”

Originally from Mobile, Hasan moved to Amman, Jordan after her father-in-law passed away and her husband, the eldest sibling, was expected to take over the family business. When the family decided to move back to the United States in 2013, the flavors and recipes she had learned to love during her time abroad quickly became Athenos menu items.

“All of the dishes on the menu are something we ate on a weekly basis overseas. The hummus is our most popular dish because it’s pretty much spot-on with how hummus is supposed to taste. The fried cheese is amazing, and we have a lot of lamb dishes, which people don’t typically see very often. Our food is different — it’s not the norm.”

At home, Hasan often cooks more American-style fare, but the family makes a point to swap out turkey and gravy for their favorite Arabic dishes during Thanksgiving, including the communal meal called mansaf.

“The first layer of mansaf is a thin bread called shrak, but since that isn’t so easy to find, we use tortillas,” she laughs. “Next, you cook rice, and put it over your choice of meat — chicken, beef or lamb — then sprinkle the dish with toasted almonds and pine nuts. Mansaf is served on a large platter or tray with individual bowls of yogurt soup for each person. Everyone has a section they eat from out of this huge thing: People take a little bit of the yogurt soup and put it on their section of the mansaf. I have a family of seven, so the dish is a good way to see how food brings people together, and it’s wonderful to share with company and friends.”

While mansaf hasn’t made its way onto the Athenos menu quite yet, Hasan is interested in finding ways to infuse Southern flavors into new restaurant dishes.

“We serve these meat grape leaves — they’re like traditional Southern cabbage rolls, just made with grape leaves — and since I grew up in the South, I’ve been thinking that we should make a crawfish and rice version that has a little different twang to it.”

Ultimately, Athenos is all about creating a welcoming, familial space to share flavors and cultures with one another — one gyro at a time.

“I had a couple of women come in the other day and order burgers, so I gave them samples of the shawarma, gyro and eggplant moussaka while they were eating, because I figured they might not be familiar with our other food,” Hasan says. “I hope they try something different next time! If I’m in the kitchen cooking, the people in the restaurant are going to get a taste of whatever it is I’m making.”