Where Bread Smells Like Home: An Algerian Couple Serves Traditional Fare in San Francisco

Wafa and Mounir Bahloul serve Algerian dishes with an American touch at La Cocina Municipal Marketplace.

Published Mar. 7, 2022.

At home, Wafa Bahloul lets her two children help knead the dough by hand for kesra rakhsis, a traditional Algerian flatbread that she calls rek-sas. But since she and her husband, Mounir, take turns cooking and running their restaurant and taking care of the children, at work she often does this step alone. 

The restaurant is called Kayma; the name comes from an Arabic word for a nomadic dwelling. The couple chose the name because they wanted their restaurant to be as welcoming as their own home, no matter where customers are from.

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The couple started the restaurant, located in San Francisco’s La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, because they missed their homeland and the dishes they grew up eating. 

“For my menu, I try to serve Algerian dishes with an American touch,” Bahloul says. But when she first moved to the United States, the fusion wasn’t an easy transition because the ingredients weren’t the same.

For example, Kayma sells a popular pistachio baklawa (a pastry similar to baklava); it didn’t go well the first time she tried to bake it with American honey. “Here [in the United States] the honey is so sweet,” she says. “The first time I did my baklawa it was so sweet you couldn’t eat it.” She had to adapt her food to American ingredients. 

“For my menu, I try to serve Algerian dishes with an American touch,” Bahloul says.

As for the kesra rakhsis, Bahloul learned how to make it from her mother, an accomplished cook and culinary instructor. For her dough, Bahloul uses traditional semolina flour, which is made from whole-grain durum wheat, the same wheat used to make couscous, the national food of Algeria. Semolina has a higher protein content than all-purpose flour and makes for a chewy bread with deep flavor and a yellow tinge.

To the semolina, Bahloul adds sugar, salt, yeast, and a mix of seeds: deeply toasted sesame seeds, chia seeds (“an American touch”), and what she calls black onion seeds (often labeled as nigella seeds in the United States). The nigella seeds look similar to black sesame seeds, but they have a richer, deeper flavor. 

Making the dough for kesra rakhsisMaking the dough for kesra rakhsis

Bahloul making the kesra rakhsis dough.

She brings the dough together with water (warmed to help jump-start the yeast) and olive oil—preferably Algerian, when she can source it. While most Italian and Californian olive oils are made with green olives, Algerian olive oil is made with black olives, which give the oil a distinct flavor. But any good olive oil will work here. 

bag of semolinanigella seedsAlgerian olive oil

Key Ingredients for kesra rakhsis: Fine semolina flour, nigella seeds, and Algerian olive oil give this easy flatbread its distinctive flavor.

Traditionally, this thin bread is cooked for just a few minutes on the stovetop in an Algerian tagine (a sort of clay skillet without a handle). But Bahloul bakes hers for the restaurant in the oven, which makes it easier to do larger batches; this is an adaptation that she jokes that her family in Algeria would be skeptical of. She says that she likes it better when it’s cooked on the stove. (In our adapted recipe, we chose to cook the dough on the stovetop in a cast-iron skillet.) 

Kesra Rakhsis (Semolina Flatbread)

Can't make it to Kayma? With our simple recipe, you can make this delicious flatbread at home.
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The flatbreads are the heart of most Algerian meals. The couple often eats their bread warm with butter or as part of what Bahloul calls “an Algerian picnic” of lots of different dips and spreads. 

At Kayma, the bread is served alongside soup; it’s also cut up, toasted, and used as croutons for salad. “As Algerians, we cannot live without bread,” she says. 

Wafa Bahloul in her restaurant kitchen
Bahloul in her restaurant kitchen, preparing a batch of kesra rakhsis.

Bahloul radiates with joy while baking. It makes it easy to forget that she and her husband are the only two employees at Kayma and so must balance the prepping, serving, cleaning, and bookkeeping of a restaurant along with being parents. But their passion seems to usurp the stress. When asked about running the restaurant, she says, smiling, “I’m practicing my hobbies. You have to have that patience and that love. But for me, today’s just another day in paradise.”

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