TOWNSHEND—It’s almost dinnertime, and the line in front of Zohar Arama’s stand is growing.
A woman carrying an infant stops to dip a piece of pita bread, baked earlier that day by Arama, into a sample jar of skhug, a condiment of cilantro, garlic, hot pepper, and spices.
With patches of flour dusting his pants in the shape of handprints, he swiftly builds sandwiches of pita bread, hummus, tahini, sweet and savory red cabbage, three-hour smoky-flavored hard-boiled eggs, skhug, and pickles.
Arama launched Yalla Vermont approximately three months ago. He already seems to have loyal following.
“I really love it,” he said
Arama explains that “yalla” is an Arabic word used in Israel as slang for “come on” or “let’s go.”
The sandwiches he serves are considered street food — “our version of fast food” — in Israel, he said.
Watching Arama pile the assortment of items into the pita bread, it seems impossible that all the flavors might balance one another. But they do.
And the line in front of his stand grows again. One repeat customer walks away with a sandwich, a bag of pita, and a jar of skhug.
Arama started making pita for his family because he couldn’t find any he liked in the local shops.
The new business has grown faster than he expected.
“It’s gotten good reviews and I love the people and I guess I’m getting some love back,” said the self-taught chef.
Loyal eaters can find Arama at three different farmers’ markets: Londonderry on Saturday, Brattleboro on Tuesday, and Townshend on Friday evening. Most days, people can find his stand by following the scent of the pita he often bakes onsite in a portable oven.
“Hi there,” says Dick Jackson, extending his hand to Arama. “You’re my neighbor.”
The two men chat about cycling, walking — at age 91, Jackson still walks every day — and how Arama built his own home.
Arama moved to West Townshend three years ago with his wife Eileen, a teacher and native New Englander, and their daughter. Arama, originally from Israel, met Eileen while hiking the Vermont section of the Appalachian Trail in 2001.
“You get so much love,” he said of meeting other hikers.
Hikers call it “trail magic,” he says. “And you have so much that you want to give.”
The couple lived in Israel for nine years.
Three twentysomething friends stop for sandwiches. They chat with Arama in Hebrew.
Arama says he always wanted to open a café. He likes to make his own stuff.
“I kind of had a vision of what I wanted to do,” he says.
His favorite item to prepare is skhug. Growing up, he remembers that the condiment was always in the house. But it was so very spicy, he said. Too much pepper.
Now that he’s making his own skhug, with just a hint of heat, “I’m in love with it,” he says.
Skhug, pronounced more like “s-kw-oog,” is a Yemeni dish, said Arama.
Arama also has a bowl of sliced onion with sumac, the non-poisonous variety from the Middle East.
Yalla Vermont’s hummus and tahini don’t taste like the varieties carried in most stores. The textures are finer and the tastes are lighter (but not wimpy).
Arama’s most recent batch of humus and tahini contain roasted eggplant, heated over maple wood (“Vermont style,” he jokes.)
Yalla Vermont’s pita is fluffier than most pita bread found in grocery stores. Arama said he lets the bread rise three times.
It’s homemade and not put through a machine, so the end product has a lighter texture, he said. It takes him approximately three hours to bake 100 pitas.
A second neighbor stops. Arama greets him.
The neighbor tells Arama that he’s gotten his pigs back. Arama, a vegetarian, congratulates him.
“How’s the tiny house?” Arama asks.
“It’s okay, needs some work,” says his neighbor.
A couple stops and asks for two bags of pita bread.
“We’re back every week,” the woman said.
Her husband tells Arama that they took a bag of pita to their daughter in Boston. She’s jealous now, he said.
“Now you can tell her to move [here],” jokes Arama.
He tells the couple to freeze the pita for a couple of hours. After taking them from the freezer, he advises, slice each in half, then rub with fresh garlic and olive oil. After a little time in the toaster oven, take them out and spread tahini on the slices.
“Wow, they’re the best,” he says.
Making people happy is the best part of running Yalla Vermont, he says. Making some money is fun, but Arama keeps coming back for the people.
“The reviews are really the best by far,” he said.
He still hopes to open a hummus café. But the concept isn’t well-known in New England, so he is starting with the farmers’ markets.
Hummus is loaded with protein, he says. “Chickpeas are magic.”
Arama says, “Peace! Shalom.”
And then, he turns to a new group of customers.