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Arab Flavors: Iraqi, Syrian Families Start New Food Truck in Missoula

posted on: Jan 10, 2021

Arab Flavors: Iraqi, Syrian Families Start New Food Truck in Missoula

SOURCE: MISSOULIAN

BY: DAVID ERICKSON

The savory scent of Iraqi street food and toasted spices whirled out over the Clark Fork River in Missoula on Tuesday afternoon from the newest food truck in town, Ragheef.

Ammar Omar and his sister Zena Omar, along with family members, are serving up Arabian flatbread and manakeesh, which is flatbread with toppings. The food is similar in some ways to a pizza, because there’s cheese and meat and vegetable toppings, but they’re using spices and other ingredients to create flavors not found in Montana.

“Just here in Montana there is no Arabian cuisine,” Omar explained. “That’s why we are here. Wherever you go, there should be something Arab.”

He believes that the flavors of the Middle East will bring happiness to Missoulians.

“It’s delicious and they should try it!” he exclaimed, taking a quick break from working the ovens.

Ammar and his family are from Baghdad, Iraq. He worked for an American company and lived in the United Arab Emirates for 12 years.

“We arrived here in 2017,” he explained. “We applied to come to the U.S. on a resettlement program from the government because we are working with the U.S. companies in my country.”

Many Iraqis who had ties to the Americans left for their own safety, he explained.

“Because of the security issues there it is very hard, especially for the people who worked already with the U.S. companies or U.S. Army, they are threatened by other people, you know,” he said. “It’s very hard.”

He first started selling food at the farmers markets in Missoula, then a few years ago opened up a food truck called Kamoon (Arabic for cumin) with his cousin Wissam Raheem. It’s been regularly parked at Imagine Nation Brewing at 1151 W. Broadway, and they still serve up shawarma and kebabs. Recently, however, family members from Syria were resettled in Missoula. So, with more help, Ammar and his sister decided to open up a new food truck in the same parking lot.

“The idea is we need to expand the business,” Ammar Omar explained. “It’s not for profit. It’s because we like to serve people.”

Ragheef is the traditional Arabic word for “flatbread,” he said. They mix their own dough right in the food truck, and they bought a special oven from New York that cooks the flatbread on both sides.

“There’s a lot of people from the Middle East in New York, so we had to get the oven from there,” Ammar explained.

Manakeesh is very popular in the Middle East, he added. People will have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it’s often served as street food.

“It’s the family pizza but it’s Arabian,” he said. “It’s coming with different shapes. It’s not rounded. Some have beef with some vegetables, spices, tomatoes. We mix it in the oven. The oven is only designed for flatbread or this kind of cuisine. It has two layers of flame from the top and bottom.”

On top of the flour flatbread, they add spice mixes like za’atar, which is a blend containing a mix of flavors like sumac, sesame and thyme.

“Za’atar is very popular in the Middle East,” he said.

Zena Omar recommends that people eat the flatbreads with black tea.

She said they use lots of pomegranate molasses, parsley, olive oil and a specific type of chili paste.

“It’s a kind of Middle Eastern chili paste,” she said. “It’s difficult to get this paste. It isn’t available here. We had to bring it from another city.”

In fact, Ammar said many of the ingredients they use have to be bought in other states.

“We need to bring something different here to Missoulians,” he said. “We need to travel to different states to get ingredients. But for the future we are planning to open an international food market here to support and provide all the ingredients for all the businesses here and for the customers in Missoula.​”

They use the chili paste in their version of muhammara, a vegan paste made from tomato, red peppers, onion and olive oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds and an Arab spice mix.

They also have a spinach flatbread, served with sumac, lemon juice, onion, chili paste and olive oil.

Ammar said they plan to start serving hot, fresh desserts like dough balls filled with pistachios and other ingredients soon.

Nicholas Bradley was one of the first customers on Tuesday, the second day the food truck was open. He ordered the cheese and za’atar.

“I didn’t even know what it was,” he said. “But I’m interested in food trucks and wanted to try something new, something foreign.”

Anthony Chiminiello said he spent some time in Istanbul and is always looking for Middle Eastern food in Montana.

“This is really good,” he said, biting into the muhammara. “The food in the Middle East is very interesting.”

Ammar Omar said Montana is at the top of the list for U.S. states without much in the way of Arabian cuisine and he’s on a mission to change that.

“There is nothing here,” he said. “Turkish food, Arabian food, all of this you can’t find it here. That’s why we are here.”

Food, to him, can be a bridge across cultural boundaries. So far, he and his family are succeeding, because they sold out on Monday, the very first day they were open.

“We like to serve people our food,” he said. “We need to show them what we are eating and our way of life.”