Saudi foodie Mona Al-Aseeri spreads “Kabsa culture” in the US
In college student circles, she’s been dubbed the “mother of scholarship students”. Only years ago, Saudi Mona Al-Aseeri moved to LA, California with her family, accompanying her children as they pursued their college education in the US. With her warm touch – and Saudi traditional cuisine to match – Al-Aseeri’s home-cooked meals became a remedy for homesick expats and students. And they turned into big business at that.
In the span of only two years, Al -Aseeri had earned a name for herself among Saudi scholar circles in New York. No sooner had Al-Aseeri’s restaurant built its reputation for authentic, homemade Saudi cuisine than it started playing host to GCC envoys, officials and royalty members during their US pit stops. Patrons praised Al-Aseeri all the way to South California, where she expanded and started flying her meals, fresh out of the oven, all the way to Saudi homemade foodies across cities.
Al-Aseeri’s success inspired a bigger picture. And so, she took on a journey to spread Saudi and Khaleeji cuisine, and precisely, the “Kabsa culture” across the US. The Kabsa, a rich dish consisting of mixed rice, meat and spices, is a national Saudi dish, and just as much, a token of Saudi culture.
A twist of fate
Speaking to Women 2030, Al-Aseeri recounts her early days after she left Saudi Arabia for the US. Her decision was made purely on her wanting to accompany her children and family throughout their college education. At the time, she neither imagined nor planned that she would be running her own business – and certainly not one that scaled so big.
“My start with Saudi scholarship students was when I would go with my kids to outdoor parks and venues. The strong scent of Arabic coffee would quickly attract them, and they would come to ask me for tips on how to make it. I would serve them some coffee and my homemade Arabic sweets, like Kenafa (a savory sweet mixture of cheese and sugar syrup). These students lived solo, without their families and with tight finances to manage. So during the Holy Month of Ramadan, I would send them treats and coffee for free. They quickly dubbed me ‘the mother of scholarship students’, and they would call me ‘Yama’ (an Arabic term of endearment for “mother”),” says Al-Aseeri.
Soon enough, students and friends of her children came in droves to get a taste of Al-Aseeri’s homemade meals. That is when she began to seriously contemplate turning her love for food into a business, with her LA home for a home base.
Looking back on her journey, Al-Aseeri says: “I started my business only two years ago, and I did not expect I would enjoy the success I did. Despite my limited resources, and the many challenges our family faced after my husband had passed away six months earlier, I am very thankful for how my business took off. Today, I am taking on buffets and large catering gigs for official functions across Saudi consulates. My home cooking is traveling across South California and its cities. And my meals are being delivered and served hot to clients in other cities".
Since then, public figures have sang Al-Aseeri’s praises. Among them, Saudi prince and poet Badr bin Abdulmohsen personally told her he’d never tasted cooking like hers in his life. These praises, and the overwhelming support she’d received from students and her Instagram fan base – which today, clocks up 8,500 followers to her personal account – set the bar high for Al-Aseeri’s quality standards; she became increasingly picky and particular about the help she got in the kitchen, and she started handling the orders herself, even when in volumes and in large functions. Today, some of Al-Aseeri’s working days count 15 banquets. “It takes time to earn the trust of a client. One mistake is enough to break this trust,” she says.
The Kabsa culture
“After I ventured into the world of cooking, and having been exposed to many cultures at functions, I noticed their own lack of familiarity with and exposure to Khaleeji culture, particularly in the culinary world. They had not known nor tried Khaleeji food before. They would mistake Jareesh (an Arab dish consisting of crushed wheat) for spicy hummus.
So I decided at the time to launch an initiative to spread the ‘Kabsa culture’, and more so, authentic popular cuisine; for Kabsa and Jareesh dishes, I charged clients only the cost of making these dishes. And for foreigners in student and other clubs, I would give them near free special prices,” says Al-Aseeri, adding: “I am thankful for the fact that I was able to contribute to spreading Saudi culture. Today, I cater to American baby showers. This is only the beginning, and I will continue to work hard to grow in this field. And I Invite anyone who would like to support this initiative to join me".